Uncle Sam strikes out at another major
We need some mood music. Somebody cue Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be An American” and play it at a super-slow, morbid pace.
Or we could go New Orleans-style. The Crescent City does funerals well. Somebody get those umbrellas and Dixieland jazz bands and start the march. Put the casket at the back of the march. Paint on its side: “AMERICAN GOLF, 1913-2011. REST IN PEACE.”
Rory McIlroy is the record-setting U.S. Open champion after barnstorming Congressional Country Club. McIlroy is from Northern Ireland. Dating to last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble, that marks five consecutive major winners who have no idea what the words “gallantly streaming” mean.
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, Germany’s Martin Kaymer, South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel and now McIlroy are your last five champions – the first time in the modern era of major championships, since the Masters was born in 1934, the Americans have gone 0-5 in any stretch.
I don’t want to say the American slump extends into our national psyche, but when word came that McIlroy turned down an appearance on David Letterman on Monday, I’d say we’re starting to feel like the wallflower at the junior high dance.
Considering three of the four golf majors are played on American soil, the embarrassment is doubled. Americans can’t even win home games?
And here’s the bad news for those who love to see the land of the free be the home of the major champions: This losing streak could continue.
McIlroy, who has held a lead in each of the last four majors, is 22 and just learning. Jason Day has posted two runner-up finishes at 2011 majors – he is 23 years old and Australian. Schwartzel followed up his Masters win with a tie for ninth at Congressional. He’s 26.
Without even mentioning the fact that the first-, second- and third-ranked players in the world are not American (England’s Luke Donald, England’s Lee Westwood, Germany’s Kaymer), we could easily see a decade of McIlroy-Day-Schwartzel tussles not unlike Arnold Palmer-Gary Player-Jack Nicklaus in the 1960s. For you kids out there: Palmer and Nicklaus were American.
The obvious question is: What the hell has happened to American golf?
The second obvious question is: Didn’t America used to be the home of the optimistic, positive-attitude winner?
The third obvious question is: Didn’t Archie Bunker tell us the last four letters of American are “I CAN”?
There are theories. One is that the American college golf system emphasizes scoring over winning and isn’t breeding bloodthirsty champions. That the old phrase “learning to win” is a hands-on experience best learned in the deep end of pro competition. McIlroy, Day and Schwartzel are not products of America’s college golf system. Each turned pro as a teenager, and each figured out how to survive on the big-boy tour with Charles Darwin as his caddy.
Tied for low-American honors at Congressional was 24-year-old Kevin Chappell, who is very much a product of USA’s college golf system. He played at UCLA, won an NCAA individual championship and the Jack Nicklaus Award as college player of the year. As a Bruin myself, I’m delighted Chappell played well. I am, however, dubious that Chappell is the one-word answer to our American woes.
Here’s another, more crazed theory: Did Tiger Woods kill off a generation of American golfers?
Hear me out. Perhaps the enormous, historic, encompassing shadow cast by Tiger from 1997-2009 made an entire generation of American players play with an inferiority complex, knowing they’d never be as good as the all-time legend. Even though Tiger was a global icon, perhaps there is something to being across an ocean and raised in a different culture that makes players more free from Tiger’s omnipresent greatness.
Currently, Steve Stricker and Matt Kuchar are the highest-ranked American players globally. Both are brilliant players, but neither has sniffed a major championship, and each played his prime golf squarely in the Tiger Era.
Of course, there is always the topic of Phil.
The second-greatest player of the Tiger Era, Phil Mickelson, won four majors and did well to do that in Tiger’s time. But Lefty is 41 now, and with each passing major, it looks as if that 6-iron off the pine needles at Augusta National in 2010 was a last flare of Phil greatness across the golfing sky. He finished tied for 54th at Congressional.
Robert Garrigus is a Yank and finished tied for third. Hey, that was cool. Not much more to add about that.
Put it this way: The YouTube hit of the week, the “Golf Boyz” video boy-band send-up by Ben Crane, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Hunter Mahan featured four Americans who played in the Open. The video was hilarious.
Oh, and did I mention Watson was the best in the bunch at Congressional, finishing tied for 63rd? Crane, Fowler and Mahan missed the cut. Mahan later tweeted on Sunday he was psyched to go see a Broadway show that night. Not exactly stewing in pain.
Given the fact that political and social observers around the globe have already begun floating theories that the 20th century was America’s century – in economics, culture and influence – and that the 21st century is America’s century of downfall – in economics, culture and influence – a guy could get downright depressed pondering it all.
Somebody get me a VHS copy of Tiger’s 1997 Masters win. Pop it in, get me a cold beer and lower the blinds. I may need some alone time to hash this out.
Scorecard of the week
• 65-66-68-69 – 16-under 268, Rory McIlroy, champion, 111th United States Open, Congressional Country Club, Bethesda, Md.
Social media is a bane and a boon in today’s world. On one hand, the world is shaped by Twitter and Facebook: Revolutions in Egypt, protests in Iran, American presidential candidates and their messages … all of these things are affected by social media, enforcing positive change.
