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The 2014 Masters - No Tiger, No Problem!
"Oh, Tiger's not playing the Masters this year?" asked Irish golf fan Melvin Markee. "Good, we can watch the broadcast now."
As a kid, my family vacationed yearly at the famous Concord Hotel, nestled cozily in the bucolic splendor of the Catskill Mountains. In its heydays their famous "Monster" layout was the second-hardest golf course in America (behind Spyglass Hill), and the Concord was always one of the nation's preeminent resorts.
Besides the golf, each year we would wait with bated breath to see who the headline act would be for the big blockbuster Saturday night concert. We'd pull in, check in and race to the marquee to see the superstar's name revealed. Who would it be to dazzle us this year? Ben Vereen? Bobby Darin? Dean Martin? Breathless with anticipation we looked at the big board and . . . drum roll please . . .
Florence Henderson (aka, Mrs. Brady). Balloon . . . meet pin.
We went anyway, but not for long. Mrs. Brady came out trying to sing Stevie Wonder (cue the laugh track). She got as far as, "You can feel it all ooooooooooooveeeeeeeeeeer" before my ordinarily soft-spoken and mild-mannered father said, "This is garbage. I'll be in the card room." I agreed, and when she started singing "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" next, I left and bounced over to the arcade for the far more interesting Asteroids and Spy Hunter games.
What's worse than Florence Henderson's singing? A major championship broadcast ruined by "all Tiger, all the time." Whether he's in contention or not, he looms gloomily over the entire tournament - Tiger lining up a putt, Tiger eating a banana, Tiger talking to Joe LaCava, Tiger highlight package, Tiger sound bytes, Tiger and his overrated and overexposed skier girlfriend, Tiger and a stupid squirrel. Broadcasts too often waver between "ludicrous" and "unwatchable," and it's as though the rest of the field is relegated to the role of extras and bit players in the "Tiger Show."
That's bad enough, but what does Tiger too often give us with all this exposure? Tiger swearing so much Eddie Murphy would blush, Tiger setting an Olympic record in the 5-iron hurling event, Tiger getting in what many have called suspicious-looking rules flaps that even weekend duffers would avoid, Tiger brutishly cussing out Tour official Slugger White when he gets assessed a penalty, Tiger blowing off post-round interviews, Tiger offhandedly tossing out vapid non-answers when he is interviewed, Tiger surly, Tiger scowling . . . and Tiger not winning a major since 2008, and frequently not even in contention.
Happily, at this year's Masters we'll be spared the hagiographic hero worship that passes for a golf broadcast when he's in the field. But as for how the tournament itself goes - as sure as the sun will shine - what has been proven time and again will once again come to pass:
No Tiger? No problem!
This is the Masters, and it's bigger than any one player. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo, Gary Player, Sam Snead, Jimmy Demeret and, yes, Tiger Woods: the names change, but the stoic dignity, palpable warmth, inspiring grace and Southern charm and hospitality that are the imprimatur, the raison d'etre of the Masters, comprise the gold standard in sports, and that's what makes it the greatest golf tournament on the planet.
It's Christmas in April: a revival, a reunion and a rebirth that unites the entire golf world and heralds the beginning of another golf season to winter-weary fans and players.
Tiger hasn't won a Masters in eight years, yet the tournament has been the most riveting sporting event anyway. There's Phil Mickelson and his shot on No. 13 in 2010 from a spot so deep in the woods the Blair Witch was sighted there. He put it to two feet, broke Lee Westwood's heart, and claimed his third green jacket to the delight of all ardent golfers.
Good ole Phil: In Georgia he's more popular than grits and gravy.
Then there was Bubba Watson and his screaming hook with a wedge, also from deep in the woods, this time on 10 that beat Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff. Poor Oosty - his miraculous double-eagle on the second hole that vaulted him into the Sunday lead momentarily is now relegated to a footnote.
Angel Cabrera was involved in two mesmerizing playoffs in the last five years, winning one and losing one. In 2009, he came from miles back to catch star-crossed Kenny Perry and snatch the green jacket from Perry and Chad Campbell despite hitting one comical shank and one duffer-like ground-burner coming down the stretch. Then last year the burly Argentine and fan favorite, Adam Scott, who carried all of Australia on his shoulders, staged a duel in the pouring rain that will forever be remembered as one of the greatest Masters finishes ever.
