The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Make no mistake about it, Tiger Woods’ runner-up finish to Brooks Koepka in last weekend’s PGA Tournament was one of his best performances in a major. And he’s won 14 of them. In all his previous victories in majors, Woods had never shot a 64 in the final round as he did on Sunday. In fact, Tiger’s final three rounds of the PGA Championship (66-66-64) is the lowest score over 54 holes of a major in his career. By four shots! On the back nine, he stalked leaders Koepka and Adam Scott, making clutch shot after clutch shot, waiting for them to fall. His steely resolve, the determined glint in his eye and even the fist pump were back for the first time since he ruled the sport.
So why didn’t he win?
I spent much of Monday looking for that reason, and I believe the solution is crystal clear. The competition today is simply better than Tiger faced between 1997 and 2008 when he won four Masters, three U.S. Opens, three British Opens and four PGA Championships. Here’s what I found, and you can judge whether I’ve made the case or not.
I agreed with the comment that the “Tiger Effect” - the buzz and dazzle of fans cheering every shot - was a bit unfair to Koepka, who did not fold. The 28-year-old from West Palm Beach displayed Tiger-like cool with birdies down the stretch and has emerged as the best money player on Tour over the past two years, And that is part of the reason why Woods did not win. Although Tiger was playing as well as ever, he is facing a much different locker room of opponents than he did the first time around.
I looked at the players who won when Tiger didn’t over those years, the men he had to beat, and the results were interesting. During that dominating period between Woods' first major, the 1997 Masters, through 2002 when he won his ninth, the majors he did not win were won by guys who happened to get hot at the right time. And, for most, their only time. Only Mark O’Meara, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els won twice in those years and Retief Goosen won his first of two majors, while a boatload of solo winners won, including: Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, Lee Janzen, Jose Maria Olazabal, Payne Stewart, Paul Lawrie, David Duval, David Toms and Rich Beem.
Woods was shut out of the majors in 2003 and 2004 when Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel won their only majors and Phil Mickelson won his first. If Tiger had an arch-rival, it was Mickelson during 2005-06 when Phil won twice while Woods prevailed in four of the eight majors and finished second to Michael Campbell in the 2005 U.S. Open. In 2007-08, Woods won the PGA (2007) and U.S. Open (2008) and finished second in the Masters both years and in the U.S. Open in 2007. Padraig Harrington won the Open in 2007 and both the Open and PGA in 2008 when Woods missed both after knee surgery.
Harrington has not won another major, and maybe today’s crop won’t either, giving way to another wave of emerging stars. But those who have won multiple majors and are still playing at a high level include McIlroy (4), Koepka (3) and Spieth (3), and you can throw in Dustin Johnson who has won only one major, but he has won 19 Tour events and is the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world.
I believe the tour players at the top today are better as a group than the tour players when Tiger amassed his 14 major victories. But for him to compete with the young bucks I’ve mentioned plus Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed and even Jason Day and Zach Johnson, presents an unprecedented grind. They are better because equipment today is better. The training is better. Game planning is more analytical and precise. The travel is easier. And the money is astronomically larger.
Woods showed at Bellerive that he is playing as well as he has ever played. Unfortunately for Tiger fans, it might not be enough for him to get off his decade-long schneid and win another major tournament.
When I was a pup, I played baseball and football at Shelby County High School in Kentucky. Our athletic teams were members of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) and placed in the appropriate districts and regions for interscholastic competition. One of our 8th Region rivals was Trimble County High School, located about 34 miles north of us, on the Ohio River. Only 8,600 residents were counted in the most recent census of Trimble County, most living in rural areas, the county seat of Bedford or the village of Locust. The population of Barebone was listed as zero, owing to its official census designation as a “ghost town.”
