This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
It was two summers ago, after the last round of the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in New York. It was late afternoon and the phenom Tiger Woods had just won his seventh Major golf championship in only 11 starts. You try to save the big words -Brilliant, Genius, Thrilling- for the big moments in sports and at that time, just two summers ago, no words seemed big enough.
I remember comparing Tiger at the time to Bill Tilden, the dapper tennis player of the 1920-s who, in his immaculate white flannel trousers, was so superior to the players of his era that he occasionally let an opponent get ahead by a full set, another five games and even down to love-40 on the last game of the match. Then he-d inch his way back with crafted drop shots and crunching power strokes, and make his victory into a climax of dramatic theater.
Unlike Tilden, Tiger has never toyed with his opponents. When he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2000, he cranked out four rounds in a record score of 12 under par, and demolished the field by a record 15 strokes. But the Tilden analogy was apt in that it seemed Tiger was destined for a career without a rival. Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, can only be defined by the greatness of Arnold Palmer, and Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. Mohammed Ali has Joe Fraser, Sonny Liston, and George Forman to thank for his -Greatest of All Time- mantel.
But two summers ago, Phil Michelson and David Duvall and Jim Furyk didn-t seem to have the stuff to push the mighty Tiger. I-m sure Tiger wasn-t lonely at the top. But we, the fans, were hungry for someone game enough to go after him.
As this year-s U.S. Open got under way early this morning, down the road from Bethpage Black, at Long Island-s Shinnecock Hills, Tiger was counted as a favorite, to be sure, but not the heavy favorite of two years ago. He-s been incredibly annoyed this week to answer press questions about his supposed -slump-, especially given that, since the start of 2003, no player except Vijay Singh, has won more tournaments. Tiger-s still a force in the game. He-s just not the zen master as of late. And now that he-s in the club house, having completed his first round in unspectacular fashion, it would appear he is still struggling.
It wouldn-t be sporting of us to enjoy these big tournaments just because a mediocre player has a chance of winning as Tiger searches to rekindle his superstar form. But there-s been a collective push-pull effect since Tiger-s game cooled off a bit. And it-s interesting how psychology works in sports. A cast of characters who we would have called talented, but not super talented, before are sensing blood in the water and suddenly finding their edge.
It was almost painful to watch lefty Phil Mickelson until he won the coveted Masters title this spring. Phil was known far and wide as the best player to never have won a Major. Once he slipped into that famous green jacket at Augusta, Phil seemed to shed all the taboo that used to hang over him like a cloud coming down the final fairway.
Vijay Singh has two major titles to his name and you would think at the age of 41 that his career should be waning instead of waxing. But Vijay has been playing out of his mind this last year and could prove to be in his prime.
Ernie Els has won the U.S. Open twice and hits long and straight off the tee which is a great trait to have over the narrow fairways of Shinnecock.
Spaniard Sergio Garcia is only 24 but this season seems to be conquering shaky nerves and pulling out his brilliant control shots on command.
The field, two summers ago, said they felt Tiger might as well start with a two-stroke lead. Everyone else was playing for 2nd place. Now that Tiger is playing good golf, not extraordinary golf, the field has risen to the occasion and, ladies and gentlemen, that means, for this week-end-s U.S. Open, we-ve got ourselves a horse race. This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that-s The Score.