When Tiger Woods walked off the 18th green at the Memorial Tournament two Sundays ago and greeted tournament host Mr. Nicklaus with a huge grin, my immediate thought was, there they were, Jack and Tiger, the two best golfers of all time in one place shaking hands on a sun-filled afternoon at Muirfield Village GC, the club that Jack built.
So what stuck out for me on that Sunday was when Tiger met Jack, smiling, shaking his hand and Jack is saying something meaningful, I saw a kid and an old man. Now don’t take that the wrong way. I, too, am getting old, so I take offense to any aging commentary that is negative. But it was soooo obvious. Tiger knows who he is! Jack knows he is talking to!
My first time at a professional golf tournament was in 1971 when my late father introduced me to who Jack Nicklaus was, when dad took my older brother and I out for the Monday playoff in that year’s U.S. Open being played at storied Merion (the U.S. Open returns to Merion in 2013), a golf club on the Main Line, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia where I would eventually do duty as a caddie. School was out and for a little kid of 13 I was very lucky. For years afterward, I did my best to watch Jack play, sometimes on old TV’s with rabbit ears. Then, in reversal of fortune, I was lucky to meet and watch Tiger Woods play when I was 31 and he 13. Like they say, there is something about greatness and when you see it, you know it and embrace it. Those were such moments.
I was sitting watching the final round of the Memorial with friends at a little golf course in So Cal. After the golf ended on CBS around three o’clock or so, it was not long before some groups of three and four came out to play, inspired by what they had just witnessed on TV.
Tiger Woods once again performed his magic, making an impossible chip shot on the 16th for birdie, sending the bar patrons into a frenzy of hoots and hollers taking the outright lead going on to win for the 73rd time on the PGA Tour. 73! You know who that ties? Jack Nicklaus, his idol, his target. His only blocked doorway to being the greatest ever to play the game is the pursuit of Jack’s 18 majors. Tiger is still four away. Jack is called The Golden Bear. Well, Eldrick Woods is called Tiger. Two animals that represent fear and power as animals go.
A tiger of course is maybe the most deadly land animal on the planet but you know bears have made people’s lives miserable, too. Still, I say that when they were shaking hands, I was taken aback by the youthful Woods and the elderly Nicklaus. It was incredibly awesome to see the two shake hands behind the 18th green, his hat in hand, a legend still alive to share his love for the game and his love for a warrior like Woods, someone who wants it as much has he did.
This win changed my mind in the way he won it, that old Tiger flair, fist pumping bravado that we are so used to seeing in Tiger #1. It looks like he’s back.
Does that mean Tiger is now the favorite to win the U.S. Open at Olympic? The bookmakers have him listed as such at 3-1. Rory McIlroy is next with Phil at 6-1. Last year’s winner McIlroy is the next big thing in most people’s minds.
There are a handful of players that also must be considered. Don’t overlook Matt Kuchar, who was low amateur at Olympic in 1998 and won in grand fashion at this year’s Players Championship. Hunter Mahan, Bubba Watson, world No. 1 Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are all up there.
One long shot is 53-year-old Michael Allen, a member at The Olympic Club who is currently on top of the points standing for the Charles Schwab Cup on the Champions Tour. I’d like to throw Rickie Fowler (8-1) in that group, but that eye-popping 84 he shot while watching Tiger’s greatness on Sunday at the Memorial sort of takes him out of the loop. That said, he has played a lot at The Olympic Club in the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior and, of course, he’s a California kid.
When Lee Janzen won in ’98, he defeated a sobbing Payne Stewart who was somehow robbed of the victory, done in by a bad lie in a divot and Janzen’s fortune on the fifth hole when his ball landed in a tree and after waiting almost the entire allotted time of five minutes started to stroll back to the tee to hit again when suddenly a huge gust of wind came up and shook the trees. I was standing back on the tee watching as Lee started his walk back, his golf glove in hand, his head staring at the ground. Then, mystically, almost eerily, his ball dropped through the branches and a marshal yelled to him. He returned, somehow made par and edged Stewart by one shot.
It was at this time in Stewart’s life he had embraced religion through his wife Tracey and found peace with his life and family of four. Janzen has always been a man of God. Anyone who sat in that press conference that Father’s Day in 1998 witnessed the sorrow and humility in two great champions, in particular Payne who answered every question over what seemed like an hour before Janzen sat down holding the trophy, he too sobbing periodically rehashing what had taken place. Stewart would find redemption the following year at Pinehurst, stunning Phil Mickelson on the final hole with that 20-foot putt before grabbing Phil’s cheeks and telling him, “You’re going to be a father!” Of course, we would lose Payne that fall in a tragic plane accident far too young.
The winner in 1987 was Scott Simpson, another deeply religious fellow. I don’t know if Jack Fleck was religious, but he must have been to beat Hogan in that playoff in 1955. So it appears that the hand of God must be all over The Olympic Club, meaning I am going with Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar or Bubba Watson.
I can’t wait to get to The Olympic Club and look forward to seeing friends, constituents and the best in the golf world teeing it up in the 112th playing of the U.S. Open. God, I can’t wait!