I bring up Trimble County because of a story this week in the Lexington Herald-Leader that announced Trimble County High School has cancelled its upcoming football season because only nine boys showed up for the first practice. Students and parents expressed outrage on social media and held an emergency public meeting last weekend, and on Monday 24 boys showed up declaring they wished to play and save Trimble County football. The principal, however, declared that the effort was too little, too late. Five of the boys had never played football before and another five were freshman or sophomores. That made it a safety issue, both for the students and scheduled opponents, and the KHSAA agreed.
This situation might be understandable when looking at the county’s small population and the high school’s enrollment at 360 for grades 9-12. But I wonder how much of the apparent lack of interest stems from safety concerns by parents or the students themselves who are watching the NFL and NCAA grapple with the issue? With students today having multiple and safer options for their spare time, football has been thrust to the bottom of the pile. You can easily read the Trimble County situation as a ripple from the NFL’s ongoing conversation about player safety.
After the Pro Football Hall of Fame game last weekend, the drums began beating louder about the new rule aimed at protecting players by discouraging them from leading with their helmets on blocks or tackles. The pre-season schedule has not even begun for 30 teams, but already the rule has been the focus of exasperation from players and coaches alike. Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal termed this backlash “a peculiar reality” for the NFL.
By committing an estimated billion dollars to an ongoing settlement with former players over neurocognitive issues, the NFL has sparked concerns at the youth levels of the sport. The NFL has taken various steps over the years to fund research, strengthen safety protocols and tweak the rulebook, but this latest rule change is among the strongest measures affecting how the game is played. The reaction has been severe, including from those for whom the rule is intending to protect. Outspoken Cornerback Richard Sherman said if the penalty is called too much, it could “ruin the game.”
So what if the new rules do, as Sherman suggests, change football forever? If it results in fewer serious injuries or long-term neurocognitive issues, it would be worth it. Football is not going away, but the dribble-down effect of the discussion could be that parents and young athletes just don’t want to go there any more. Like in Trimble County.
Make no mistake, the best part of training camp for the fans is, well, football. Six months of free agency, the draft and off-season training seem like board games compared to the sensation of watching your team hit the pitch again, which it does Thursday night. But for one who has been through it, it’s the stories that I remember most about Saints training camp. The deeds, the places and the personalities become part of legend and lore of an NFL training camp. And some of it has nothing to do with football.
My first two years with the Saints, training camp was held at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond in a cauldron of typical August weather. In 1986, Jim Mora’s first as head coach, we lost so many players to dehydration with the high temperatures and humidity that we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough players to practice. The temperature wasn’t as bad in 1987, but it was a monsoon summer in which torrential rains forced us to bus the team to LSU or the Superdome just to practice. GM Jim Finks was done with that, so he talked with his old ties at the Bears, who recommended we move camp to La Crosse, Wis., which we did in 1988.
That didn’t sit well with the politicians in Louisiana whom new owner Tom Benson was courting for improvements to the Superdome. It didn’t help that our first week in La Crosse, the Midwest was undergoing a heat wave of scorching proportions. That prompted the Times-Picayune to add a weather scorecard to each day’s front page: “La Crosse 102, Hammond 94.” Thankfully, the heat went down but the stories during the Cheese League days abounded.
It didn’t take long for the guys in the boiler room - equipment manager Dan Simmons, his assistant Silky Powell and trainers Dean Kleinschmidt and Kevin Mangum – to find an after-practice watering hole. The Bluffside Inn sat at the foot of Grandad Bluff, the tallest point in the area, rising nearly 1,200 feet above sea level. Soon, members of the entire staff could be found at the Bluffside, sampling its bar-long offering of 24 unique beer taps. One night, an unnamed scout made a bet that he could drink a beer from each tap, thereby “running the taps.” He made a valiant effort, bailing out at about 19, but the rest of the story was to come.
In addition to players taking mandatory drug tests at camp, Benson required each staff member to take a random test. Unfortunately for the scout, his number came up the morning after his effort at the Bluffside Inn. He failed the test, spent some time in the NFL’s substance abuse program and never tried to run the taps again, at least at the Bluffside.
