So you’re sitting in the Charlotte airport waiting for your connector flight back to D.C., and the guy next to you is wearing a Masters hat. He is just returning from watching a practice round at Augusta National — his first-ever visit to golf’s grand cathedral. His eyes are almost glazed, his voice wistful, just as your own eyes and voice were glazed and wistful after your first visit to the storied Georgian hills. Suddenly, as he describes what he saw, you yourself are back there, too, reliving last year’s in-person experience of Phil’s fine final two rounds. Somehow, though, your most vivid image isn’t of Mickelson’s exploits, but of Fred Couples chipping in for eagle on Saturday. You hear yourself saying that no matter how casually cool and at ease Couples usually looks on TV — almost preternaturally so — he somehow seems even more cool and casually at ease, with his sockless deck shoes and his trademark stroll, in person.
Then it hits you: EVERYTHING at Augusta seemed even more than it looks in the always-brilliant CBS telecasts. More beautiful. More rolling. More daunting. Everything and everybody just seems more itself or more himself. It’s like going from a daguerreotype to a perfectly focused digital photograph — and then watching it start to live and breathe in front of your eyes.
That’s what the guy at the airport had just experienced. No wonder he was glassy-eyed and wistful.
Anyway, telling about the guy at the airport let me avoid leading this column with Tiger Woods. That’s a good thing, because ever since 1997 the lead storyline entering The Masters always involved Woods, in one way or another, and those storylines always annoyed me because I never was a Tiger fan. It’s not that I disliked him, but he never struck me as being very likeable, either, and I resented how he dominated the game without showing quite the grace or approachability of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
The problem with not leading with Woods this year is that for months I have been convinced he would win the 2011 version. A good journalist leads with his key point, and my key point was going to be that Woods would win Masters title number five.
The big question about Woods, of course, is whether he will get enough of his mojo back so that he can renew his chase of, and then overcome, Nicklaus’s record of 18 major professional titles. Woods stands at 14. Woods is now 35 years old. The three other greatest pros, all-time, kept playing superbly for years beyond their 35th birthdays: Ben Hogan won eight majors after birthday 35, Nicklaus won six, and Sam Snead won five. Surely, then, it would seem to be doable.
Except… except…except that for every other mere mortal, and even for a number of golf immortals, the 35th birthday has been a major dividing line. Remember, Woods needs four more major victories to tie Nicklaus. Let’s consider how many majors, combined, were won by all the following players after their 35th birthdays: Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Billy Casper, Cary Middlecoff, Gene Sarazen, Tom Watson, Lloyd Mangrum, Severiano Ballesteros, Lee Trevino, and Johnny Miller. Heck, why stop there? How about adding all of the following to the list, each of whom won at least 20 PGA tour events: Horton Smith, Harry Cooper, Leo Diegel, Gene Littler, Paul Runyan, Henry Picard, MacDonald Smith, Johnny Farrell, Lanny Wadkins, Davis Love, and Doug Sanders.
Remember, we’re asking how many major titles these people won, after age 35, when combining all their records. Let’s keep going. Throw in Ernie Els, Curtis Strange, Jim Furyk, Ralph Guldahl, Fred Couples, Jose Maria Olazabal, Fuzzy Zoeller, Dave Stockton, Tony Jacklin, Lee Janzen, Sandy Lyle, John Daly, John Mahaffey, Mark Calcavecchia, David Duval, Tom Weiskopf, Craig Stadler, and Colin Montgomerie.
Together, these 40 men have won (by my count) 871 PGA tour events, at least 156 European Tour events (that’s not counting how many Euro events were won by the listed Americans), and 102 professional major titles.
But how many majors did they win after their 35th birthdays?
Three. Casper, Middlecoff, and Trevino won one each. The other 37 struck out. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
Even in a game like golf that lends itself to long careers, sport at the highest level is a young man’s pursuit. Great athletes have a very hard time maintaining their superior skills into their late 30s. Sure, occasionally a very good golfer will win a single major after age 35. Ben Crenshaw, Hale Irwin, Greg Norman, and Tom Kite each won one. Fine: Woods would have to match the combined post-35 careers of those four superstars, all of whom won more in the latter parts of their careers than the early parts, just to pull even with Nicklaus.
But here’s where the contrarian steps forward. Modern equipment, he says, is so much more forgiving, and fitness levels are so much higher these days, that golfers now last longer. A slightly mishit drive still travels 285 yards and stays in the fairway. An off-center approach with a cavity-backed iron stays on the green the way an approach with a blade would not. And Lee Trevino and Billy Casper surely never set foot inside a fitness trailer. For evidence, contrarians can point to three players in the last decade alone who have won three majors after their 35th birthdays: Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, and Padraig Harrington. As for fitness being important, they can point to famously fit Gary Player, who also won three majors post-35. Woods, say the contrarians, is at least the player those four are.
