Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Champions Past, Present, and Future

  I recently read the book ‘My Story’ by golfer Jack Nicklaus, which I got at the Salvation Army thrift store in Marshalltown for 50 cents. I’m not much of a golf fan and have only played a handful of times, but I’ve always enjoyed watching the major championships when they’re on TV and remember seeing Nicklaus compete for them. Nicklaus’s career spanned the era where golfers routinely sold percentages of their potential future earnings to sponsors to the era where a top golfer’s expenses would be paid by equipment companies for the privilege of having their equipment and clothes seen as being used by the golfers on TV.

  Nicklaus is the current record holder with 18 major golf championships, and this 1997 book is a straightforward chronicle of his life with a chapter devoted to his each championship. I always marveled at how top chess players could instantly remember games and positions from years ago and it is equally amazing to me how Nicklaus can recall so much detail from tournaments that happened 20 to 35 years prior. He may have been aided somewhat by a peek at the videotape, but he routinely goes into his entire thinking process for many of his shots including the wind, location of the pin, type of grass that was on the green, how he played similar shots years before, and the weather. While his innate talent (Ohio Junior Champion at 12) for golf and a decidedly upper middle class upbringing (a father who owned a string of pharmacies) certainly aided in his success, his dedication and hard work is what made him an all-time great.

  Nicklaus is proud of his majors record and justifiably so. I remember seeing him being interviewed saying he could claim 20 majors by including his 2 US Amateur championships (The US Amateur was considered a major championship until the 1940’s when professional golf was still frowned upon) to give him a total of 20, but that kind of talk stopped during Tiger Woods ascension as a threat to his record, possibly since Woods won 3 US Amateur championships.

  I’ve always been fascinated by the pursuit of records. Every year I check the NBA standings to see when every team gets their 11th loss to ensure the 1996 Chicago Bulls record of 72-10 stands for another year and I‘ve also enjoyed the struggles of bad basketball teams to get their 10th win and get away from the Philadelphia 76ers 1972 mark of 9-73, which has been lowered further by the Charlotte Hornets mark of 7-59 in this year’s strike shortened season. The pursuit of baseball records used to be a pastime of mine and I always had young players on my radar to see if they would get 3000 hits, 500 home runs, or 300 wins. In the 1980’s, the Mets came up with 2 great talents, pitcher Dwight Gooden and outfielder Darryl Strawberry. At the end of the 1990 season Gooden had 119 at age 25 and Strawberry had 252 home runs at the age of 28. I was look forward to seeing their assault on the record books, but cocaine and injuries took their toll on the two young stars. Strawberry hit only 83 more home runs and Gooden managed 75 more wins in careers that were over by 2000. Since then, steroid cheaters like Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez have taken away much of the enjoyment I used to get from baseball records and I don’t pay much attention to them anymore.

  When Tiger Woods came on the scene, all the pundits predicted greatness but no one guaranteed he would break Nicklaus’ major championship record. When he racked up 8 majors by the age of 26 (many with record scores and margins of victories) to get 4 years ahead of Nicklaus’ pace, the question changed from if he would break the record to when he would and by how much. Woods then went into an almost 3 year slump, but won 2 majors in 2005 and 2006 and 1 each in 2007 and 2008 to get to 14 majors at the age of 32. Nicklaus had 9 majors at the age of 32 and won his 14th major at the age of 35. Woods hasn’t won a major championship since his 2008 US Open victory, after which he had knee surgery for the second time that year. Since then he had to take time off the tour in 2009 when his marital infidelities led to the highly publicized breakup of his marriage and the question of whether he would break Nicklaus’ major record has turned from a when to a very large if.

  When Woods won his first tournament since 2009 2 weeks before the Masters (the first of the 2012 majors), there were high hopes for Woods to win his 15th major, but he was never a factor and finished in 40th place. Then 2 weeks before this past weekend’s US Open (the second major), Woods won his second tournament of the year and was installed by the US Open favorite by the odds makers based on the amount of bets placed on him. After the first 2 rounds, the odd makers were looking like prophets when Woods was tied for the lead, but Woods played himself out contention over the last 2 rounds and finished in 21st place.

  Despite not having won one of the last 16 majors, I still think Woods will find a way to breaking Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. At 36, Woods is still 2 years younger than Nicklaus was when he won his 15th major, he has seemingly put his personal problems behind him, and is in the best health he has been in since his 2008 surgeries. Despite the media’s longing to crown the current generations of young golfer (Ricky Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, etc…) as the new ‘Tiger Woods’, the fact that there has 9 straight first time major winners is evidence that there is no dominant golfer ready to take over from Woods at the present time. I’m not saying that Woods will ever break course or margin of victory records again, but I believe he will be able to be just a little bit better than the rest of the world’s golfers for 5 more major weekends.

  Speaking of champions, with the Miami Heat’s win last night in game 4 of the NBA finals to take a 3-1 series lead, it appears my prediction in February that the Heat looked like world championship material was on the money. Unlike last year’s relatively easy path to the Finals, the Heat have been thoroughly tested in this year’s playoff run, being behind 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers and 3-2 to the Celtics, but managed to battle back for gritty road wins to take both of the series. The difference I see in this year’s team is that when their back has been to the wall, their best player LeBron James has stopped settling for outside jump shots and has driven to the basket in order to draw fouls and get chances for free points even when he doesn’t make the basket (last night’s 3-point game winner notwithstanding). In the 2011 playoffs, James took 156 foul shots in 21 games and this year he has 225 attempts in 22 games. By comparison, superstar teammate Dwayne Wade has 157 foul shots this year compared to 179 last year. This willingness to take a beating in order to get to the foul line is something Michael Jordan routinely did when points were hard to come by and a habit Kobe Bryant acquired in leading the Lakers to their latest run of 3 straight final appearances. It looks to me that James has also figured out that this is a habit of champions and I expect the Heat to finish the series tomorrow.