While others in my neighborhood were outside fiddling around in the yard over the weekend, I was glued to the television. The Masters Tournament was on.
As most golfers who like to watch professional golf, I have my favorites. At the top of that list, for me, is Tiger Woods who, as everybody knows with the possible exception of an undiscovered culture on an island somewhere, has had his personal and professional trials lately. Lots of folks I know grumble about Tiger, his media coverage, his personal life. The way I look at it, if somebody has a problem with Tiger’s media coverage, they should blame the media, not Tiger. As for his personal life, I’m pretty sure he couldn’t care less about mine, so I’ll return the favor. The man is mad talented, and one of the best players the game has seen.
What was fascinating to me about the Masters this year was all the talk about the next generation of golfers moving in to knock out the old guard. “The old guard,” in case you don’t know, includes Tiger Woods at age 35. The young guns to which the commentators referred are in their twenties. In fact, the fellow in the lead coming into Sunday was a 21-year-old Irishman named Rory McIllroy. The kid is amazing, though sadly collapsed under final-day pressure. Another young golfer, Australian Jason Day, tied for second, and a 26-year-old from South Africa won. Without question, the new generation is making a move. Tiger shot 10 under, three strokes off the lead. Not too shabby for “an old guy.”
None of this, however, held my thoughts on Sunday. I kept thinking about two other golfers, the men who put such personal stamps on the game: The King, Arnold Palmer; and The Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus. Arnie and Jack are 81 and 71 respectively. On Thursday, the tournament’s opening day, each hit a drive to kick off the Masters. I had to wonder what these two were thinking when they heard the sportscasters talking about Tiger being part of an old guard in golf.
I watched a special about Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus over the weekend, and was reminded what spectacular golfers they really were. Palmer was shown in old black and white newsreels, lithe and lean, cigarette sticking out of his mouth, schmoozing with fans and playing the game with heart-stopping abandon. Someone mentioned a comment Arnie made once (paraphrased here) that golf is about getting the ball in the hole as fast as possible. And that’s what he did. If the ball was in a treetop, it wouldn’t have surprised me to see Palmer climb up there and knock it out. Nicklaus was rugged and focused and a fierce competitor, and when he beat Palmer for the first time at the 1962 U.S. Open, Arnie’s Army went wild. How dare this upstart, this…young gun…swoop in here and take down The King!
It’s inevitable in every sport, and for that matter at every level of life, that someone younger and better emerges and knocks out those who came before. Doing so is the way it should be because the young must replace the old in order to keep civilization cranking along. Still, it’s distressing to watch, to see champions no longer able to compete. Jumping from film of Arnold Palmer in his dashing prime to a lovely though elderly gentleman swinging at the ball at the Thursday opener tugged at my heartstrings. Nicklaus, for me, was worse, because I watched him contend in the 1990s, and recall with leaking eyes his final round, at the 2005 British Open, when the last golf ball of his professional career curled in for birdie.
There's a great line from the movie On Golden Pond, when Katharine Hepburn explains to a 14-year-old boy the reason her husband, played by Henry Fonda, has shouted at him. "It means he's like an old lion. He has to remind himself that he can still roar." I wish I could see Jack and Arnie roar again. They aren't exactly teetering old men tossing birdseed around in the park, but their roaring days are over. Younger men with better clubs and stronger arms have replaced them. The way it should be, I guess. Still...
There was a moment on Sunday when I thought Tiger was going to show the new generation what being a champion is all about. He charged on the back nine and made some remarkable shots, one of which curved around a copse of trees to land on the green for an eagle opportunity. A friend dropped by just then, watched Tiger sink that putt, and remarked, “I guess he isn’t washed up yet.” Boy, I hope not. I’m not quite ready for the new guard to sweep the field clean because there’s more to winning than youth and technical skill. Winning is about drive and focus and raw determination. As Jack Nicklaus once said, “Resolve never to quit, never to give up, no matter what the situation.” I’m thinking – and hoping – that a certain Tiger still has a few roars left.