If 2008 was the greatest sports year since 1975, and perhaps ever, then 2009 is by far the most heartbreaking. Paul Simon could have been writing a song about the 2009 sports year, especially the golf year, in advance, way back when:
You know the nearer your destination,
The more you’re slip-sliding away.
So we see, on Sunday, Tom Watson almost pull off the greatest feat in the history of the last 200 years of any sport, before a perfectly struck 8-iron rolled about two feet too far and down a bank — but then when faced with the 8-foot putt for the win he finally remembered he was 59 years old rather than the 25-year-old “Young Toom” he had been in the aforementioned 1975 (“Tom Watson won his first major in golf,” quoted from the above-linked column). What Watson almost pulled off at the British Open, a whopping 26 years after his most recent major tournament victory, was almost akin to what would have happened if Mark Spitz jumped in the pool right now and left Michael Phelps drinking his splash.
(And yeah, this is written with all due respect to Sam Snead’s three consecutive top-10 finishes in the PGA Championship at ages 60 through 62; Snead never really threatened to pass Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus when he finished third at Tanglewood Country Club in 1974.)
As if that weren’t enough, on the very same day that Watson’s miracle suddenly disintegrated, Lance Armstrong’s remarkable Tour de France comeback attempt finally was revealed as being destined to be second best. How in the realm of the possible could a 37-year-old, four years removed from his last Tour, coming off a recently broken collarbone, without a team dedicated solely to his own victory, possibly be a serious threat to win cycling’s greatest race?
The sports gods taunted us with that possibility, just as they had taunted us with the specter of Watson turnberrying back the clock — before rudely slamming the door of reality in our faces at the last moment.
On a minor scale, the golfing spirits stole another fairy tale from us on Sunday in Milwaukee. There was local Milwaukeean Jerry Kelly, so openly desirous for so many years of winning his hometown tournament, falling one stroke shy of a playoff. And the week earlier at Quad Cities the potential redemption story likewise was taken away when hard-luck Lee Janzen, having pulled within a single stroke of his first victory since the 1998 U.S. Open, somehow made an “8” on a par five that he just barely missed reaching in two.
And thus has it been all year. At the Masters it was 49-year-old, super-nice-guy Kenny Perry playing the Watson role, bogeying 17 and 18 to blow a two-stroke lead and then again bogeying the second hole of the playoff to lose the long-awaited first major victory that had seemed so surely in his grasp.
The U.S. Open was even more heart-breaking than the Masters. First it was four-time bridesmaid Phil Mickelson, deeply worried about his own bride’s breast cancer, who pulled into a tie for the lead with four holes remaining before fading with two late bogeys on missed short-ish putts. He thus played bridesmaid for a record fifth time. Then it was back-from-the-golfing dead David Duval, hopelessly lost in eight years (what IS it with “8”s?!?) of purgatory, pulling into a tie for the lead himself before his own par putt lipped out on the penultimate hole.
Tennis hasn’t been immune from the Lucy-pulling-away-the-football routine. Yes, it was grand at Wimbledon to see the regal Roger Federer win his 15th major title. But the truly redemptive story clearly would have had Andy Roddick take the championship after so assiduously revamping his game and so bravely pushing Federer to the longest championship match in tournament history. If you watched that whole breathtaking match, and if you knew Roddick’s history of being dominated so badly by Federer and of saving his fellow players from a hotel fire in 2004, and still didn’t find yourself rooting for American Andy, then, sir, you have no heart.
So, too, with the American soccer team, up 2-0 at halftime of the championship game against perennial power Brazil before reality brutally snatched the dream away.
American football didn’t provide as clear a fairytale possibility, but a Kurt Warner rejuvenated from the scrap heap and the never-before-in-the-Super-Bowl Cardinals did try on the glass slipper before, right at the end, their stagecoach turned into a pumpkin.
Horse racing, too, blew its Happily Ever After when Calvin Borel fell just short of the first-ever jockey’s Triple Crown-on-different-mounts. Pro basketball, meanwhile, had no remotely heartwarming possibility to offer, but the national fans’ desire for a Kobe/LeBron finals was so palpable that only a troll would be mean enough to deny that desire. Somehow the troll won there, too, by denying fans the LeBron half of the battle.
Enough is enough. Cancel this year’s PGA Championship and the U.S. Senior Open, and tennis’ U.S. Open, and the World Series, and the New York City Marathon, and the Ironman Triathlon, and the Breeders’ Cup… and the whole bleeping college football season, which surely is right now slated to carry an almost-but-not-quite storyline into the first week of 2010 and ruin the start of next year as well.
If Tom Watson can hit the ball absolutely purely on the final hole of the Open Championship while holding a one-stroke lead at age 59, and still not take home the Claret Jug, then something villainous truly is afoot. The whole sports year of 2009 desperately needs and deserves a mulligan. Too many great stories have been ruined. The scriptwriter is a misanthrope or a masochist, and he needs to be fired…..
Either that, or else he needs to bring Willie Mays out of retirement in time for the stretch run, so that Willie can hit the game-winning homer in game seven of the World Series.
Say, Hey — as Tug McGraw used to insist, you gotta believe.
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