We open today's proceedings with a quick email to Sundayredshirt@nike.com:
Dear Tiger Woods:
It's more fun having you around.
Signed, The Sports World
Surely, by now, you've heard about the latest and greatest from Tiger. It would be tough to miss out, since NBC replayed his 72nd hole winning birdie putt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, oh, about 67 times – once for every stroke Tiger took in his latest Sunday miracle.
That Tiger. Just showing off for Arnie again.
If you missed it, don't worry. On the news wires somewhere, there's a photo or two lying around of his skip, shout, fist pump and roar. Those reports of an outbreak of strobe lights at Bay Hill were actually flashbulbs popping in the springtime dusk, seemingly hundreds of cameras rushing to record the '09 welcome-back exult from the guy who lives to compete more than any athlete we've ever seen.
If this was a dress rehearsal for the Masters, consider the kid ready for prime time. The Arnold Palmer Invitational provided all the appropriate keys to ready us for Augusta next week. Late tee times (necessitated by rain delays). Long shadows at dusk. Tiger in the last group. They even threw in green-jacket winner Zach Johnson as part of the threesome for some Masters-like scenery, though by the end of Tiger's duel with poor Sean O'Hair, Johnson seemed like extra baggage, a third wheel on a date.
It wasn't Johnson's fault. It's just that Sunday was about Tiger chasing down a five-shot deficit and leader O'Hair, and doing it in such Tiger-esque fashion, it was nearly comic and epic at the same time.
Unspeakably bad lie against a bunker face on 14? Tiger somehow jack hammered it out to 15 feet – and made par.
Down one stroke on 15 and facing a 25-footer for birdie? Tiger coolly buried it to catch O'Hair.
Drive right into the nasty stuff on 16 and have only a punch-out, lying two from 101 yards out? Tiger laid a wedge so artfully off a slope on the green, it trickled to three feet for a par-save.
Bogey 17 after the World's Worst Bunker Lie? Tiger made up for it by hitting the fairway in Position A off the tee at 18, hitting a wedge to 16 feet, and then … well, there was the fist pump and that roar and those flash bulbs. And then there was Arnie, smiling, waiting greenside for another King-to-Tiger super-secret handshake of legends.
Tiger's been gone so long from our consciousness, even sports fans have gotten rusty. My wife is a beautiful and intelligent woman, but she inexplicably lapsed into some sort of temporary insanity when Tiger stood over his putt.
"He's going to miss it," she said.
"No, he won't, honey," I said. "Don't you know the rules?"
Among the many thoughts that percolated after seeing that putt drop (domestic triumph, of course, being one) was how varied and seemingly random his victims can be. Taken together, O'Hair, Bart Bryant and Rocco Mediate have zero major championships and, in all likelihood, will combine for zero Hall of Fame berths. Yet, in the past calendar year, each man felt the sting of coming up one stroke shy of Woods.
This oddity of legend vs. journeyman is among the many reasons why Tiger is so massively enjoyable. Setting aside obvious wins such as the 1997 Masters and the 2000 U.S. Open, his multitudinous triumphs come amid times where Tiger at times stumbles, and has to fight, and has to overcome. In other words, times when Tiger has to do that most vexing of things: play golf.
They aren't all coronations. At Bay Hill this year, he had that 71st hole bogey. He drew that satanic lie on 14. Heck, he even lost a golf ball on Saturday. It isn't always Tiger blowing away the field, or Tiger walking on water. Many times, it's Tiger staring down 16 pressure-packed feet and a sunset in Florida, or facing the idea of a Monday playoff with Sean O'Hair.
And then you watch that putt track, and all you can do is laugh, or smile, or get up out of your living room chair and cheer the greatness. When the flashbulbs lit up the dusk, I found myself saying: Wait, where have I seen that recently? And the answer was: Wimbledon, '08. It was almost as if Tiger watched his buddy Roger Federer lose that epic opera to Rafael Nadal in the London gloaming, and remembered the sight of those flash bulbs and said to himself, "Yeah, cool. I think I'll win one like that when I come back."
Two hundred and eighty-six days after he coated us in goose bumps at Torrey Pines, Tiger did it again. It wasn't a major championship, but it was a dry run for one, and now we're all ready, waiting, wanting. Tiger's been back for three starts now – the second-round exit at the Match Play, the tie for ninth at Doral and the win at Bay Hill. That's what you call warming to the task, Tiger style.
