Monday, August 10, 2009

Why Don’t Golf Fans Root for Underdogs? Harrington is my Type of Guy, Even Though He Isn’t ‘David’

It was Frank Chirkinian, the man who basically invented the art of producing golf on TV (among other things he came up with the idea of showing a players score relative to par, rather than his total score) who years ago made a very smart and insightful comment about why the sport is different than others.

"For some reason, golf fans don't want the underdog to win," he said. "They don't mind if he contends, he can even lead after 54 holes, but on Sunday afternoon they want the stars to win--the bigger the star the harder they pull for him. In other sports, people tend to root for the underdog."

Chirkinian made the comment to me in 1994. He was talking soon after John Daly had won in Atlanta, beating my friend Brian Henninger down the stretch. Henninger might as well have been invisible that day. Chirkinian was baffled. "Skinny little kid just trying to get a chance to play on tour against a millionaire who has been given a dozen chances by the public already," he said. "Nothing against Daly. He's great for us. But I don't get it."

I don't either. Chirkinian was right then and he's right now. The only player golf fans MIGHT pull for in a battle against Tiger Woods is Phil Mickelson. When Mike Weir, who was then a skinny kid trying to find his way on tour, was paired with Woods in the last round at the 1999 PGA Championship, he felt invisible too.

Almost 30 years ago, a couple months after beating Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon, John McEnroe played his first match at the U.S. Open against a qualifier who was ranked, I think, 187th in the world. He was South American and I don't remember his name but he won the first set. The stadium went nuts.

"An hour ago no one in the place had even heard of the guy, now they're cheering for him like he's a relative," McEnroe said after winning the next three sets. "I like underdogs too, I'm a Mets fan, but that was ridiculous."

You can say some of it was anti-McEnroe sentiment but it really was more pro-underdog sentiment. When Andy Roddick pushed Roger Federer to five sets at Wimbledon last month, most folks were for Roddick--and Federer is one of the most popular champions in tennis history. The reason was simple: Federer's won Wimbledon five times (now six) Roddick none. Give the 'little guy,' his day in the sun.

The invisible thing happened again on Sunday at Firestone. Padraig Harrington winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational would have been a lot better story than Woods winning it AGAIN (seven times now). Harrington won two majors last year when Woods was hurt and he's won three altogether. He's struggled this year trying to change his swing--something Woods had gone through a couple of times himself. He also happens to be one of the nicest men you'll ever come across in any walk of life.

The fact that Woods threw a 30 at him on the front line and Harrington didn't blink and came back to lead should have made him a more compelling story. You would think people would like to see the man bites dog story (or Tiger loses lead, which is the same thing) every once in a while. And yet, it was all about Tiger for the fans. I get CBS wanting him to be there, he doubles, maybe triples their ratings. I even get fans pulling for Mickelson after what he's been through this summer with cancer scares involving both his wife and his mother.

Is it because Woods is American and Harrington is Irish? Don't think so, this isn't The Ryder Cup is it? And I suspect it would have been roughly the same if, say, Steve Stricker would have been one shot up with three holes to play. Maybe the only time a crowd wasn't 99 percent for Woods was at the '08 U.S. Open where--finally--on Monday some fans came around to the idea that a 45-year-old with a history of back troubles winning his first and only major MIGHT be a better story than a multi-millionaire with a golden life winning his 14th. Even then, the crowd was split.

It isn't because Woods exudes warmth--he doesn’t, photogenic smile or no photogenic smile. It's because he WINS and golf fans like guys who WIN even more than fans in other sports do. It's as if all golf fans were born to be Yankee fans; Notre Dame football fans or Dallas Cowboys fans

The worst--to me--are Notre Dame fans who didn't even go to Notre Dame. Do they think all the players are Irish or something? Years ago, when I was researching "A Civil War," I was on the Navy sideline at Notre Dame Stadium. The game had been close for three quarters before Notre Dame--aided by a couple of those mystery calls that often happen in that place (do NOT get me started on the '99 game) pulled away. In the final couple of minutes, Navy was trying to drive for a consolation touchdown when Ben Fay, the Mids quarterback, was sacked.

Two security guys, allegedly there to protect the Mids from the fans behind us, who started jumping up and down and high-fiving one another and yelling at Fay as he went down. I'd had enough.

"Hey, are you guys here for security?" I said.

"Yes we are," one of them said.

"Then shut up and do your job," I said. "If you want to be fans, go sit in the stands."

One of them took a step towards me. "Who are you?" he said.

Before I could answer--I was planning to say I was the Secretary of the Navy--Kent Owens, who was then Navy's officer representative, grabbed me and pulled me away. "They have guns John," he said. "Calm down."

I did. The security people kept quiet the last two minutes.

Anyway, the point is I simply don't get people who revel in Goliath winning and, as Chirkinian pointed out all those years ago, it happens in golf more than any other sport.

So, while all the TV guys and the fans are pulling this week for Tiger--or Phil (on TV, neither one of them has a last name) I'll be hoping someone like Rich Beem wins The PGA. Or Padraig Harrington. He's not exactly David, but he is my kind of guy.


Scott said...

John - Maybe after Tiger eclipses the # of Jack's Majors and Sam Snead's PGA Tour Wins we will all be satiated. But for now, I enjoy the heck out of seeing him rack up the numbers and chase these 2 records. When he is the hunt on Sunday, (regardless of the tournament) I need to see what is going to happen.

Anonymous said...

Golfers, and even tennis players today, don't seem to elicit the emotions of guys playing team sports. Even when McEnroe played, tennis had its stars with emotions on their sleeves - individual had their true fans and rivalries existed. Golfers today seem too blase, too guarded, to create true fans and rivalries that pull emotion from the gut.

Anonymous said...

Notre Dame is easy to root for because it is special and tries to stand for something; trying to combine a level of morality, education and athletic achievement. Tiger Woods is easy to root for because he too stands for something. He is not privileged country club but a public links golfer who worked hard. You think the Naval Academy is special and they too are easy to root for becaus of the sacrifice of its players and duty to country. You are a Notre Dame hater and indoctrinated thusly. You and your like need to go to the nuances to find and emphasize similarities with Notre Dame and football factories. I have read your books and they are agenda driven. It is what you do as an advocate for the other side. Security personnel are not sworn jurors sitting in a court of law. I am sure they made no statements to your quarterback but your mind has created that scenario. People love Notre Dame because it makes sense to them. Your reasons for Notre Dame make no sense to us or are childish and laughable. Your example is just that. I sat in the stands for the Navy victory at Notre Dame until the end. I was happy for Navy as they deserved the win. I am sure there was boisterous celebration and a comment or two that may be deemed unsporstsmanlike by a partisan. But a childish mind dwells on that. The symbolism and message of the game is not lost Navy won a game against a team with all the advantages. The team that lost had the worst coach in histroy leave a bare cupboard and the loss was demonstrative of that.

Dana King said...

I have wondered about this for years. You always hear about how Americans love the underdog, but the Yankees, Cowboys, Notre Dame, and Lakers have fans who seem to feel it's their divine right to win. I've been a Red Sox fan for years, but even they're starting to wear on me. It's hard to consider a team with their resources the underdog. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I'm still a Pirates fan.

As for Anonymous's Notre Dame comment, (Notre Dame is easy to root for because it is special and tries to stand for something; trying to combine a level of morality, education and athletic achievement.), oh, puh-leeze. Maybe that's true in the classroom, but tht thinking has nothing to do with the football team. Do some reading when you're not already juiced from the green Kool-Aid.