Desperately hoping to put a heartbreaking collapse at the 2012 British Open behind him, Scott rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to take a one-shot lead and seemingly cinch the green jacket in the clutch, while Cabrera watched from the fairway. But with his son on the bag, Cabrera hit a 7-iron that was pin-seeking and laser-beam accurate all the way, finishing 18 inches from the cup for a tying birdie.
It was an "anything you can do, I can do better" moment.
Scott soon rebounded and won Australia its first Masters after over a half-century of close calls. But the point is this: the Masters didn't need Tiger Woods to be utterly transfixing.
Moreover, the storylines for this spring have been equally gripping. Look at all the great finishes that have happened this year, none of which involved Woods:
• Zach Johnson - who looked Tiger in the teeth and beat him for the green jacket in 2007 - opened the season with a win at Kapalua. Johnson has delighted every golf fan from Maine to Malibu, and from Miami to Minnesota with his grace and class . . . yet Madison Avenue tosses him over its shoulder because he's nice, quiet and religious. In their eyes, he doesn't move enough "casual eyeballs";
• Breakout star Patrick Reed won twice - at La Quinta and Doral, not too shabby, yet because he's new and doesn't move the ratings needle he gets relegated to the "recap and roundup" section of the sports pages;
• Kevin Stadler won in Phoenix, but he gets more ink for being Craig's son and for being, like his dad, plump and jolly; and
• Jason Day, always a threat at majors, won the grueling Match Play Championship. He's already got a runner-up finish at the Masters.
Perhaps golf fan Shane Langston of Jackson, Miss., says it best. "When Tiger's out of the equation, we finally get to see the other guys. We have Phil, we have Graeme McDowell, Jim Furyk, Juston Rose and Jason Dufner just for openers, along with a whole crop of new faces chomping at the bit to be the next star, and they are all sublimely talented."
Moreover, Scott, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson are all rounding into form, playing solidly and contending. So who cares that the top of the tree isn't here? The other branches are equally interesting if you give them a chance to shine. And none of them are club-throwing, F-bomb dropping, pancake-waitress dating, surly prima donnas.
Golf fans have noticed, and golf fans have spoken: Show us the other players. It's the broadcasters and a few major tabloid print outlets that refuse to get the message.
"No Tiger is a nice break," added Langston. "We needed this. Golf needed this. I like Tiger a lot, but not every second."
Look at the last three majors Tiger hasn't attended. "Tiger missed the British Open at Birkdale [in 2008] and that didn't diminish the tournament at all, did it?" noted Ian Poulter, and he's correct. Padraig Harrington successfully defended the title he won a year earlier at Carnoustie by holding off Greg Norman, who supposedly rode off into the sunset years ago. Then, three weeks later, Paddy followed that up by firing a blistering 66-66 in a 30-hole Sunday finish to break the hearts of both Garcia and Ben Curtis in the PGA Championship.
Dan Jenkins once said that it's amazing how much grace and class we can attach to major winners, but with guys like Curtis and Zach Johnson and Webb Simpson, grace and class come to them naturally. They always remind us of the old adage, "Measure your worth and not your wealth," and both fans and the game are richer for it. We need to see more of them, not more of the same.
The writing is on the wall but, just like the music industry with file-sharing, those media are the last to notice and react. They are preconditioned, afraid of change and constantly repeat their mistakes. They only like things they've seen before, consistently underestimating Middle America, and they often trade casual eyeballs for ardent fans, ultimately losing both in the process. Causal eyeballs are fickle eyeballs and they don't spend money. When you chase the casual fan, you lose the ardent fan and come out one eyeball fewer, not one more eyeball richer. The last dollar on the table is still a bad business model.
The Masters was the "Wonder of the Sports World" long before Eldrick was a gleam in his father's eye. And the Masters will still be the end-all, be-all of golf long after Woods sails off into the distance in his new yacht called Solitude, no matter what you hear to the contrary from an increasingly diminishing number of media codependents.
And so begins our week in Golf Heaven at the most tempting golf course on the globe. Omar Khayyam wrote in his "Rubaiyat" that, "A hair divides the false from true." Likewise, at Augusta the difference between victory and defeat, success and failure, history and infamy is supermodel slim. And every year we sit mesmerized, spellbound by the magic.
No one will miss Tiger and the endless coverage and discussion of his antics while Scott, Day, Simpson, Henrik Stenson and Graeme McDowell are coming down the stretch on Sunday. Driest ball wins, boys. Go get it.
If that doesn't electrify you, then go watch Florence Henderson sing "Sgt. Peppers." It's the same thing as the Tiger Woods show, only without the swearing and club-throwing.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.