Eye of the Tiger?
April is a month that is simply chock full of great stories in the world of sports. It really doesnít matter which sport(s) you are into, in April there is something for everybody. Youíve got the culmination of the NCAA Tournament, the beginning of baseball, the stretch runs and playoffs of the NBA and NHL. For the true football aficionados, youíve got the NFL Draft as well. But in the thick of all these exciting events, letís not allow ourselves to forget about The Masters.
Even though Iím a golf fan, I always seem to let The Masters sneak up on me, even though itís my favorite tournament of the year. Due to all the aforementioned spectacles, combined with the relative obscurity of the tournaments in between the World Golf Classic events and The Masters, golf begins to fly under my radar and I only seem to remember it when The Masters is just a few days away.
This year, though, has been different. Because of all the headlines Tiger Woods has been generating upon his return to golf from an ACL tear, Iíve been nervously awaiting the arrival of The Masters with the giddiness of a child, and now itís just a day away. Iíve even been paying closer attention to lesser-known events such as the Bayhill Classic and the Shell Houston Open, in order to give myself a better feel for the field that will be competing for the Green Jacket on Sunday. Hereís something of a forecast, and I suppose itís best to start with the man who everybodyís eyes will be trained onÖ
Tiger Woods, this year, is more of an interesting case than he has been in years past. Coming off of an 8 month hiatus from the sport following knee surgery, Tiger had more than a few doubters ([[link|url=http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?id=3992192]] ESPN's Rick Reilly being one of them [[end-link]]) regarding whether heíd be able to return to form upon his arrival. He got off to a slow start, falling in the second round of the WGC Accenture Match Play event to the diminutive South African Tim Clark, and then finishing a less-than-impressive 8 strokes off the lead in the WGC-CA Championship. With just one more ďwarmup tournamentĒ left to play before he faced down Augusta, some wondered if 8 months of sitting on a couch while rehabbing his knee and watching Bob The Builder had made Tiger lose his edge.
Of course, being the fearsome competitior that Tiger is, he quickly shut up his critics by sinking a tournament-winning 15 foot putt on the 72nd hole of the Arnold Palmer Invitational to cap off a dramatic comeback over deer-in-the-headlights youngster Sean OíHair. That provides Tiger with a little extra mojo heading into The Masters, but is it still a smart idea to pick him over the field? Clearly, heís the favorite to win it all, but is he worth laying money on this time around? Iím honestly not sure. Despite his win at the Palmer, Tiger has not yet had a truly awe-inspiring round this year (the type that is required to take home the green jacket), and he just hasnít quite appeared ďon his gameĒ as of yet. Meanwhile, there is a legion of young, eager, superstars that are all ready and willing to make their attempt at stealing Tigerís throne. If Rory McIlroy, Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, or Dustin Johnson catches fire this weekend, they are capable of running away with the tournament. Tiger is still the best, but others are catching up to him in terms of talent, and thatís good for the sport.
Meanwhile, the old stand-bys are still around. Phil Mickelson has already won two tournaments this year. So has Geoff Ogilvy. And both of those guys might be playing the best golf of their lives. Then of course, other grizzled veterans like Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia (still looking for his first major), Padraig Harrington (many forget he is looking for his 3rd consecutive major victory), and Kenny Perry.
Me? Iíll be pulling for Harrington this weekend. Heís one of the most genuinely nice guys in the entire world of sports, and itís hard to root against a guy when he is potentially staring history in the face. Sure, Iíll also root for Tiger in the same sense that EVERYBODY roots for Tiger (because, hey, when it comes down to it all we want to see is good golf), but those who believe he is just going to run away with this thing may be in for a surprise.
Knowing Tiger, though, heís out to prove people like me wrong. For all I know, heíll win this baby by 10 strokes. Or maybe heíll hit a 35-foot putt on the 18th green to win it. Or maybe he wonít even make the cut. All I know is thisÖIíll sure as heck be watching.
(April 9, 2009)