Then there’s the other side of social media. Like, the followers who polluted my Twitter feed Sunday with takes like:
“Rory 2 wins / 0 majors; Tiger 70 wins /14 majors – Not even close!”
“I’ll pay attention when he gets to 4 majors. Mantle of greatness hung too easily.”
“Can’t wait for Rory’s debacle Sunday. Way too cocky.”
And on and on and on …
Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I have to ask the Twitter gods: Do we have to hear every half-baked one?
It is profoundly sad to me that anyone who watched 22-year-old Rory McIlroy over four days did not process the following facts:
• He set or tied 12 records.
• Since the Masters began in 1934, McIlroy becomes the second-youngest winner of a major, second only to 21-year-old Tiger in 1997.
• McIlroy’s Congressional storm came on the heels of holding at least a share of the lead in the last three majors, missing the 2010 PGA Championship playoff by one stroke and holding the Masters lead for 63 holes.
So I ask: What part of Rory don’t you understand?
No, he’s not Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods, I write with great existential depth. I hate to dedicate Scorecard of Week to the haters, as the kids say, but it sincerely disappointed me that anybody would view McIlroy’s 72 holes with anything but awe, enjoyment and appreciation.
There was ample evidence to suggest Rory won’t be a one-major wonder. If the weakness in his game is a pull-hook under pressure, as suggested by Lee Westwood in an attempt at gamesmanship, that will be something to monitor. Otherwise, it’s unreal distance, gorgeous high draws, precise distance control and a damn good putter – not Tiger-esque, mind you – that will usher McIlroy to a decade of contention.
Add in McIlory’s triumph over post-Masters demons, and the story gains greater context. He tweeted after his Sunday back-nine debacle in April: “… You have to lose before you can win. This day will make me stronger in the end.”
At the time, it could be written off as a fierce whistle through the graveyard. Now, it reads as foreshadowing.
Mind you, I wouldn’t yet dare go where Padraig Harrington or Graeme McDowell went. Harrington suggested McIlroy will challenge Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors; McDowell said Rory was the best player he’d ever seen. Those are fellow Irishmen – one Northern, one from the Republic – propping up their guy, and there’s no need right now for that kind of overstatement.
Instead, I advocate enjoying his performance with awe, enjoyment and appreciation.
Mulligan of the week
• When the U.S. Open champion obliterates scoring records, there aren’t many mulligan requests on the ledger. I can think of only one.
At the 72nd hole, McIlroy had about a 60-foot, downhill, over-a-ridge birdie try that looked to be a difficult two-putt. Instead, his roll was pure, pacing gently over the ridge, breaking toward the hole … and curling closer … and … juuuuuust six inches past.
Had it fallen for a birdie, it may have been one of the great finishing putts in recent major championship history, a highlight for the ages.
So, given that Rory had the read and the speed, and came an inch from theatrical glory, let’s march back out to the 72nd hole and … give that man a mulligan!
Broadcast moment of the week
• “His rhythm is beautiful. His tempo stays the same … I love his little moxie and sort of the way he walks, sort of the way he’s a little cocksure about himself. I kind of like that in a guy. You’ve got to have confidence in yourself and what you’re doing.” – Jack Nicklaus on Rory McIlroy in a phone interview with NBC’s Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller during Sunday’s final round of the U.S. Open.
Once again, the Golden Bear comes through.
For McIlroy’s record romp to have the imprimatur of greatness, you couldn’t top the Golden Bear checking in, live, during Rory’s back nine. The added anecdote of Nicklaus gently scolding Rors after the Masters – “Let the other guys make the mistakes,” was the lesson, he said – made it all the better.
Nicklaus, as in his playing days, trumped Johnny Miller – this time for BMOW honors. Otherwise, the always-entertaining Miller had several nominated gems from the week, like:
• “I’m going to be watching him like a hawk to see how he handles the pressure. I could teach Choke-ology 101 at Harvard.” – Miller on McIlroy leaving the first tee. Turns out the kid did OK.
• “… and then he has that Adonis follow-through. Man, that looks good. Whoo.” – Miller on a slow-motion replay of McIlroy’s swing.
• “I’ve never seen so many smiling guys at a U.S. Open.” – Miller on the 20 players under par, second-highest total in Open history.
Miller’s last point is salient. Just as the Masters is defined by eagles on a Sunday back nine, and the British Open is defined by the unpredictability of wind, the U.S. Open is characterized by pain. The USGA historically tortures the field, and to watch one player try to shoot level par is generally the Father’s Day enjoyment we duffers get.
At Congressional, however, heavy rains softened greens, and Mike Davis, the new USGA course set-up man, has become as friendly as Mr. Rogers. “Won’t you please/Won’t you please/Won’t you please make birdie?”
I’d hope next year’s Olympic Club set-up recalls 1998, when only nine players broke par.
Where do we go from here?
• Hopefully, we all go to McIlroy’s post-U.S. Open party. At 22 years old and with an avowed fondness for JagerBombs – a shot of JagerMeister dropped into a glass of Red Bull – the fiesta is sure to be feisty.
That the rest of the PGA Tour heads to Connecticut for the Travelers Championship means plenty of time for naps, and to ponder McIlroy’s place in golf history.