When the Bluffside started to attract too many staffers, Simmons and Powell found a remote retreat called "Leo and Leona's" about 15 miles out of town in the village of Newburgh Corners. The proprietors were a married couple in their eighties who were always behind the bar, Leona chain-smoking Camels and serving Special Export with cheese curds, while Leo reminded visitors that before the Saints came, the biggest thing in Newburgh Corners was when presidential candidate Estes Kefauver made a campaign speech there during the 1956 campaign. If anything in the bar was older than Leo and Leona, it was the décor which consisted of rusty signs, antique farm equipment, old toys and gadgets of all types. Leo’s favorite commemorative, however, was a huge sign over the front door that said: “The Bears Still Suck!”
Grandad Bluff was the scene of another feat of derring-do that turned into a “derring-don’t” for another staff member. Defensive line coach John Pease was a workout warrior who brought his bike to camp for between-practice rides. His favorite was a pedal up Grandad Bluff, which rose vertically about two miles. Pease was never one to do things the easy way, and one day between practices, he came limping and bloodied into our administrative office carrying his bent and broken bike on his back. “What happened to you?” we asked, and Pease responded: “I wanted to see if I could come down the mountain without any brakes.” He almost made it, but a hairpin turn near the bottom sent Pease and his bike sailing off into the forest. Another casualty for the training room.
Craig “Ironhead” Heyward had a clause in his contract that he would receive a bonus if he reported to training camp at 260 pounds. He earned it the first year but never again could get his weight below 260 in subsequent camps. After about the third or fourth year of failing, Finks asked Heyward why he couldn’t make weight. “Don’t blame me, it comes naturally,” Heyward said. “My mama weighs four bills,” Headspeak for 400 pounds.
Regular readers know that I’m not a big LSU fan, but I am a fan of their head football coach, Ed Orgeron. He strikes me as a no-nonsense son of the bayou who growls what he thinks and has earned the respect and even love of his players. A recent bit of news that makes me think even more highly of him is that he keeps his demons locked away, at least until an enterprising reporter discovers them. I learned that after I read about the trials and tribulations that Orgeron and his wife Kelly have suffered in the past year as outlined in a terrific story by Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated.
Kelly has suffered since childhood from severe scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine. The story sucked me in because scoliosis runs in my wife’s family. The Lovely Miss Jean and her three sisters have scoliosis to varying degrees, and, since it is a hereditary affliction, my children also have it. Generally, it can be controlled by exercise, physical therapy or with chiropractic techniques, but of the seven million people in the United States who have scoliosis, many suffer greatly. Like Kelly Orgeron.
In May, 2017, three months before the start of Ed Orgeron’s first full season as LSU’s football coach, a team of neurosurgeons conducted two 10-hour surgeries in a three-day span on Kelly to insert supporting rods and screws into her lumbar spine and hips. But during the first procedure, a surgeon nicked her colon. The accident was not discovered for several days when Kelly’s stomach grew so swollen that she was rushed to the hospital at 4:30 a.m. Emergency surgery was scheduled, but her blood pressure had fallen to 69 over 37 and her condition was critical.
The attending physician told Orgeron that his wife might not make it through surgery. But Kelly was half-awake and heard the warning. She raised her forefinger and wagged it back and forth at her husband as if to say “Don’t listen to him. I’ll be back!”
Medical staff uncovered the accidental slit in her large intestine and rushed her into surgery, fearing Kelly was developing sepsis, the body’s deadly response to an infection. She emerged more than four hours later after doctors performed a colostomy, forcing the waste from her intestines to empty into a bag through a hole created in her abdomen. Two days after her final surgery, her husband rushed to the Southeastern Conference spring meetings in Destin, but Kelly’s presumed three-day stay in the hospital turned into 21. On July 27, her husband turned 56 years old, and his wife had a successful reverse colostomy, the inadvertent puncture wound in her large intestine having healed.
