The March edition of Golf World U.K. (not affiliated with the U.S. version of the magazine by the same name) featured a long article about eccentric British professional Ian Poulter.
Poulter is best know for his hairstyle that approximates the look of the Sunday rough at the U.S. Open, and a wardrobe defined by a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors not otherwise known in the physical world (interesting then, that Poulter posed sans cloths in the publication, thankfully sparing the populace any more intimate knowledge through the strategic placement of his golf bag). The interview was, to say the least, revealing.
In the interview, Poulter is quoted as saying, The trouble is I dont rate anyone elseI really respect every professional golfer, but I know I havent played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger. He continued, It would be a dream to see Tiger Woods and then me in the world rankings as you look down. Whats wrong with that? Is it being rude? Is it being disrespectful to everybody else? I dont think so.
With the predictable precision of Big Ben, the world golf media pounced on Poulters comments like a lion on a gazelle. Who does he think he is? Was the most common response (paraphrasing) from the global scribes. How dare he challenge Tiger Woods and discount all others in the process? Why, the 32-year-old Poulter has won as many majors as Tiger Woods has won Dancing with the Stars crowns. Exactly none.
So it came as a shocking bit of hubris to the sentries of all things golf-proper that this veteran golf professional that seems to have mastered nothing more than a distinctive look and a golfing resume packed with solid mediocrity that he should challenge Woods. So intense, in fact, was the media lambasting that Poulter released a statement noting, The whole answer to the question has been taken out of context, and therefore, warped its true meaning (few of the news agencies that picked up the story related that Poulter stressed, Tiger is one in a million. Actually, Tiger is one in 10 million. He is extraordinary. If you look at the rankings he is almost two and a half times better than the guy in second place [Phil Mickelson]).
The entire affair was not lost on the World No. 1, mind you, when trudging through his post-round interviews after yet another start, and win, this time at the Dubai Desert Classic (with Poulter in the field), Woods was asked a question about the significance of the space between he and the No. 2 golfer in the world. Woods answered incredulously, asking the reporter, I thought Ian Poulter was No. 2?
The assembled media and the broadcasts hosts all yucked it up as Woods bore his way through the masses, basking in the glow of another stunning victory and leaving yet another upstart seemingly foolish enough to openly voice his aspirations, reduced to dust, both figuratively and in reality.
Trying to place all this into perspective, I initiated an internet search for reactions to those that have been bold enough to verbally challenge Woods position as the best golfer on the planet. The initial quote results were eye opening, to say the least. Here is sampling of some of the responses:
[he] is not bigger than the game.
well, hes a rookie. Hell learn. Youve got to play by the rules [of what is expected of you].
This tournament was one of seven to help him out at the beginning with sponsor exemptions when he needed help, and how quickly he forgot [after withdrawing the day before the first round].
How he goes about scoring from where he hits it -- thats the amazing thing.
Whats really amazing was that these comments were not about upstarts and wannabes; rather, my search criteria must have had a mind of its own, for these comments were about Tiger Woods himself.
What? Who would be foolish enough to pull on Supermans cape, you say?
Well, by order of comment, the first was said by Curtis Strange in response to a cub Tiger pronouncing that his goal was to win every time out. The next pearl came from Hal Sutton in 2001, explaining his mental posture prior to winning the PLAYERS Championship (the full quote is even more impressive, Sutton having said, Tiger Woods is not bigger than the game. The other night I was lying in bed and I said, You know what? Im not praying to him. Hes human just like I am).
None other than Davis Love III uttered the next statement when asked to react to Woods last-minute decision to pull out of the Buick Challenge in his rookie year. In fact, the statement about how quickly he forgot was also by Curtis Strange reacting to the same withdrawal as Love. The last statement was by Stephen Ames on the eve of his 2006 Accenture Match Play Championship match against Woods (which an inspired Woods went on to win by a crushing score of 9 and 8).
Woods, of course, is famous for his ability to channel such comments into laser-like intent; feeding off what he perceives as a slight into crystal clear focus on the field of battle.
Its different. Its not physical, where you can go up there and put a shoulder in somebody and take them out. Its not like that. Its about the ability to bear down and pull out quality golf shots on your own, and you go put an inordinate amount of pressure on your opponent, explained Woods.
Aside from the risks inherent in challenging Woods in a verbal arena, there is another observation that the passage of time allows us. While most of us can feel quite smug about ridiculing anyone that states their intention to challenge Woods, I wonder how many people remember when it was Woods himself that was mocked and ridiculed for his win every time out, or his Hello World, press conference as a wet-behind-the-ears TOUR newbie? Well, 62 TOUR wins and 13 majors later, whos laughing now?
