Coach's Corner

Tiger Woods is a great golfer, no doubt, but it's a shame there's no one else around who can really challenge him.

I know three people who root for Tiger Woods. I'm not talking about appreciating his talent. I'm not talking about admiring his will. I'm not talking about his picture-perfect swing or that he's a gracious winner (God knows he has enough practice). I'm talking about flagrant Tiger rooting: cheering the endless succession of 11-foot birdie putts, 180-yard blasts from brillo pad rough onto a distant green, smirking when Sergio or Phil or whoever shies away -- no, scurries off in a panicked state -- from whatever small openings Tiger may (in the interest of sportsmanship) dispense. All three are Yankee fans.

I'm befuddled about television ratings, always great if Tiger's in the lead. Why watch at all if there's no chance of anything dramatic -- out of the ordinary -- occurring? Gibson hitting a pinch hit home run, on one leg, to win a World Series; Sean Elliott's falling-away three to beat Portland; the pressure of the lead wilting the psyche of Greg Norman -- the potential for something dramatic is why I watch. You just never know.

Except with Tiger Woods. Actually, the two most dominant figures in sports today are Tiger and Shaquille O'Neal, but they share something else in common, not their fault, but too bad nevertheless: no competition. As Shaq's enormous legacy becomes clearer with time, his detractors will always be able to say, "Yeah, but who did he ever play against?" It's a specious, but easy, argument to make. Who does Shaq compete against? No one, because centers have become as extinct a species as the woolly mammoth. There's no obvious explanation for this. Are moms making their kids smaller, or is it the infatuation with the three-point shot, or because today's generation of centers all want to be like Mike? I don't know.

Whatever, 10-15-20-25 years ago, many real centers plied the paint in the NBA. Wilt, Russell, and Kareem, of course, but also Willis Reed, Artis Gilmore, Robert Parrish, Bill Walton, Dave Cowens, Dan Issel, the Big E, Caldwell Jones, Bill Laimbeer, Bob Lanier, Moses Malone ... the list goes on, but that's enough. Once there were many. Today there is one. Too bad for Shaq, because he's bigger, stronger, quicker, and as tough as any of these guys. However, they would've scored 20 against Shaq, too, so his 35-point games and vast rebound differential wouldn't be so decisive. The competition would have enhanced Shaq's legend, not diminished it. But this is today, not yesterday, and today Shaq competes against Raef LaFrentz and Todd MacCulloch. Oh well.

Are LaFrentz or MacCulloch any different than David Duval, Sergio Garcia, or Jeff Sluman? Not much. It's Tiger's misfortune to be, just like O'Neal, the most dominant figure in his sport when there's no one around to stand up and spit in his eye. Woods' U.S. Open score of 277 isn't that remarkable. Tiger himself won with a 272 a few years ago in Pebble Beach. Looking back over 50 years, that 277 is pretty average. The difference, theatrically if nothing else, is that in the Fifties, Ben Hogan had Sam Snead to contend with, every year, in every major. In the Sixties, Palmer had to deal with Nicklaus and Gary Player, every year, every major. The Seventies, the Decade that Fashion Forgot, (lurid, phosphorescent golf attire) were a time the public pretty much ignored golf. In truth, until the explosion of Tiger, the game stagnated, with no dominant, or more to the point, charismatic figure about to rally around.

But, if you were one of the six or seven Cadillac-driving old guys who watched golf back then, at least the game provided some drama, as great players -- Watson, Norman, Crenshaw, Couples, Kite, an aging but still lethal Nicklaus -- rose, conquered, faded, and rose again. If you insisted on watching golf, at least the winner wasn't pre-ordained. It's too bad for fans and Tiger that "the Field," as it were, is filled with a lot of guys who are fine golfers (they're pros; that should go without saying) ... but Watson or Snead were more than just fine golfers; they were champions with big hearts. Who fits that description today? Sorry, time's up. Tiger shoots a two-over-par on Sunday and is never even challenged!? What does that say for today's field? Not much that's good. I ponder the momentous confrontations that will never be.

Tiger, we're told incessantly, "intimidates" his peers. I don't get this. I understood golf was about playing the real estate. Tiger can't make Mickelson miss a putt or pull out a 3-wood when he should be using a pitching wedge. Tiger can't count out loud the times Garcia regrips his golf club. Tiger can't bash a sand wedge over Padraig Harrington's head. He can only play his ball.

I hated watching Tiger drop all those 13-foot putts in the rain on Friday because I knew there'd be no reason to watch on Sunday. While all the other guys were crying about the rain and the cold and the wet course, Woods was shooting a 68, effectively winning the tournament over a field that has the skill but not the courage to challenge a champion.

Woods is going to spend the prime of his career playing against himself.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

golf, basketball, Tiger Woods, Shaquille O'Neal

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