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Golf doesn't relish underdogs

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Twenty years ago on Mother’s Day, legendary CBS golf producer Frank Chirkinian sat in his production trailer reviewing the final day of the BellSouth Classic.

John Daly had won the tournament, birdieing the 18th hole at Atlanta Country Club to beat Brian Henninger and Nolan Henke by a shot.

“Guarantee you we did a big number today,” Chirkinian said. “Daly in the last group, winning it on 18, we’ll double our normal rating for this event.”

He was right.

I had walked all 18 holes with Daly on Saturday and Sunday. He had been paired in the final twosome each day with Henninger.

Henninger was playing in the Tour’s 126-150 category, and having a chance to win a tournament or even finish in the top three made the weekend the biggest of his career – until a year later when he was in the last pairing with Ben Crenshaw at the Masters.

Henninger was the classic underdog: the little guy (5-8, 150 pounds) with a baby face who was trying to earn a fulltime spot on the PGA Tour. There wasn’t a soul – outside of me, his caddie, his wife and his infant daughter – who cared about Henninger that weekend. As far as 99 percent of the fans and media watching were concerned, Daly was playing alone.

“I felt invisible,” Henninger said when it was over. “There were a couple of security guards who made sure I could get from each green to the next tee. I knew (wife) Cathy and (daughter) Carlin were outside the ropes somewhere and I had (caddie) Chris (Mazziotti). That was it. No one else even knew or cared that I was there.”

Knowing all this, I asked Chirkinian why no one was pulling for the underdog.

Chirkinian smiled and said, “Golf’s not like other sports. In other sports, people love a good underdog story. When we (CBS) do the U.S. Open (tennis) and we’ve got a high seed in trouble we know the entire stadium is going to be pulling for the underdog. Golf’s different. People don’t mind if someone they’ve never heard of leads on Thursday or Friday or Saturday. But never on Sunday. They want the names on the leaderboard and, preferably, they want them winning.”

While Chirkinian spoke, I flashed back 13 years to 1981. John McEnroe had just won Wimbledon for the first time, beating Bjorn Borg in the championship to end Borg’s five-year, 41-match winning streak at Wimbledon. Two months later, ranked No. 1 in the world for first time, McEnroe walked on court to play his first-round match in the U.S. Open in a stadium about 10 minutes from where he grew up.

His opponent was Juan Nunez, a qualifer from Chile who was ranked 227th in the world. Somehow, Nunez won the first set in a tiebreak. Everyone in the stadium was on their feet screaming when Nunez hit a winner on set point. Their glee didn’t last very long: McEnroe won the next three sets easily.

“I don’t get it,” McEnroe said after the match. “I know there are some people who don’t like me because of my temper but there were 20,000 people screaming their heads off as if they were related to the guy and an hour earlier they’d never heard his name.”

Would the crowd have stayed behind Nunez if he’d had a real chance to beat McEnroe? You bet. Tennis fans respect their stars but they love upsets. The same is true in team sports. The 1969 Mets are still one of history’s most beloved teams – except in Baltimore. When Butler made the men’s NCAA basketball championship game in 2010 and 2011 no one – other than fans of their opponents, Duke and Connecticut – wasn’t pulling for the Bulldogs.

Several years ago, I wrote a book on the 2003 majors called “Moment of Glory.” The idea came from the fact that three of the four major winners that year had never seriously contended in a major before: Mike Weir won the Masters (beating Len Mattiace in a playoff); Ben Curtis won the British Open while ranked 396th in the world and Shaun Micheel, who had never won on Tour (and hasn’t since) won the PGA. The only well-known player to win a major that year was Jim Furyk. And he had never won a major.

I found the stories of all the players – winners and runners-up – fascinating. When the book came out, Dan Jenkins, the greatest golf writer of our time, asked “Why in the world would you write a book about the worst year in the history of the majors?”

Guess it all depends on your perspective.

Jenkins’ feelings about 2003 may explain why there appears to be near panic in the golf world now about the fact that Tiger Woods is hurt and no one knows when he will return; Phil Mickelson doesn’t have a top-10 finish all year and Rory McIlroy hasn’t won in the U.S. since 2012. About the only result this year that seemed to excite golf fans was Bubba Watson’s win at Augusta. Imagine what people would be saying about 2014 if Jonas Blixt had ended up with the green jacket. (Jordan Spieth would have been a different story because that would have been historic).

Even so, with Woods not playing and Mickelson missing the cut, television ratings took a drastic hit.

There’s a difference in every sport between an excellent player and a star. In golf, Woods is a transcendent star on a completely different level than everyone else. Only Woods brings non-golf fans to golf. Mickelson, McIlroy, Watson, Adam Scott (now that he's a major champion) and Spieth – if he can win a major – occupy the next level. Sergio Garcia, even though he hasn’t won a major, is a star, too, just because he’s been on the radar for good and bad for so long.

Players like Furyk, Justin Rose, Jason Dufner, Martin Kaymer, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and Dustin Johnson fall into another category: names everyone who follows golf recognize but not the kind of names that will drive ticket sales, sponsor sales, TV ratings or media attention – unless Johnson decided to have his fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, caddie for him.

And so, 2014 to date is being labeled the year of the underdog and the groans can be heard from Augusta to St. Andrews and back. People who follow golf don’t want another 2003, they want a Tiger Slam. They don’t want Furyk and Dufner battling it out on the back nine at the PGA Championship, they want Mickelson shooting 66 at Muirfield to rocket past Woods and everyone else on the leaderboard.

They want their stars to contend and to win. They take it personally when they don’t win. Which may explain why Jenkins sat at a table on Saturday night at the Masters this year, looked at the leaderboard and said, “Please don’t make me write about Jonas Blixt tomorrow.”

Blixt is not only a fine player but he’s an extremely nice guy who loves to talk hockey. But I have no doubt Jenkins spoke for the majority. I would have loved to have seen Blixt win. But then, I’m a lifelong Mets fan.