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Parity breeds mediocrity

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The analysis of parity is an interesting exercise, although one is not drawn to it so much out of hysteria – like that which makes us examine genius – as they are of mild annoyance. Parity exists not just in golf, but everywhere, with few exceptions. The reasons for it can be debated ad nauseam but I can’t help but think it involves the incessant need to copy or to conform, breed out individuality. Idiosyncrasies are ridiculed, singled out as an error instead of what they are, the origin of superiority.

For years I have listened as people have said that Tiger Woods has made everyone better and I have bitten my tongue because we all want to believe that. The facts suggest the contrary. With Tiger nowhere in sight for significant honors on Tour last year, the highest scoring average in over two decades won the Vardon Trophy, the lowest earning total led the money list since post-Tiger TV contracts, the fewest wins led to Player of the Year honors in over a decade and the lowest point total led the world rankings since its inception in 1986.
For 15 years, Tiger has been driving an express train and everybody on Tour has been riding on the roof. This year’s record number of playoffs is further evidence of the fallacy of the conferred improvement on the PGA Tour. I won’t argue that there are more good players in professional golf but in an effort to be more like Tiger, there is a homogeneous epidemic that robs players of their chance to be great.

Imagine if Jack Nicklaus' flying right elbow was brought into submission by a coach with a video camera to expose the “flaw” or if Lee Trevino’s open stance was squared up and his strong grip was made neutral by a guru who had studied Euclid and spewed out philosophy so as to prove his relevance. Imagine if Tom Watson’s shut face position at the top were corrected to bring his “wild” game under control and we were told that it was a better swing that would get better with reps. En masse players around the globe are going to teachers and coaches and doctors of science and psychology to find the secret when the secret stares them in the face in the mirror every morning.

This phenomenon exists everywhere and as I watched the Preakness, and yet another year without a Triple Crown winner, it occurred to me that even horses might be subjected to the plight of the Tour player. Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown but none since Affirmed in 1978 which, at 33 years, is the longest drought since the Triple Crown became possible in 1919.

Perhaps no horse had more luster or mystique than Secretariat who in 1973 achieved something known as negative splitting (running each quarter faster than the preceding one) en route to winning both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, establishing records in both that still stand. Secretariat sired some 600 foals, one of them Canadian Bound sold for $1.5 million. Canadian Bound was a complete failure and though some of Secretariat's offspring have had success, not a single horse in the top 10 of the 100 greatest racehorses off all time was born after 1976, suspiciously about the time that Secretariat began standing at stud. Perhaps, the incestuous world of horse racing has brought about more good horses but it seems clear that it that it has resulted in fewer great ones.

The racehorse community worries about waning ratings in their sport because they know that in the absence of greatness comes the absence of interest. The same is true on the PGA Tour, and while I have tremendous respect and admiration for the players who fight the competitive battles that could cost them their job, I am drawn to the player who has not had their instincts coached out of them. The player who swings differently and thinks differently has the best chance of separating himself from those caught in the cage of conformity. It takes a strong will for a player to believe their way is the right way and that’s why so many great champions were perceived as “know-it-alls,” arrogant, prima donnas or entitled but great athletes are different.

The secret lies not in copying their moves but in understanding the strong belief that it took for them to resist the pressures for them to change. That is the difference between an age of parity and the flare of brilliance, between interest and hysteria.