There was a lot to watch this weekend. Arguably the two greatest athletes of this generation were both competing: Tiger Woods was easing his way to another win at the last Buick Open (General Motors is shutting it down after 51 years for reasons that are pretty obvious) and Michael Phelps, after a bad start, was back to being his dominant self the last couple days at The World Swimming Championships.
It’s interesting because when the TV networks act as if Tiger’s the only guy on the golf course I roll my eyes. I mean if CBS had shown his swing in slo-mo one more time on Sunday I think I would have put out a contract on Peter Kostis. Maybe it’s because, as much as I respect Tiger’s remarkable ability and competitiveness, deep down I find him hard to like. I get tired of the club-slamming and the looks at the sky as if God is out to get him when a putt doesn’t go in. I get tired of the media lining up to pay homage to him at all times.
I don’t honestly think he’s a bad guy and, no doubt, I’m influenced if I’m being honest with myself by the fact that Tiger doesn’t like ME. Early on in his career he got angry at some things I wrote and said about his father—my theory being that Tiger became Tiger in spite of his dad not because of him. I’ve told him in the past I respect anyone who stands up for their dad but that doesn’t change the way I feel.
So, when we see each other the hellos are cordial and it pretty much ends at that.
I certainly don’t know Phelps well, but I had the chance to sit down with him and his mom and his coach several years ago and I just LIKED him. Unlike Tiger, who is as smart as anyone I’ve ever met, Phelps is just a nice kid who, even though his mom is an educator, has gotten most of his education with his head under water. He screwed up with the bong episode—his allegedly smart agents screwed up worse—but I still just like him.
And, just as Tiger takes your breath away when he plays golf, Phelps takes your breath away when he swims.
It’s ridiculous to say I identify with Phelps because saying he and I are both swimmers is like saying Tiger and I are both golfers. It’s silly. But having been a butterflyer—even a mediocre one—since high school I DO relate to some of the things he goes through when he’s in the water. The messed up goggles in the 200 fly at the Olympics have happened to everyone who swims. Coming up short or long on a turn is a malady that everyone deals with at some point. Even though it doesn’t show I KNOW he’s feeling overwhelming pain in his shoulders the last few meters of a 200 fly.
So, when NBC becomes at least as Phelps-centric as CBS (or the other networks) are golf-centric, I love it. I guess that’s the way most golf fans feel about Tiger—they can’t get enough. I can’t get enough Phelps. Of course I love to watch the other swimmers too—guys like Aaron Peirsol and Ryan Lochte don’t get nearly enough credit because Phelps is SO good.
At the end of the meet, Rowdy Gaines said this about Phelps: “He has had a bigger impact on his sport than any athlete in history.”
That’s quite a statement. But you know what? If it’s not true, it’s damn close. Jackie Robinson changed baseball and our country forever. Arnold Palmer made golf a sport people cared about and, contrary to what people think today, was the most IMPORTANT golfer who ever lived.
But Phelps has brought people to swimming, changed it from an absolute niche sport into a network TV sport. Walk down the street and ask someone like my sister, who never quite understood why the Redskins didn’t draft Michael Jordan, to name athletes and she’ll come up with two: Woods and Phelps. That says a lot. She’d probably name her 10-year-old son Ethan third.
I would be remiss today if I didn’t bring up one other guy I watched this weekend: Greg Norman. In his own way, Norman is as predictable as Woods or Phelps. Put the latter two under pressure and you are likely to see something spectacular.
Same is true of Norman: except in reverse. There he was on Sunday during the final round of the U.S. Senior Open with ANOTHER chance to win a major—albeit a senior major, but still—and there he was going backwards. Fred Funk outscored him on Sunday by EIGHT shots as Norman slipped from a tie for second, one shot back to a tie for fourth NINE shots back.
This after recently saying during a TV interview that he probably would have won more than two major championships if he had married earlier in his life to Chris Evert rather than Laura Andrassy.
Let’s put aside for a moment that Andrassy is the mother of his two kids who had to be THRILLED to hear him say that. Let’s even concede that Evert was one of the great competitors ever. In fact, when she divorced John Lloyd, her first husband, there were whispers that one of the factors was that he took losing (he was a top 100 ranked tennis player) as well as he did. Lloyd was, in fact, one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. I still remember him losing in the first round of the 1981 U.S. Open to Jimmy Connors by something like 6-0, 6-0, 6-2 (Connors, who was once engaged to Evert tried his level best to humiliate him love, love and love) and standing in front of his locker wrapped in a towel talking to Pete Alfano (then of Newday) and I for about 45 minutes.
All of that aside, Evert can’t hit shots for Norman, can she? She was married to him last year when he shot 77 in the last round at the British Open to go from two shots ahead of Padraig Harrington to six behind. She was married to him two weeks ago when he led the Senior British going into the last round and finished sixth. And she was married to him Sunday when he hit two of the first 10 fairways and looked scared to death until the tournament was safely out of reach.
I’ve always gotten along with Norman. He’s bright and—maybe because he’s so experienced—he deals with awful defeats with remarkable grace. Years ago, after “A Good Walk Spoiled,” came out he thought I had been quoted in a People Magazine piece about the book’s success as saying he had the biggest ego on the tour. He called me—furious—screaming, “I gave you all that time (which he had) for the book and you say that about me?”
“Greg,” I answered. “Have you got the story there?”
“Damn right I do.”
“Look closely. The line about your ego ISN’T in quotes. I didn’t say it—the guy who wrote the story said it.”
There was a pause. “Oh my god, you’re right,” he said “I’m really sorry. I see it now, you didn’t say it did you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I’m sorry for doubting you,” he said. Then there was a pause. “Okay then,” he said finally. “What’s the phone number for this guy at People?”