June 05, 2009
So this is a bit of a strange topic to bring up considering how everybody -- including us -- has been paying homage to Jack Nicklaus this week at the Memorial, but it has to be asked: is golf too tied to its own past?
Here's what I mean. Over and above any other sport, golf obsessively fixates on the past greats of the game -- the Nicklauses, the Palmers, and so on -- the implication being, of course, that nobody playing now will ever surpass what the greats have done.
It doesn't seem this way in other sports. Baseball, for instance, reduces its icons to statistics -- Aaron: 755, Ruth: 714, DiMaggio: 56, and so on -- and even those statistics are now as malleable as Silly Putty. Football grinds its players up and spits out the bones; if an ex-footballer isn't announcing, you rarely hear his name when his playing days are through. Basketball goes out of its way to elevate its current superstars to the heights of its legends -- is this the year Kobe or LeBron prove to be MJ's equal? Other sports pay homage to their bygone stars, yes, but there's a difference.
Only golf seems hellbent on tearing down or diminishing the accomplishments of its current players. Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh are two of the greatest golfers to ever pick up a club, but anyone who suggested they belong in the same company as everyone below the Arnie-Jack-Tiger trifecta would get laughed out of the grill room. Still, that doesn't make it any less true.
And even Tiger doesn't get off easy. Instead of acknowledging that he may well be the closest thing to athletic perfection we've ever seen, critics will charge that it's his equipment, the rules, or -- most absurdly -- the level of his competition that allows him to succeed so wildly. (We'll be knocking the pins out of that "level of competition" argument later today.) It's the classic things-were-better-back-then argument -- Jack would never throw a club back into his bag in frustration; Arnie was always more colorful than the beige golfers of today -- but it also eliminates even the possibility that golf today could be as good or better than golf way back when.
Look, nobody's denying that Arnie and Jack are icons for a reason. Put either of them at the height of their skill into 2009, with current equipment, and they'd still roll. But it seems to me that by focusing so constantly and repetitively on the past -- you know, watching the same videos of the same chips and putts and the same celebrations, year after year -- golf does a disservice to both itself and its younger generations of players.
Yes, golf has traditions unlike any other. But it has a future unlike any other, too. Why not focus on that as well?
Okay, I'm done. Have at it, friends -- am I on target, or so far out of bounds I'll need a mulligan?