It just dawned that Tiger's been gone from the winner's circle so long, to open the column with an email seems so anachronistic. Surely, in the past year, the social networking giants Facebook and Twitter have rendered Tiger's email obsolete. Maybe we should look for a "tweet" from Tiger, something like: HAD THAT PUTT ALL THE WAY. NO SWEAT. NOW, OFF TO CHANGE CHARLIE'S DIAPER. WILL TWEET LATER.
No way. Knowing Tiger, his true response might be: Tweet amongst yourselves, sports fans. I'm too busy lost in the moment, creating greatness, once more.
Scorecard of the week
• 67-65-71-73 – 276, 4-under, Sean O'Hair, 2nd place, Arnold Palmer Invitational.
And now, a word about the road kill.
It sounds harsh, but when Tiger is fist-pumping on a 72nd green, that usually means somebody, somewhere nearby, is standing silently, feeling his insides slowly melt, and thinking: So, this is how Bob May-Steve Scott-Rocco Mediate-Fill In the Blank With 100 Other Names felt, huh?
O'Hair is a truly excellent player, just 26 years old with a couple of Tour wins already. His life story – you know the tale of the abusive father and O'Hair's breakaway into a new, married life of his own and parenthood – is worth cheering for.
But when Saturday night fell and he had a five-stroke lead and an appointment with Tiger in the final threesome, he had to feel like the damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks – with nobody in sight to untie the knots.
Five-shot leads can be weird things to begin with, sort of like baseball closers who enter a game with a three-run lead, the bases empty and only one marching order: Don't walk anybody. The next thing you know, the closer starts steering it, gives up a leadoff walk and here comes the rally. O'Hair's version of the leadoff walk was making bogey on the third hole. And then the seventh hole. Ouch.
On a day where Bay Hill was available, he shot a 3-over 73. And on a day where Tiger actually gave him a crack of light near the end, driving into the nasty rough on 16, O'Hair's answer was to leak an approach shot into the water for bogey. As his ball trickled into the water, O'Hair affected the telltale sign of despair, his palms on his knees, his eyes staring straight at the ground. It's the sort of pose one makes when stricken with a stomach virus.
Sean O'Hair is an excellent player. His swing is so sound, NBC did a split-screen comparison of it with Tiger, and the likeness was eerie. O'Hair will live to see many more wins on the PGA Tour, maybe even a major or two. But on this day, his predestined role was that of victim. Maybe it was. It seemed as if he knew it. It seemed as if Tiger knew it. And truth be told, it seemed as if we all knew it.
Mulligan of the week
• Ninth hole, Saturday, third round, Arnold Palmer Invitational and Kevin Na's tee shot is pulled left, near some O.B. stakes.
Problem is, when Na gets there, his ball is gone.
It's been – are you ready for this? – picked up by a fan.
Note to golf fans everywhere: When in doubt, don't pick up the golf ball of a competitor. Let's just call that one of life's little rules.
Or, put another way, we can offer the alternative: DON'T PICK UP ANYBODY'S FREAKING GOLF BALL.
According to The Associated Press, the woman who picked it up had to be located and then chaos ensued. She said it was O.B. when she picked it up. Na said her husband conflicted the story, saying the ball was on the cart path. A rules official has to be summoned and – you can see this one coming – without any hard evidence, the rules official has to side with the option that is most punitive to the player.
It's a little-known codicil in the Rules of Golf. Rule 1-A, Appendix: If a ruling is in dispute, proceed with the most punitive possible route.
Na had to play his provisional and made a triple bogey. Even with that, he finished tied for 11th, just six shots out of the lead.
Given this brutal turn of events, somebody please … give Kevin Na a mulligan!
Broadcast moment of the week
• The plan was to use this space to evaluate Peter Jacobsen's debut on the 15th tower, but after the 72nd hole, the B.M.O.W. was a no-brainer. Give me Tiger and Arnie, greenside, every March. Last year, it was Arnie casting a paternal grin at Tiger and uttering the legendary line: "What else is new?" after Tiger's 25-foot birdie/hat spike.
This year, Arnie, at age 79, and still the man most comfortable in his skin of nearly anyone alive, was the first to greet the repeat champion. The King's words: "What did I tell you last year?"
Oh, by the way, in the 15th tower: Jake showed some promise. We'll take more Jake.
Where do we go from here?
• Well, the tour goes to Houston for the Shell Houston Open at Redstone. Fine. Knock yourselves out, boys.
The rest of us go into the bunker with our necessary pre-Masters supplies: a week's worth of pimento, two pairs of Kelly-green boxer shorts, and a dog-eared copy of Dan Jenkins' essay, "The Masters Its Own Itself." Oh, and I'm thirsty: Somebody fetch me an Arnold Palmer.