Monday, April 09, 2007

Random Thoughts - Monday April 9

A tip of the cap to Zach Johnson
As The Masters was unfolding on Sunday, with names falling from the top of the leaderboard to off the first page from one hole to the next, Johnson separated himself from the pack with three birdies in four holes on the back nine. As names like Stuart Appleby and Padraig Harrington fell off the pace, Tiger Woods made an eagle at 13, and when Johnson bogeyed 17 to trim his lead to two shots on Tiger, who had four holes to play, things didn't look good.

But then, a stat that shows how Tiger is a victim of his own greatness came into play. Tiger Woods has won 12 majors, which is obviously remarkable. In every single one of them, he was either tied for the lead, or had sole possession going into the final round. Now, there are two ways to look at this. The predominant viewpoint was that this was just another example of how good Tiger is - to have the lead at 12 majors on Sunday morning is phenomenal, let alone win them. And that's the backbone of this stat - he always wins them. He's had the lead on Sunday morning at the majors 12 times, and he's won all 12. That's incredible.

But when Tiger goes splish-splash on the back nine, narrowly misses two birdie putts, and then finds the bunker on 17 (And I loved his reaction to this - "Honestly, what the hell just happened?!" - because that sounds like something I would say on the golf course) to kill his chances, that stat gets turned on its head. Because since all 12 of Tiger's major championships have come with him playing in front of the pack...that means he's never come from behind on Sunday to win a major.

Tiger had the lead, alone, briefly on the front nine on Sunday, at a point when something like 12 players were in real contention. And to hear Tiger speak after the tournament, he doesn't feel like he lost it yesterday - going bogey-bogey on 17 and 18 to close out his round on Thursday and Saturday really got him, according to him, and I'll take Tiger's word on Tiger more than anyone else's. An ESPN.com poll this morning, asking readers if they think Zach Johnson won it or Tiger Woods lost it, shows Johnson winning it with a 65/35 margin across the nation.

And good for Zach Johnson. I - like most - didn't know who this guy was at the start of the day, then remembered his name among the Ryder Cup pairings last year, which is usually a dubious honor if you're from the US. But as the day unfolded, and he made just enough clutch shots, including an icy run-on on the 18th green that dead stopped at the cup on the heels of his bogey at 17, you started to respect him. And I'm a sucker for the guy who's never won (alright, one career victory...but his best finish at a major before this was 17th at the '05 PGA) coming off the 18th green with the clubhouse lead, his wife looking at him with that good and real combination of love and joy and awe, sharing a moment with his family and his newborn baby, getting hugs from all of his old Nationwide Tour buddies who made the journey with him, and then thanking Jesus? I mean, come on, what's not to love about that? That's storybook stuff right there.

And on Sunday, it was real. Augusta was a cruel mistress all week, and ate players alive up until Sunday. And Johnson peaked at the right moment with those three birdies. Tiger didn't fail, he didn't choke - he played well overall, and had far fewer mistakes than most golfers; that's why he finished second. This is where you're tempted to write or think "But he wasn't Tiger - that Tiger always wins in the clutch." And I'll admit, while watching him put one in the water at a crucial moment, or watching those putts just barely miss, and especially the bunker shot on 17...it was like watching Jordan, only the Bulls lost at the buzzer. And that never happens.

Tiger's not flawed or fading or anything like that. He played the most brutal Masters in history and finished second. So now we come back to that stat - 12 majors won by playing from in front 12 times - and you don't even have to ask yourself the question; it's just fact that Tiger Woods has no experience winning from behind on Sunday at a major. It's not because he's a bad player; it's because he's so good, it's usually not an issue. He didn't wilt on Sunday, he ran up against a beast of a golf course and couldn't quite finish it off. Good money says he'll be back around, if not on top of, the leaderboard at the US Open come June.

You want to see the duel. You want to see the rivalry - and Zach Johnson has a long way to go before he's anyone's rival - and you want to see drama on 18. Tiger's legacy probably needs a "down two with four holes to play and he still won it" major story - but Tiger would rather not be down two in the first place. And that's how he plays.

Watch that stat. Tiger won't be in his prime forever, and everyone - including Tiger - knows this. So if/when victories keep piling up for him, will that stat become a continuation of his dominance...or will someone else do just enough to stay in front on a Sunday afternoon, and leave Tiger just on the outside at another major? It's not a big deal yet, not even close. And it'll never mean that Tiger's not the greatest golfer walking the face of the earth. It's just one more interesting step along his journey. The journey continues in June.

And above all else, Sunday belongs to Zach Johnson. I'd say something clever or cute about him, but Jim Nantz has used them all up. Congratulations to Zach for conquering Augusta at her worst. He earned the green jacket.


The Braves will have to settle for 161-1
On Friday night, with hope springing eternal, the Mets used Atlanta's defensive errors and the dark side of the Braves bullpen - the dropoff from Gonzalez, Soriano, and Wickman to everyone else is astounding, and an easy reminder of what went wrong last year - to bust open a 2-1 game and rout the Braves 11-1 in the home opener. At this point, the Mets were 4-0 and had outscored the opposition 31-3 in four games.

On Saturday, the Glavine/Smoltz duel lived up to its billing, but this time it was New York's defense that couldn't hold up, and the Braves benefited from three unearned runs in a 5-3 win. Smoltz got the win, Glavine got the loss, and there was much rejoicing.

On Sunday, despite a leadoff homerun from Kelly Johnson, Atlanta couldn't hit anything for six innings. Then the Mets choose to gamble, took Orlando Hernandez out to try and punch a run across, and then the Braves got a double from Chipper Jones, a double from Brian McCann, and a double for Jeff Francoeur in the bottom of the eighth, and the 2-1 hole was a 3-2 lead. And suddenly, you realize that in just two series, you have amazing faith in Atlanta's first-string bullpen. All the starting pitching - which is solid in the first place, with a great showing from Kyle Davies yesterday - has to do is keep it close.

Sure, the Braves still seem like they could use another bat. Sure, Andruw Jones is due for a contract year wakeup call. Sure, it's still early April. But the Braves are 5-1 and alone atop the NL East, and just gutted out two of three from the New York Mets. They'll take today off, and then host the Nationals for three, and suddenly the Tim Hudson, Chuck James, Mark Redman rotation during the midweek series looks formidable. And the baseball gods will smile again on Friday night: the Marlins come to ATL for the weekend, and that series will open with John Smoltz vs. Dontrelle Willis.

We've got a long way to go...but so far, so good.


Just so you know, I'm not joking about Tennessee Basketball
In case any of you were thrown off by my usual extreme optimism when it comes to discussing the 2007-08 Tennesee Basketball season...in the initial Top 25s by the three biggest sports websites, the Vols were ranked 10th by ESPN.com, 9th by SI.com, and 6th by CBSSportsline.com. I'm crazy, but I'm not that crazy - the Vols are for real.

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