Monday, June 21, 2004

One perspective on the U.S. Open

There are a lot of reasons I don't like reading Sally Jenkins. Usually I'll glance at the first paragraph, or just enough to make me shake my head and turn to reading something else. Well her story today in the Washington Post may have surpassed even some of the silliest writings of Mark Madden or Joe Starkey.

Not surprisingly, Jenkins talks about the U.S. Open, but nowhere does she mention that Retief Goosen played one of the steadiest rounds in recent major championship history to hold off a surging Phil Mickelson. Instead, she uses her space to take a few cheap shots at Tiger Woods.

I've always enjoyed watching Woods dominate golf courses -- when he's at the top of his game it's really fun to watch. That said, I'm not the president of his fan club, nor do I mind when the media busts his chops about the 'tiger slump,' swing changes or the current state of affairs with his estranged coach. That's just part of what comes with being maybe the most recognizable athlete on the planet.

Jenkins first questions whether Tiger is really just a "sour complainer named Eldrick whose manners are as lousy as his play is disappointing?" Apparently, this comment is in reference to Woods' behavior this weekend. Specifically (according to Jenkins) Woods blamed his poor performance on the following:

1) A questionable course setup, courtesy of the USGA

2) Photographers continuously snapping photos after Woods had addressed the ball

3) The media asking about Butch Harmon's comments concerning why Tiger's not playing well

Jenkins offers a cure to Woods' blame-others mentality:
"My first suggestion for Woods's immediate and long-term recovery is that he spend four years in the Peace Corps. Planting crops in Ethiopia or Zaire while teaching children to read and write would have a salutary effect on his attitude, which at the moment resembles that of a spoiled Venetian princess."
Of course, Jenkins is the same person who, by all accounts, is still the daughter of one of the best sportswriters of all time, Dan Jenkins (and that name probably had nothing to do with helping her get her start in the profession). More importantly, to suggest that Woods needs to spend time in Africa to help those less fortunate than he is nothing short of ridiculous -- and borderline offensive. I haven't heard of the Sally Jenkins foundation, but I'm sure when she's not writing baseless articles, she's helping children in poor communities make better lives for themselves. Woods has said on more than one occasion he'd rather be remembered for the work his foundation accomplishes than any of his feats on the golf course.

In terms of addressing her three points above, I'll start with 1) the questionable course setup. To here Jenkins tell it, Tiger was the only player in a field of 156 that complained that the USGA went so far overboard that it was virtually impossible to keep good shots anywhere near the greens. In fact, if you look at Thomas Boswell's article in the same Washington Post you'll find everyone but Woods was mentioned as questioning the setup of the course:
"They've done it again," Kelly said of the USGA. "They've topped themselves. When are they going to grow a head? [They should] get off their high horse and be good to the game. It's an ego contest. . . . . I think they're ruining golf. Period."

...Said Mark Calcavecchia after a 75: "The greens were dead from the start. It's the USGA's fault. They try to throw a little water on them to make it look like they're doing something. . . . It just kind of beads up and rolls off like a waxed car. And on that note, I need a beer."

...Perhaps former Open champion Tom Kite had the most balanced, though still extremely critical view. He described the course as "over the top" -- meaning an unfair, rather than a stringent, test. He maintained that both fairways and greens were so hard that good shots did, or did not, end up in awful places largely because of the luck of the bounce...

Perhaps young Bill Haas, from a distinguished golfing family that would never want to ruffle feathers, accidentally put it best...

"I couldn't even lean on my putter," he said. "It would slide out from under me. It was like glass."

...Mickelson was asked if this round was golf-as-farce or a USGA examination that merely brought out a different kind of greatness from him and Goosen. Usually political, Mickelson opted for the truth. "I played some of the best golf of my life and still couldn't shoot par," said Mickelson, considered one of the best putters in history. "So you tell me."
Interestingly, nowhere is there mention of Woods and his comments. Perhaps more importantly, many other golfers were quick to gripe with the setup, so for Jenkins to single out Woods and label him a whiner and a malcontent seems a little disingenuous.

Her second point (concerning photographers continuously snapping photos after Woods had addressed the ball) pertains to Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, who on several occasions during the tournament had run-ins with a photographer. What these altercations come down to is this: The USGA strictly prohibits cameras on the course, and Woods has -- more than any other player -- had to step away from a shot because people insist on snapping pictures after he has addressed the ball. And this isn't the first time this has ever happened. It's been an almost continuous event since Woods turned pro in 1996. Of course Jenkins has her own thoughts:
Cameras are not allowed on the golf course, but that's a matter for the course marshals, not a bullying caddie. In response to Sunday's incident, USGA Executive Director David Fay sent word to Williams to leave spectators alone and that if he had a problem, to take it up with the marshals.
And that line of reasoning proved totally ineffective. Let's see, tournament after tournament players have to ask fans to not take photos during golf swings, turn off cell phones, and to keep asinine remarks to a minimum. So 'letting the marshals do their job' seems to be a bit of a stretch -- since they have yet to do them. Should Williams have kicked a photographer (as he alledgedy did Saturday)? Nope. But Williams basically serves as the muscle for his boss. At what point should it be noted that the marshals/USGA in fact weren't doing their job with crowd control?

Of course Jenkins looks to place the blame on Woods:
Woods not only failed to apologize for Williams, he shrugged it off. "I think it built up over the entire week of dealing with a lot of different distractions that we normally don't have to face at a regular tournament," he said Saturday.
What's to apologize for? Do fans apologize when their cell phones go off mid-backswing? Or when, for the 10th time,they snap a picture mid-backswing? Or after 10 beers, start jeering players? Jenkins should spend less time chastising Woods and more time asking the question, "how can the USGA be so derelict in crowd control at yet another USGA-sponsored event?"

Finally, Jenkins also criticizes Woods for blaming Butch Harmon for his poor performance (which Woods never did). Harmon now works as an analyst for Sky Sports and commented that Woods still has changes to make if he wants to get back to his 2000 form and he may be in denial if he thinks he's making progress, when week after week he struggles to hit fairways. Harmon was answering a question, and to me it seemed he was being honest in his assessment.

This was the first time Woods mentioned a commentator specifically when addressing Harmon's comments. In fact, people have been discussing the 'tiger slump' for almost two years and this is the first time Tiger mentioned anyone by name. And do you know why? I haven't talked to Tiger, but I can only reason that it had to do with the fact that Woods and Harmon have been good friends for over a decade and Woods may have felt slighted by Harmon's comments. Have you ever seen Woods call out Johnny Miller, Lanny Wadkins or Curtis Strange when they disparage his game? Not only that, but Woods never blamed Harmon for his performance.

Is Tiger in a slump? I have no idea, but he certainly is not playing with the form that netted him all those majors in 2000-2002. Either way, Jenkins strikes me as someone who likes making claims that are not only contentious, but often wrong. To say that Tiger is a crybaby for what transpired this weekend is like saying that Sally Jenkins got her job on merits alone, not because her dad is one of the greatest sportswriters ever.