Remember Colin Montgomeries press conference after the second round of the 1997 Masters when he suggested that with his experience (and Woods lack of it) in Majors, that he would be better able to handle the pressure? The next day, Woods shot a 65 to Montys 74, leaving the veteran to comment after the round, Let me tell you this. Tiger Woods is going to win this eventthere is no chancewere all human beings here, no chance humanly possible that Tiger Woods is going to lose this tournament. Woods, of course, went on to win by 12 shots.
Reflecting on Montgomeries comments after the tournament gave some insight into Woods mentality. He basically said I didnt have much of a chance because of my experience level. But I was playing well. I said to Fluff (Woods caddy at that time), He may have said all those things, but he hadnt won a major, either.
Remember when Rory Sabbatini, the oft-maligned, if misunderstood TOUR player, that is quickly becoming the golfer that everyone loves to hate (in a Sports Illustrated poll, he was voted as the least favorite player to be paired with by fellow TOUR golfers - perhaps because he likes to play at a pace that is faster than that of grass growing), when he boldly stated, I want Tigereveryone wants Tiger.
As history has proven, such a brazen pronouncement did not turn out all that well, as Woods overtook Sabbatini in the third round of last years Wachovia to earn yet another victory. However, Sabbatinis post-tournament observations had anything but a conciliatory tone, The funny thing is, after watching him play last Sunday, I think hes more beatable than ever. I think theres a few fortuitous occasions out there (translate: luck) that really changed the round for him at Wachovia. And realizing that gives me even more confidence to go in and play with him on Sunday again.
More recently, a young Australian named Jason Day (who actually credits Woods with being his hero and the person responsible for setting his life on the straight and narrow) announced that when Woods looks into his rear view mirror, it may be him that he sees closing in. He has so much time. He played 16 events, what does he do with his time? Hed be aware of me. Hed be saying, Heres another kid coming up, said Day when asked if he thought Woods knew who he was.
Smelling the sensational scent of a brewing story line, the media sought out Day at Pebble Beach prior to the start of the tournament (Day would finish the event in sixth place) and asked the 20-year-old for more on his objective to overtake Woods.
Obviously, Tiger Woods is the No. 1 right now; hes the benchmark. Whether it takes me five years or 20 years, I would like to hopefully one day achieve that spot. Im still going to work hard. Tiger is Tiger and you cant deny that. He is the greatest golfer. I respect Tiger so much. Hes changed my life in more ways than anyone could have foreseen (this latter comment was in reference to Tiger Woods being Days inspiration to turn his life around after some wayward years following the death of Days father, from cancer, when Day was only 12 years old).
Recently, Phil Mickelson, who cannot escape comparisons to Woods, even if he wanted to, was asked to size up his ability to come out on the winning end of this years majors with Woods standing in his way. Mickelson, clearly sensing the danger of wading into such treacherous waters answered with the deft touch of a political aspirant when he explained that if anyone beats Woods, I hope it is me.
Now, having established that it is clearly detrimental to publicly state ones intention to challenge Tiger Woods perch atop the game, let me make it perfectly clear that I love the fact that some professional golfers have the intestinal fortitude to do it (for havent we all found ourselves complaining that golfers play it too safe, never really saying what is on their mind, always striving to avoid controversy and say the right things). However ill-advised, isnt it refreshing to hear an unvarnished opinion? Shouldnt we strive to celebrate such honesty instead of treating it with scorn?
Tiger Woods march into the record books has given us a chance to watch the making of history right before our eyes, however, I dont think we need to buy into a collective thinking that none other can ever challenge the man that is currently the Worlds best. Whats more, do we want a core of golfers behind Woods who simply collapse and are intimidated before they reach the first tee (which is, for the most part, what we have seen during Tigers run).
However delusional we may feel their visions of grandeur are, I think big thinking should be celebrated. The golf media owe it to the game and to the fans to not simply become part of a larger marketing machine. Wouldnt the fact that it was once widely proclaimed that no one could ever challenge the record of Jack Nicklaus be evidence enough that nothing lasts forever?
While odds are that it will be a long time before Tigers reign is done, the next time a professional golfer is honest enough to state for the record that they intend to dethrone the current king, maybe we should use the lessons of history itself to realize that someday, someone is going to back up the bravado with performance.
It is quite clear that we live in a world of resignation, and that persons with high aspirations are greeted with the unsolicited coaching of youll learn to lower your expectations. However, isnt the first step to becoming a champion about having the conviction that you are capable of doing it, even when the world thinks you are crazy? Just ask Tiger.
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Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a golf journalist, best-selling author (Chicken Soup for the Soul, Fairways of Life) and a golf course general manager. To view Matt's books or sign up for his 'Golf Wisdom Newsletter,'go to www.FairwaysofLife.com.