Today is a day to write about both the sublime and the ridiculous.
The sublime came early yesterday when my good friend Paul Goydos shot 59—FIFTY-NINE!—in the first round of The John Deere Classic. For those of you who don’t follow golf, Paul was the fourth player in the history of The PGA Tour to shoot 59 in an official tour event. In all likelihood, he won’t even win this weekend—although he’s off to a pretty decent start—but he is now a part of golf history.
The ridiculous, of course, was ESPN’s LeBron James infomercial/love-athon. Let me just say two things quickly now: 1. ESPN flat out lied about when James would actually announce where he was playing. It insisted the public would know, “in the first ten minutes,” of the show. Jim Gray FINALLY stopped asking questions about the ‘process,’ at 9:27. I’m not good at math but 27 is considerably more than 10 last time I checked. 2. Some ESPN suit named Norby Williamson proudly declared yesterday that ESPN was in complete control of the show, “other than what comes out of his (James’s) mouth.” If so, everyone involved should submit their resignations this morning. ESPN at its best is very good; at its worst completely awful. This went beyond anything it has ever done for horrific.
Okay, let’s get back to Goydos because it is a far more pleasant topic. I make absolutely no secret of the fact that I’m in the tank for Paul and have been almost since the day I met him at The Buick Open in 1993 when I was researching “A Good Walk Spoiled.”
On that day, his opening line at a press conference was, “Most of you have never heard of me. There’s a reason for that. I’ve never done anything.”
My kind of guy. He ended up being the cult hero of the book and we’ve been friends ever since through a lot of ups and downs in both our lives. If you follow golf, you know that Paul’s wife Wendy got hooked on methamphetamines years ago trying to find some relief from constant migraine headaches. She ended up in and out of rehab but never was able to get completely clean. Paul ended up a single dad, dropping off the tour for a year to be with his teen-age girls. Then, a year ago in January, Wendy died of an apparent overdose.
I still vividly remember Paul’s phone call that day. I was driving home from a basketball game at Bucknell. I knew he had missed the cut at Hawaii but as soon as I heard his voice I knew he wasn’t calling to complain about his golf. Wendy was 44.
What makes Goydos a unique character is his sense of humor, which is about as dry and self-deprecating as I’ve ever seen—his opening comment that first day I met him being a good example. Later he was explaining how he plays his best golf when he gets his slice going. “I know when you’re on The PGA Tour you’re supposed to call it a fade,” he said. “But when you hit a seven iron and it goes 20 yards to the right that’s not a fade, that’s a slice.”
Paul has always described himself as “the worst player in the history of The PGA Tour.” Given that he’s been out there 18 years, has won twice and lost a memorable playoff to Sergio Garcia at the 2008 Players Championship even before yesterday, he’d have trouble making that case.
But he’s certainly not your typical golfer. He’s got a homemade swing and kind of slumps around the course, looking like a guy you might run into at the local muni on Saturday morning. He grew up on a muni in Long Beach and went to Long Beach State. When a problem with one of his hands—he couldn’t grip a club—seemed to end his golf career he did some teaching in the Long Beach school system, often working at inner city schools. That background has certainly given him a different view of life than most of his fellow pros.
Rarely does Paul get openly excited about a round of golf. I remember years ago when he played a U.S. Open qualifier at Woodmont and shot 63 the first 18 holes.
“Great playing,” I said.
“I didn’t make a single putt,” he answered.
“And shot 63?”
“Well, I guess I hit it pretty well.”
Yesterday was different. When I talked to him on the phone yesterday afternoon, he’d done hours of media because he’ll never say no when people want to talk to him. “Actually it caught me by surprise,” he said. “I mean, I know 59 is an iconic number, I was fully aware of what was going on the last few holes. I wasn’t going to sit there and pretend it wasn’t a big deal. I remember thinking on the 16th tee, ‘okay, lots of guys have the chance to shoot 59 but only THREE have actually done it. Let’s do everything possible to be number four.’”
He made three birdies to do it, holing a seven-footer on 18. “That’s the most nervous I think I’ve ever been over a putt in my life,” he said. “I KNOW winning is a bigger deal than shooting 59 but I also know people will remember me for this more than for the two wins or even The Players—which was a pretty big deal when it happened.”
Of course he had a memorable line which he had been repeating all day: “Most people dream of shooting their age. I shot my height.” He is 5-9 so shooting his height isn’t easy.
The irony is that a week ago when I’d seen him in Philadelphia he’d been legitimately down about his game—not just Goydos, worst-player-in-history down, truly down. He’d had a chance to win at Pebble Beach in February before making a nine at the 14th hole on Sunday. Since then, he hadn’t played well.
“I probably let that get to me more than I realized,” he said. “On the other hand, a four month slump for me isn’t exactly big news. I have one just about every year.”
I hope he’s out of it now. The day after a great round is the toughest one there is for a golfer. The good news is he starts out five shots clear of the field except for defending champion Steve Stricker, who went out in the afternoon and shot 60. “To start your round 12 shots behind the leader and finish it one shot back is pretty impressive,” Goydos said.
To shoot 59 is more impressive. And trust me, it couldn’t happen to a better guy. I hope he can keep it going through the weekend.
Okay, back to the ridiculous. We all knew the so-called, “Decision,” would be bad TV but did anyone imagine how bad? The painful stalling with more mindless chatter and a Stu Scott narrated paean to The King—in which he called him the greatest player in the game—was brutal. I can’t wait for Stu’s next conversation with Kobe Bryant. Even Chris Broussard, who had the story, hedged. “I hear Miami but it could be Cleveland, New York or Chicago,” he said.
I wonder: Was he ORDERED by ESPN to hedge to stretch out the “suspense.”
There were commercials galore; reminders who was sponsoring the show and then the five minutes of torturous questions from Gray—again, no doubt under orders from the suits. No one—NO ONE—cared about the damn process at that point.
Michael Wilbon, after the opening silly, “how tough was this,” question tried to get James to say something but he was strictly on message. Everyone in Cleveland was a great guy. He just wanted to win, blah-blah-blah. It was funny how he kept talking about, “everything I’ve done for the city.” Yeah, there are all those championship banners he helped hang. Oh wait, that’s not The King, he’s hung ZERO banners. Look, he has a perfect right to go wherever he wants but please don’t sit there and tell people in Cleveland how much you’ve done for them. The last thing they saw you do was wimp out against the Celtics.
Worst of all though was after the announcement finally was over and Wilbon’s attempts to get James to answer questions had failed, was Scott saying, “And the King has ANOTHER big announcement to make.” The big announcement was that someone ELSE was giving a bunch of money to The Boys and Girls Clubs. The only thing missing at that point was Jerry Lewis. Then again, Scott posing as any kind of journalist is funnier than Lewis and Martin at their peak.
I’m a little embarrassed that I watched but it was a little bit like trying to drive past an accident without rubber-necking. My new favorite owner is Dan Gilbert.
By the way, the NCAA announced—AGAIN—yesterday that it is ALMOST ready to announce what it is going to do with the 68-team NCAA Tournament format. (They called it the “enhanced,” 68 team field). I think they’re negotiating with ESPN for a special called, “The Decision."
John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases