The first decade of the 21st Century has been less than kind to New York sports fans. Yes, there was that bright shining moment in Arizona a couple of years ago when the Giants won an improbable Super Bowl championship at the expense of the New England Patriots. And, of course, across the Hudson River there’s a hockey team that has achieved a memorable feat or two since the turn of the millennium, although only members of the charming but pitifully small cult of hockey seem aware of the existence of the New Jersey Devils.
For the most part, though, it’s been all downhill around these parts since the 2000 World Series, when the Yankees beat the Mets in an authentic Subway Series. The Yankee victory capped an eventful decade that saw the Giants win a Super Bowl (1991), the Rangers (!) and Devils win back to back Stanley Cups (1995 and 1995), and the Yankees win four world championships.
Since then, however, the Yanks have lost two World Series, the Mets have underachieved spectacularly, the Knicks and Rangers have declined precipitously and the Jets have retained their image of perpetual heartbreakers. Even the Giants looked like a team in decline in last season’s playoff lost to the Eagles, raising doubts about whether their young quarterback Eli Manning has another ring in him.
As if to drive home the whole declension thing, last week’s faux Subway Series had all the charm and tension of a consolation round in the World Baseball Classic. Neither team was in first place; worse, their hated rivals—the Red Sox and the Phillies — were ahead of them. The Yankees won two out of three but could hardly be satisfied with their performance. As for the Mets, well, they lost one game when their second baseman, Luis Castillo, dropped a pop-up, and they lost another when their ace pitcher, Johann Santana, served up batting practice.
So if you are a sports fan in New York and you are scouring a barren landscape in search of excellence—world-class, history-making excellence—relax. Shrug off those dropped pop flies, those gruesome earned run averages, those bitter premonitions of another disappointing fall and winter.
Tiger Woods is in town. And it shouldn’t matter if your idea of an oxymoron is the television announcer’s use of the phrase “golf action.” If you appreciate epoch-defining talent, if you believe that the world’s greatest stars deserve the world’s greatest stage, it is your duty as a New Yorker to embrace the planet’s most-famous athlete as he seeks to win the United States Open for a second time at Bethpage Black on Long Island.
More than a generation ago—a lifetime ago—it was said that rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for General Motors. Today the measure of corporate athleticism, or athletic corporatism, is not the Yankees, but Tigers Woods Inc. Rooting for him is like rooting for Microsoft. He is a walking board room. He can be joyless. He is determined to wipe out, not simply defeat, the competition. But he also happens to be a talent like no other in his chosen line of work. New York likes to think of itself as the place where talented people come to achieve great things. That being the case, Tiger Woods should be the city’s unofficial entry at Bethpage beginning Thursday.
In the lead-up to this week’s business, Phil Mickelson was said to be New York’s sentimental favorite, in part because of the recent announcement that his popular wife, Amy, is suffering from breast cancer. Even before that news, the enigmatic lefty was considered a virtual hometown hero based on the reception he received at Bethpage in 2002, when fans serenaded him with a raucous version of “Happy Birthday” on the 17th green of the final round. It was a nice gesture, for sure, but it was meant to cheer him up, not cheer him on. By the time he hit his tee shot on No. 17 in the red-tinged dusk of championship Sunday, Mickelson’s chances of overtaking Woods had disappeared like a wayward tee shot in ankle-deep rough. A few ill-timed bogeys dispatched him to runner-up status, a place he has maintained for most of this decade while Woods has piled up enough hardware to fill a big-box store.
It pains me to admit as much, for I’ve developed an inexplicable attachment to Mickelson based on our shared left-handedness — we are a small band of brothers, we lefty golfers—and his generosity with fans. Woods passes through a crowd without making eye contact. Mickelson passes through a crowd without missing an outstretched hand, or so it seems.
But rooting for Mickelson is not for the faint of heart—a lead in his hands is no safer than it is in Yankee Stadium, baseball’s answer to Cape Canaveral. And as Mickelson edges closer to the great sporting divide—age 40—his best years may be behind him. He has never emerged to be Tom Watson to Tiger’s Jack Nicklaus, although, to be fair, nobody has. In golf, there is Tiger Woods, and there is everybody else. Even Roger Federer, the Tiger Woods of tennis, has had to face down serious competition over the last two years. Tiger is the lord and master of his sport, the stuff of legend.
Mickelson will tug at my golfer’s heart this week, but I’ll be cheering for Tiger–inaccessible, inhumanly focused Tiger–and for the kind of talent that comes around once in a lifetime. Who knows when New York will get another chance to see Tiger in his prime? After four U.S. Opens in the area in this decade, it’s unlikely that we’ll see another any time soon. Tiger is 33 years old now. He occasionally pulls out a 5 wood, a classic old man’s club, and it has been years since he was the tour’s most-impressive driver of the ball. If seven or eight years pass before he comes this way again, he’ll be on the back nine of his historic career.
So if you’re looking for the sort of brilliance that reminds you why you cheer, and why you care, put aside those box scores this week and spend some quality time in front of a television set. Watch the guy who wears a red shirt on Sunday. There’s nobody like him in the world.