One hundred and seventy thousand, eight hundred and two fans flocked to watch golf on Saturday at the FBR Open in Scottsdale. Again: 170,802!
Not bad, if you’re into junior varsity stuff.
The varsity was a world away this weekend, in Dubai. That is, unless you think J.B. Holmes vs. Lefty trumps Tiger vs. Ernie. The Super Bowl analogy: Holmes-Lefty is a Jordin Sparks lip-synched national anthem. Tiger-Ernie is Tom Petty at halftime.
Then again, of those 170,802, how many arrived at TPC Scottsdale to watch the golf, and how many arrived at TPC Scottsdale to scope the babes and pound the brew? You’re on the same page with me: about 80-20, latter.
In Dubai, it was all golf, where Tiger got his Eli Manning on.
Poor Ernie. He’s a 3-time major champion, one of the luminaries of his generation, a surefire Hall of Famer. And yet, there was little doubt in my mind that a 4-shot Saturday night lead over Tiger was the worst gift you could ever give The Big Easy. See, he is The Big Easy in some ways, notably his swing tempo, and his laid-back manner; but in other ways, he is the Big Neurotic. When it comes to Tiger on a leader-board, Ernie turns into the South African Woody Allen, wracked by self-doubt, always expecting the worst.
Shoot, the Golf Channel had an Ernie-got-burned-by-Tiger highlight package ready to roll on Sunday morning when the result from Dubai was official. (Cue Kenny Rogers’ ballad “Through the Years”) The Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand, 1998 . … Mercedes Championships, 2000 … Dubai ’06 … Dubai ’08 …
When Els won the 2002 British Open at Muirfield, stopping Tiger’s quest for the Slam, don’t you know, he spoke about his constant battles with ‘The Little Man.' The Little Man is the voice inside the head of every golfer, raising doubt and questioning confidence. There are times when Els tees up The Little Man and smacks him with an oversized driver head, 320 yards down the middle of the fairway, and stays within himself and plays that beautiful, mellifluous golf he can play.
But when Tiger enters the picture, Ernie’s Little Man starts drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and can’t sleep.
Tiger’s Little Man, meanwhile, gets in a workout, eats a good breakfast, wears Ray-Ban Wayfarers on the ride to the golf course and chips in on the back nine.
Tiger’s performance in Dubai was, to this eye, the real statement that ’08 contains massive potential for magic. Last week, in this space, I voiced skepticism that an 8-shot win at Torrey meant Tiger would win the Grand Slam. At Torrey, his golf was a joke, outrageous stuff that spoke more to a special week than anything else, something that would be tough to replicate.
What happened in Dubai was different. It wasn’t Ryuji Imada on his tail. It was Ernie, ahead of him by four at the turn on Sunday. It would take a combination of skill, belief and guts to pull it out.
The chip-in on 12 was his fourth chip-in in the past two weeks, a dangerous weapon to have in fine form. The birdie on 18 was the sort of artistry only one man could create. His second shot was through the green, and hanging on a grassy lie above the lip of a bunker. The flag was downhill, down green, with water behind it. He faced an impossible up-and-down, with a stance in the bunker. Instead of risking too much, and blading it into the drink, he feathered a chip out to a top shelf on the back of the green. It left him a 25-foot downhill putt that had about 10 percent chance of burning a lip, but at least he was still in the ballgame.
Then, it was a matter of tearing a page from the playbook he used at the ’94 Amateur at Sawgrass, or the ’00 PGA Championship at Valhalla, or countless other places. With a chance to make it, and put incalculable heat on Els, his ball disappeared in the cup.
What did it mean to Tiger? Check out that back step slide, hop, turn, fist pump and – this was the key move – the double-fisted pump over the head. It was the kind of body language that told the golf world: Not only am I good, I’m unbeatable.
Somebody should have landed a Medi-Vac on the 15th hole to mercifully take Els’ carcass away. The final tally on the back nine: Tiger 31, Ernie 38, and two souls crushed.
Two? Yes. Ernie’s soul, as we know, was ground into fine silt, the consistency of the dust storms that swept Dubai. The other soul crushed was, yes, Ian Poulter. With one of his quickly uttered, nonchalant needles, Tiger took a teetering Poulter, and flushed him down the toilet. Surely, you know the deal: Poulter tried to tell a golf writer he would love to be 1-2 with Tiger in the world rankings, the writer writes ‘Poulter: I’m As Good as Tiger’ and the rest is history.
So, when a Sky Sports reporter asked Tiger in the post-match glow about the gap between his No. 1 ranking and Phil Mickelson’s No. 2, Tiger shot back: “I thought Poulter was No. 2?” He flashed a grin, and Ian Poulter’s career, as we know it, is dead.
Yep. I’m beginning to believe 2008 will be Two Thousand Great for ole T-Dub.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
• Phil Mickelson: 68-68-67-67. Lost playoff.
OK, Lefty. Nice work. After a sluggish run at Torrey, this was the sort of play that indicates you may be up for a fight at Augusta National in a couple of months. So you lost the playoff to Holmes’ birdie. That’s OK. Keep playing well. We need you.
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
“This is the hole your parents warned you about!” – Gary McCord, 16th hole, FBR Open.
I used to hate the 16th at Phoenix. Thought it was a gimmick, and lame, and overdone. But this weekend, when they poured boos down on the players who gaffed their shots, I felt an odd sense of satisfaction. I don’t normally endorse booing, but for one hole, in the entire year, let ‘em rain. The boos felt cleansing. And hey, if you don’t want to get booed, hit it closer!
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
• Ernie, 18th hole, Sunday, Dubai. Needs a birdie to force a playoff on a par-5 hole. He’s 225 yards out. Water in front of the green.
He pulls 5-wood. He dunks it.
Ernie, let’s drop another one and think about Tiger getting wet on Saturday in a similar situation, how he learned that the wind above the grandstands was stronger than anybody thought. Pull 3-wood, Ern, and let’s give it a go.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
• To Pebble Beach, for a tournament as hip as your grandmother’s plastic-covered couch. Once, way back when, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am had it all: Jack Lemmon, Jack Nicklaus and golfers taking post-round nips of Jack Daniel’s. It even had a cool name: The Crosby. Now, everybody in the top-30 is staying away, and even Bill Murray is skipping out. If you wanted to state the case that the AT&T is dead, I could hear you and nod my head.
That’s OK. Give me a cheeseburger and a beer at the Tap Room; give me a brisk walk out to Nos. 7 and 8 at Pebble, and I’ll enjoy the hometown tournament on my own terms. Blood is thicker than water. Plus, Huey Lewis is playing, and I’ll take “Sports” over most early 1980s pop albums.