Awoken early, I tuned into the Open, seeing, blurry eyed and cloudy headed, an early leaderboard fit for the Challenge Tour rather than Golf’s grandest and oldest and best major. Lampbrecht? Jordan? Cink? Poston? Herbert?
My memories of Hoylake, like most who were fortunate enough to witness it, are and will forever be suffused with specters of Tiger’s mesmerizing performance in 2006, which, to this day, remains, probably, the greatest sporting performance I’ve witnessed.
Akin to watching the great, ball-hogging Xavi-Iniesta driven Spanish sides of the late 2000s and early 2010s, or Tom Brady suck the will away from an ever-tiring defense with an unending procession of check-downs and crossing routes and screens, what was most impressive about Tiger’s performance was its unfussiness, its routineness, the sense of inevitably that came with it and thus essentially smothered all of the drama from the golf tournament. It was always going to end this way – he knew, we knew, and, most importantly, they knew.
Even when Ernie Els, the second best player of that generation, got within one stroke of Tiger early on the final day, at the 4th, our pulses remained unchanged, our confidences decidedly unbothered. Tiger, who’d recently lost his father, Earl, wouldn’t let the script go awry.
We all knew, we just did, that Tiger, our man, our hero, still then the demi-god with the blonde Swedish nanny-turned-wife and budding All-American family, would sting an iron down some concrete-firm fairway three hundred yards or so, clip another one to the middle of some green, and hole some putt, lifting his Ping gripped silver Scotty Cameron blade towards his Nike ball as it rolled its last few feet towards its target, taking that all-too-familiar half step with his left foot when it finally disappeared from view, flicking his tape-wrapped right index nonchalantly at the applause-filled gallery. Routine. And he did, just as he always did, this time making an eagle 3 at the par 5, 5th, to extend his lead back to 3 strokes, which was never threatened from there to the coronation.
Perhaps his performance at Pebble Beach in 2000 was more remarkable for its sheer brute force and vigor and foot-raising heaves from knee-high rough across hundred-foot cliffs replete with shafts ricocheting off of shoulders, or his one-legged triumph of the will at Torrey Pines in 2008 with its 75 foot putts across greens in the dying of the pacific light and hole-outs and do-or-die moments, but Hoylake bent its knee to Tiger at his most Tiger. Golf’s greatest thinker. Golf’s greatest grinder. Golf’s greatest crusher of wills and hopes and dreams. Golf’s winning machine, programmed from birth, molded under fire and pressure, who wasn’t there to make friends, or play nice for the camera, or sign autographs.
As a result, what most people omit to recall nowadays, is that a sort of boredom, even dislike or resentment, set in after a while. How can this guy have everything: wife, kids, millions, majors. And can’t you just give us a smile every once in a while, acknowledge us, we your worshipping mass? Tiger only became a truly universally loved figure, I would suggest, when the demi-god fell to rank of us mere mortals, when we recognized that, back-stage, this seemingly flawless figure on the stage possessed the same warts and failings as we did. That he, too, was vulnerable to what we were vulnerable, the same failings, doubts, weaknesses, demons.
Yet, love him or not, at Hoylake, that week, he was a man perfectly and totally in control of this most uncontrollable of games.
Sure, Phil had the twenty foot high flops and forty-yard bananas going over one branch and under the next. Sure, Ernie had the imposing rugby player’s physique with the silky-smooth, perfectly on plane swing, to boot. Sure, Rory, whose prime never overlapped with Tiger’s exactly, had charisma and locks and guy-you’d like to have a beer with ethos.
But they never had what Tiger had: that sense of certainty; that it was just inevitable; that when the going got a little murky he’d pull through, somehow, someway – either by his own doing, or by the wilting of his competitors.
What made it most impressive for me, merely a very young golfer at that time who’d recently started playing junior tournaments, was that, in my mind at least, it was entirely replicable, his manner of play that faithful week. It was seemingly relatable, yet entirely unrelatable. Hit the fairway, hit the middle of the green, and two putt. Par all of the par 3s and 4s; then birdie the par 5s. Do that over the course of 4 days and you’ll end up -16. Don’t hit it into bunkers; don’t take penalty strokes; don’t miss short putts. The Tiger formula was pretty simple.
I couldn’t swing it like Ernie, or provide the theatrics that Phil did, or bomb-it like Vijay. But, I told myself, I could do what Tiger did.
Of course, we all know, and I did then, too, despite my youthful ignorance, that that is not the case. Golf just isn’t like that. But still, still.