Kelly Orgeron is scheduled for one more surgery with regards to her scoliosis, a neck operation to fuse the cervical portion of her spine to a metal rod inserted more than 35 years ago. As a teenager, Kelly did not let her problems impede her own athletic ability, shooting baskets while wearing a full-torso body cast that treated her spinal curvature by rigid immobilization. A wide belt wrapped around the waist, connected by metal rods in the back and front to a chin rest that encircled and supported the head. Kelly wore the brace 22 hours a day for three years until surgeons inserted a rod into her back at age 15.
Today, with 15 surgical scars in her back, Kelly can’t bend down to tie her shoes because attached to her spine are three metal rods, a dozen screws and two hooks. Often in the morning, before her spouse leaves for the LSU football office, he ties her shoes.
LSU players report to campus Friday with the first fall practice scheduled the following day. It doesn’t matter if you care about that or not. But how can you not pull for Ed and Kelly Orgeron?
Earlier this week, NBA star Dwyane Wade complained that there was no “loyalty” in sports. Wade’s comment came during his criticism of Toronto’s trade of star Demar DeRozan to San Antonio for all-star Kawhi Leonard. Said Wade: “DeRozan gave everything to Toronto, everything they asked him to do from the standpoint of loyalty. That’s why I hate loyalty and sports, those two words … shouldn’t go together. He committed to them. It’s a business and you understand the business, but from a player standpoint it just sucks.”
One could ask Wade about the loyalty of a player who leaves a team he has been with for years for another team, but the bigger question is this: does loyalty exist in sports? What is loyalty? Is it always a one-way street or can both sides display loyalty? My opinion is that loyalty in sports is like honesty in politics. You might see examples of it on occasion, but it is not the thread that binds the institution together.
If you are of my era, you probably see “loyalty” in athletics differently than Dwyane Wade. Are you old enough to remember a time when players would stay with the same club for their entire career? Bill Russell was a lifelong Celtic. Ted Williams was a Red Sox, Mickey Mantle a Yankee, Ernie Banks a Cub, Stan Musial a Cardinal, the list goes on. Having a star or two who you could cheer for year in and year out was great! So does that mean those players were loyal to their clubs? Don’t delude yourself. If Russell, Williams or the others had played in an environment of free agency, their careers would have taken a radically different direction.
Free agency redefined loyalty to the length of the player’s current contract. Teams trade players, buy players, rent players and cut players regularly, all in the name of winning. Let’s clarify one thing. Sports has always been a business to the moguls who run it. I’ve done a lot of research into early professional sports – primarily baseball – and if you want examples of some hard-bitten owners, just read about the poltroons who owned baseball teams in the early years. Players complained that owners were robbing them with modest salaries, while owners complained that the players were just a pack of greedy scoundrels who overvalued their own worth. Some, like Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, sold his best player for cash to support a Broadway play he was producing, and Babe Ruth lasted a lot longer on Broadway than Frazee’s play.
College athletics don’t exhibit any more examples of loyalty than the pros. Universities fire coaches who don’t build and maintain athletic programs that inspire boosters and sell tickets. Student-athletes cast their lot with an institution until the first chance they get to declare themselves eligible for the draft or can transfer to another school. And the dance goes on.
So what is loyalty? Is it when a player wants to stay with a team and might take a lower salary to make it happen? Is it when a team wants to keep the player and will pay more than it wanted to do so? Drew Brees and the Saints might be good examples of mutual loyalty, and you can probably identify others. Hopefully, Anthony Davis will be another example when he becomes eligible for a new, max deal. But don’t bet the mortgage payment on it.
There is one component of sports in which true loyalty does exist. That’s from the fans. Saints fans grumbled and wore bags for the first 19 years of the organization’s existence, and many stopped coming to games. But a core of Who Dats were steadfast. They loved the Saints, sometimes hated the Saints, but they never updated their black and gold wardrobes. The most prevalent example of loyalty that exists in sports today is the fan, and don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise.