There’s a certain rhythm to how teams hire coaches. You’ve noticed this. If the team just fired a tough-guy coach -- a disciplinarian, a screamer -- it will almost always follow up by hiring a players’ coach. And if the team just fired a players’ coach -- a chummy guy who worked through inspiration and humor and loyalty -- it will inevitably hire the tough-guy coach as a replacement. Back and forth. Back and forth. Always.
Of course, these kinds of labels, all labels, oversimplify things to absurd extremes -- no person is all tough or all friendly -- but the point is not the labels. The point is that we like contrast in sports. We like for things to change, especially when they are going bad, but even when they are going well. We get tired of one kind of story, even if that story is remarkable.
For years, Muhammad Ali was the essence of the American fighter. He was handsome and funny and fast and controversial; he peppered the face with lethal jabs that cut and burned; he danced around and made his opponent look foolish; he withstood the hardest blows and always got up. He was the most famous man in America, the most famous man in the world.
But you know what? After a while, as wonderful as the act was, it grew old, he grew old, and people longed for something new. Good fighters came along -- Larry Holmes in particular -- but none captured the imagination. And then, a few years after Ali faded and then crashed, someone new came along: Mike Tyson, sullen, furious, deeper than you would expect, on the edge, dressed in black shorts and black shoes and no robe, throwing knockout lefts and rights that were so forceful that grown men would walk into the ring with their faces coated in fear. And, for a while, Tyson was the biggest thing in boxing. Until he burned out. And, to be blunt, nobody ever really replaced him.
This is how it goes in sports -- one era thrills and enthralls us, and then we look for the next thing. A different thing.
Tiger Woods is the most amazing athlete I’ve ever had the opportunity to watch. He has brought me more moments of sheer astonishment than anyone I can think of; I don’t know that any athlete has ever been as good at his or her sport as Tiger Woods has been at playing golf. I guess you can go back to Babe Ruth and Joe Louis, but I’m thinking more recent times. Maybe Wayne Gretzky in hockey. Maybe Usain Bolt sprinting. Maybe Michael Jordan on the basketball court. Maybe the bulked-up Barry Bonds. Maybe Serena Williams when all the tumblers are clicked into place.
But maybe not. Golf is a game that defies dominance and consistency, and for a 10-year-or-so stretch, Woods took pretty much all the unpredictability and drama out of the game. If he was playing well, he won. Always. If he was playing pretty well, he probably won. If he was playing average or even slightly below, he still might have won.
He wasn’t just the best driver of the ball, he wasn’t just the best iron player, he didn’t just have the best short game, and he wasn’t just the best putter. He was all those things, and he also had something else: an innate sense of what he had to do to win. It was as if he, and he alone, had fast-forwarded the DVD to see exactly how much everyone else would mess up. The talk at the time was how much other golfers feared him, but I was never sure that was right. I think, if there was anything like fear, it was of the moment, the pressure to be not just good but PERFECT, and it was Tiger, with his amazing game, his intense competitiveness and his unprecedented aura, who forced that pressure.
That was the theme and thrust of golf for a long time. Everything was built around Tiger Woods’ calculated brilliance for the game, his uncanny ability to hit the right shot, his even more uncanny ability to escape after the rare bad shot, his genius for the calculus of golf -- hit the ball to that spot, let it take that break, have it roll down that hill, watch it drop into the cup.
There was a moment Monday, during the Deutsche Bank Championship, when Woods was studying an impossible, up-and-down 60-plus-foot putt, and you could almost hear the computations clicking in his mind, and though golfers before him had misread that putt and pounded it eight feet past the cup, Woods curled his putt next to the hole and tipped his cap to the crowd. He was undoubtedly disappointed that he did not make it.
That was golf -- Tiger Woods taking the lead into Sunday, Tiger Woods holding on to that lead by playing attentive and smart golf, Tiger Woods walking off with the trophy. On Monday, he passed the $100 million mark in career earnings, an amazing double honor. The first honor is that he was good enough to win that much money. The second, even more amazing, is that he almost single-handedly made golf popular enough to pay out that kind of money.
