Every generation of sports fan typically is given the opportunity to watch a few transcendent athletes perform at the height of their respective powers. No matter how you feel about these individuals on a personal level, you make a point to clear your schedule so you can watch these all-time greats do things you have never seen before and may never see again. In previous generations athletes such as Willie Mays, Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlin, Pele, and Jack Nicklaus might come to mind. In my lifetime these two athletes have been Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods
As a New York Knicks fan, I used to despise Jordan. His Chicago Bulls engaged in memorable playoff duels with the Knicks in the early 1990’s, specifically in 1992 and 1993. The physicality of those series’ was unbelievable, (the Jordan/Xavier McDaniel faceoff in ’92 was great) and I figured the Pat Riley and Patrick Ewing led Knicks would eventually get over the hump and bully Jordan’s Bulls right out of the playoffs. Unfortunately, no matter how well the Knicks played or the amount of cheap shots they dished out, you knew at the end of the day that Jordan would will his team to victory. They bounced the Knicks out of the playoffs in both ’92 and 93, and it took Jordan’s exodus to baseball (and a few lucky calls) for them to finally beat the Bulls in the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
When Jordan returned to the NBA after his baseball experiment I had far greater appreciation of his greatness. Although still a Knick fan, I didn’t openly pray for him to roll an ankle or miss shots anymore. I definitely didn’t watch as much basketball while he was gone as there was just something compelling that he brought to the table that no one else could. On any given night he would do something amazing, and you always felt he was going to make the shot at the end of the game when he had to. He was and still is the greatest basketball player I have ever seen (sorry LeBron), and despite my initial loathing of him I feel blessed as a sports fan that I got to see him play in his prime.
I have similar feelings towards Tiger Woods as tries to regain the form that made him one of the dominant sports figures of all-time. Not initially a fan of his since he found success so early (beginning with the 1997 Masters it all seemed to come so easy for him while my boy Lefty continued to give away Majors), over time I began to admire his unbelievable ability. Though I don’t necessarily support some of the decisions he has made in his personal life, when he is between the ropes it is like watching MJ, as he has an aura that few can match. While both flawed off the course, both Tiger and Jordan have/had the burning desire to be the best and seem to relish embarrassing those who dare to question their respective abilities.
Until 2009 I always felt that Tiger would hit the big drive or iron shot when the situation called for it, and when a clutch putt had to be holed it was a foregone conclusion that it was going in. In terms of sporting events, there are few things I find more compelling than watching Tiger in contention during one of golf’s four major tournaments. The display he put on during the first 9 holes in the final round of last year’s Masters was amazing, and afterwards as many people were talking about Tiger’s round as they were about the eventual winner Charl Schwartzel. However, since injuring himself at the Masters he was a non-factor on the PGA tour over the summer, missing three months and two of the year’s majors. For golf fans this is unfortunate, as with each passing event we are robbed of potentially seeing Tiger go head to head with young guns such as Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, and Rickie Fowler.
Although he still has a long way to go, Tiger’s performances over the past few months has provided a glimmer of hope that his game is finally starting to round back into form. He finished 3rd at the Australian Open, and followed that up by clinching the deciding point for Team USA at the Presidents Cup (much to the chagrin of International Team captain Greg Norman). At the Chevron World Challenge this past December, Tiger returned to the winner’s circle for the first time in over two years. His birdie-birdie finished was vintage Tiger, as he drained pressure birdie putts on holes 17 and 18 to defeat a game Zach Johnson by one stroke. This past weekend at the Honda Classic he shot a final round score of 62, his lowest final-round score ever.
While numerous signs point to the eventual resurgence of Tiger, resident golf historian BJR notes that enthusiasm must be tempered until Tiger continues to play well on a consistent basis going forward. After all, following his performance at the Chevron tournament in 2010 most of us figured Tiger was “back. I am interested to see if he carries the momentum of his recent win and superb level of play into the 2012 season as he continues his pursuit of Jack’s mark of 18 majors.
In my lifetime I may never see a golf player have a run of dominance over the competition like Tiger had over the last decade or so. With his knee and health issues, swing changes, and the increase in competition and talent of his fellow players, it is a stretch to think he will ever return his circa 2000 level of dominance. But much like Jordan’s last few years with the Bulls, I hope Tiger can string together a few more memorable performances that can make us all reminisce about the once in a generation talent we were at one time privy too.