Fine. Let Tiger win three more majors as well. That still would leave him one shy of Nicklaus. And Tiger appears to be an old 35. His knee has been torn up and probably will never allow him the same torque he applied as a youngster. His fitness obsession probably went too far: Like Johnny Miller after chopping wood all one winter, Woods seems to have developed a physique not conducive to the flexibility a golfer needs. And, of course, his post-divorce psyche and his propensity to make huge swing changes are both seen as hindrances as well. For all those reasons, the smart money is on Woods not surpassing the Golden Bear. That’s especially so if Woods doesn’t win this week at Augusta: Nicklaus won The Masters at age 35, when he was still at the top of his game, before Tom Watson arrived to challenge his dominance. If Woods can’t win this week, it would mean he’s already gone 11 straight majors without a victory. Nicklaus played the entire decade of his 30s without going winless for more than 10 majors — and in that streak of 10 he finished second twice to Watson, second to Miller at the British Open, and notched two other thirds, a fourth, a sixth, a seventh, a tenth and an eleventh. Woods, instead, has just one runner-up in his current winless streak of ten, and has also finished 23rd, 28th, and missed a cut. In short, Woods’ game at age 35 seems far more degenerated than Nicklaus’s did even at 38, when Jack broke back into the winner’s circle at St. Andrew’s.
For all those reasons, smart money is writing off Wood’s chances this week. Smart money knows that a golfer with his swing askew, his psyche in question, his putter inconsistent, and his age past the historical cusp is a golfer who can’t navigate the razor’s edge that is Augusta National’s test of worthiness.
That’s why Woods will win. Greatness won’t be written off. Greatness sees columns posted on refrigerators, saying the great one is washed up, and it responds by shooting seven-under on the final ten holes — just as Nicklaus did in 1986. Don’t think Woods doesn’t know that this is the 25th anniversary of the Bear’s famous charge. And the 50th anniversary of Gary Player’s first Augusta crown. For that matter, it is 75 years since the historically underrated Horton Smith became The Masters’ first two-time champion. Woods has a sense of timing. Woods is hardly an old man. Woods loves this course like no other. For all those reasons, Woods seems likely to defy the smart money, to answer the critics, to re-invigorate his march towards Nicklaus’s majors record. Even if some of us won’t be thrilled to see it.
But…but…but… But here is where I return to the guy in the airport. I asked him if anybody in the practice round grabbed his attention, if anybody somehow looked particularly well dialed in. Airport Guy said yes. He said it was a guy he had never heard of. A slender, wiry guy whose drives left even the big hits of his playing partners 20 yards behind, again and again, all day. A guy whose every shot seemed perfect, and whose visage seemed particularly focused. Airport Guy said he didn’t know where the player’s power came from, but the power clearly was there.
Nineteen-year-old Ryo Ishikawa of Japan was the phenom who so impressed Airport Guy. Then, on Wednesday morning, the newspaper reported that Ishikawa has dedicated every penny of his earnings, not just at The Masters but for the entire year, to earthquake/tsunami relief for his native land.
The Masters often isn’t a golf tournament but a movie script that strains credulity. Unlike any other tournament, it often produces a Hollywood-like plot. Nicklaus’s charge in 1986. Crenshaw missing every cut leading into 1995’s tourney, then serving as pallbearer for Harvey Penick early in the week, then weeping in victory on Sunday. Woods blowing away the field in his first professional Masters in 1997. Woods holing that impossible chip on 16. Mickelson embracing cancer-victimized Amy last year. Hometown boy Larry Mize chipping in from 140 feet to beat Norman in a playoff. The jaunty Player getting his last glory with his own charge in 1978. Couples being interviewed in the Butler Cabin by college roommate Jim Nantz. Arnie’s charges. Sarazen’s double-eagle.
Ishikawa’s victory story would be this year’s best tear-jerker. A well-motivated young prince playing for a proud old nation desperate for solace. Could somebody under 20 years old actually win at Augusta National? No more than an Olden Bear could wake from hibernation or a Gentle Ben could make a Little Red Dream-Book Come True. No more likely than the great Bobby Jones looking at a nursery and visualizing a perfect golf course. This is The Masters, and The Masters is magic.
In a 99-man field, it’s not unreasonable to allow a joint entry at the starting gate. Horses 1 and 1A are Woods and Ishikawa. There’s your final pairing, and one of them will be our winner.