It has been great fun -- and there’s no doubt that Woods is still a great player with great ambitions -- but I do have to say: Rory McIlroy is the new thing, and Rory McIlroy is really a blast to watch play golf.
In some ways, he is like Tiger Woods, his hero growing up. He hits the ball a long way, and he hits beautiful and high iron shots around the green, and he is a master of short-game shots, and while his putting isn’t undeviating like Tiger at his best, McIlroy can, and does, get very hot with the putter. In other ways, though, he is nothing at all like Tiger.
On Monday, McIlroy came from behind, caught Louis Oosthuizen, and won the tournament. But in doing so, he also popped up a 170-yard drive, utterly chunked an approach shot, and gagged his way in with a sloppy bogey on the 17th hole and a drive into the rough on the 18th. He hit amazing shots and terrible ones, made huge putts and flew one chip over the green, and he seemed to be stumbling and falling, but he crossed the finish line in first place. Tiger’s excellence is like Marlon Brando’s: method acting, intense, serious, close to the edge. And McIlroy’s excellence is like Tom Hanks: understated, human, warm and accessible.
This isn’t to say that one way is better than another. Nicklaus’ way was Tiger before Tiger; he never hit the wrong shot. Palmer’s way was Rory before Rory; he played with feel and verve. Hogan’s way was Tiger before Tiger; he worked for perfection and did not have time or use for anything that interfered with that mission. Watson’s way was Rory before Rory; he accepted the bad shots, forgot about them, found a way to make the par. After Rory’s astonishing 170-yard drive -- “He almost whiffed!” NBC’s Roger Maltbie yelped -- his second shot rolled back off the green, his chip curled up beautifully to the hole, and he made his par, the sort of par that was once called a “Watson Par” (and later, a “Seve Par” for the swashbuckling Seve Ballesteros).
No, it isn’t to say that one way is better or more fascinating or more entertaining. It is to say that it’s the contrast that stands out. Here’s the new young genius of golf, already a two-time major winner -- both won in runaway style -- and he’s entirely different from Tiger Woods. Where Woods was inevitable, Rory is entirely unpredictable. He might birdie the next seven holes or he might snap-hook his drive up near some trailers. Where Woods was a professional winner who seemed to care only about W’s and nothing about style points, Rory seems to enjoy great shots just for the sake of great shots. (“Why is he using his driver here?” Johnny Miller asks as McIlroy rips a 320-yard drive down the middle as if to say, “Because I can do THAT”). Where Woods’ reaction to a missed putt or poor shot was anger and disbelief, McIlroy’s seems to be a sort of bemused, “Hey, look at that! Golf is a hard game!”
Woods at his peak was the greatest golfer who ever lived, and so I’m not comparing the two. I’m on record as saying that I don’t believe that Woods will break Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors (he needs five more), but I also doubt that McIlroy will approach the 14 majors that Tiger has already won. It’s not even fair to talk about. I don’t expect in my lifetime to see a golfer as good as Tiger was from 1999 to 2008, when he won that U.S. Open on one leg. I don’t expect in my lifetime to be as riveted by an individual athlete.
But -- and this is the beauty of it all -- you never know. As I’ve written many times, Buck O’Neil always talked about the three times he heard a sound unlike any other. The first time was when he was a kid, and he heard the ball crack off the bat of Babe Ruth. The second time was when he was a ballplayer, and he heard the ball crack off the bat of Josh Gibson. The third time was when he was an old scout, and he heard the ball crack off the bat of Bo Jackson. But the point was not the sound. The point was the hope. He kept coming back to the ballpark, all the way to his death, with the hope of hearing that sound one more time.
And so, we might someday see a phenomenon like Tiger Woods. We’ll be on the watch. In the meantime, we have an older Tiger Woods with greatness still in him. And we have a young Rory McIlroy, who is great in a whole different kind of way. It’s a great time.