As Tiger Woods strutted to the 16th green Saturday afternoon at Muirfield, the iconic course on the Firth of Forth in Gullane, Scotland, it looked like this was about to turn into the weekend the golf world had been waiting for: Woods’ return to greatness in the majors after a five-year losing streak. Tiger had to make 15-foot birdie putt, the type of putt that Tiger Woods doesn’t miss. It would give him the lead with two holes to go in the British Open’s penultimate round, all but assuring that he’d carry at least a share of that lead into Sunday. Given his record when he takes a lead into a major’s final round — he’s done it 15 times and won 14 of them — Sunday was set to end like the final stage of this weekend’s Tour de France: a formality, a toast to a champion, one we’ve been waiting to return.
Except he missed. Then he bogeyed the 17th. All of the sudden, he was two shots behind, and if Tiger doesn’t lose when he takes a lead into Sunday, he doesn’t win when he doesn’t (he never has at a major before, golf geeks will remind you). So Englishman Lee Westwood had the lead instead, and what had looked all but over was now very much not. Some of golf’s biggest names, including four-time major champion Phil Mickelson, were lurking, and Sunday was now an open sprint to the finish.
Mickelson won that sprint Sunday by making four birdies in his final six holes, a stretch run veteran golf writer Dan Jenkins called “one of the greatest final rounds of a major on one of the most baffling courses I’ve ever seen.” And so Tiger’s return to the top was instead, oddly, spoiled by the man Tiger had long kept from the top himself.
Last week, after I tweeted out some updates from Woods’ opening-round 69 at The Open Championship, a few of my friends asked me to make the case that they should watch and care about golf. Why should I care? is certainly an interesting question to ask about any sport, one the people in charge of every major sports league are paid a lot of money to make clear to viewers.Woods and Mickelson may provide the clearest answer there is to that question, as they exemplify the mental grind that makes golf great. Mickelson has always been one of the game’s most talented players, but his career story isn’t complete without the questions the golf world used to ask about whether he’d ever show the mental strength to break through in the game’s biggest tournaments. He abolished that uncertainty when he won The Masters in 2004, and he’s done it four more times since. We never asked those questions about the similarly-talented Woods, the guy who won 14 majors in 11 years and seemed destined not just to break Jack Nicklaus’ all-time majors record (18) but to shatter it. Mickelson bragged that he could blow past Tiger when they were teeing off, but we knew — and both Tiger and Phil knew — that it didn’t matter, because in golf’s biggest moments, Woods ascended to a new level and Mickelson wilted. But it’s now been five years since Woods lifted one of the four trophies that matter to him, and in an odd twist, we’re now asking the same questions of him that we once asked of Mickelson.
For as much as we make golf about head-to-head matches, the reality is that the game rarely gives players actual human adversaries. Tiger and Phil weren’t competing with each other Sunday but with themselves. There was nothing Tiger or anyone else could do to stop Mickelson’s run — they couldn’t play defense, there was no centerfielder to rob him of a great shot and no center or goalie to block his shot as it neared the hole. And unlike in other sports, there is no hiding from mistakes. A batter who strikes out can go back to the dugout and wait for the next at-bat, when he’ll have a clean slate; a shooter who misses a three-pointer can wait for the next opportunity. A golfer who hits it in the weeds or the woods or the water has to deal with the consequences and find his way out. And so the only resort for the other guys was to match Mickelson shot-for-shot, a task they proved unworthy of. In that way, golf is wholly unique — there’s no one on whom to blame your misfortunes other than yourself. That never bothered the Old Tiger Woods; in fact, he seemed to thrive on it. It weighed like a mental anvil on Mickelson, who spent years trying to get out of his own way and has spent the last decade proving, as Tiger once did, what a physical talent like himself is capable of when the mind is unshackled. Now, it seems the two have switched positions altogether.
The most spectacular feats in other sports — say, a mammoth home run or a crushing dunk — don’t need to be sold because they are impressive for their physical impossibility. Most of the physical feats in golf are far more nuanced, less immediately spectacular to those who haven’t played — I’m not sure a non-golfer could understand how impressive Bubba Watson or Tiger Woods’ most famous Masters shots are. The true impossibility of golf, though, lies not in the physics but in the six inches of space that exists between each ear. It’s that space that once separated Tiger and Phil; it’s that space now that seems to separate them in reverse once again.
Golf is not a perfect sport, and its flaws are an understandable turn-off. Even as 30 million Americans play it each year, it is an exclusionary game, one where many of the best courses exist behind the tall gates of wealthy country clubs. It has been slow to accept women and minorities as equals — Muirfield, site of this year’s British Open, has no female members. Golf’s most famous symbols and its nicest courses are reserved primarily for the wealthy and elite, and it should be criticized for those things. Its players should be criticized for not taking more vocal stands against them. But even as golf’s upper levels are markedly elitist, it is a sport open in one way or another to anyone who wants to play — on Saturday at the municipal course in your neighborhood, you’ll find a healthy mix of old and young, male and female, white and black and everyone else.
The game itself is good. It’s good because it tests not only the body but the mind, mostly the mind, in a way that few other sports can. And it’s good because at the end of the day, you can walk off the course after your own round and watch two guys like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson battling to overcome the same demons you just battled, wondering in amazement at how in one moment they seem to have mastered the sport completely, while in the next it becomes clear that they’ve failed to master it at all.