Jul. 20, 2015
Tiger's struggles reminds us that greatness is fleeting
As I watched Tiger Woods flub and dub his way around St. Andrews during Thursday's opening round of the 2015 Open Championship, it dawned on me. Perhaps the saddest thing in sports is seeing a great athlete lose his/her greatness.
And that is precisely what has happened to Woods, who sucked all of the air out of the world of golf when he turned pro late in the 1996 season, following a remarkable amateur career. For the first 15 years of his career there was not a better golfer, ever. He won 14 majors, and dominated every important event and milestone the game has to offer.
Even now, despite his incredible fall from the No. 1 player in the world to currently No. 241 there is only one other player who compares, and that is Jack Nicklaus.
But Woods has lost his greatness, just as Muhammad Ali, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Johnny Unitas and a host of other great athletes lost theirs. Watching Woods look _ with all due respect _ like a weekend hack at times, is really only the latest example that greatness has an expiration date.
Athletes lose their greatness for different reasons, but in the end they all lose it.
Consider that Mays, the brilliant New York-San Francisco Giants center fielder, played from 1951 until 1973. He left a stunning trail of accomplishments that few will ever come close to matching. But in the waning days of his career with the New York Mets, he was a shell of himself at the plate, batting a measly .211. Looking back, it should've been a crime to put him in the lineup.
If there was one man who could Mays with spectacular play after spectacular play, it was center fielder Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees. Mays or Mantle? That was the argument during their prime in the '50s and '60s. Of course, you couldn't lose with either one of them in their prime. Injuries and a hard living lifestyle played a role in Mantle, who struggled with an alcohol problem, thus losing his greatness.
Muhammad Ali, in my mind the greatest athlete of the 20th Century, stayed in the ring too long. The man who lost to Trevor Berbick in his final fight in 1981, was nothing like the brash, brilliant, scintillating, young man who talked of black pride, and knocked out Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title in 1964, and then go on to become an icon for black folk and poor people.
John Unitas is still seen by many as the greatest quarterback in the history of the National Football League. During his prime with the Baltimore Colts, he was Peyton Manning before there was Peyton Manning. He dissected NFL defenses with the precision of a skilled surgeon.
His passing wizardry helped usher the NFL into our homes, and build the brand that it is today. Ask NFL historians what the greatest game is, and most will tell you it occurred in 1958, when Unitas engineered Baltimore to an epic, sudden death victory over the New York Giants, as a national television audience watched in their living rooms. The NFL has not been the same since that day. However, by the time Unitas left the game in 1973, as a quarterback for the San Diego Chargers, there was nothing left in his cannon arm. Eighteen years in the NFL took a toll on him.
By the way, if you are too young to remember some of these athletes, I suggest going on You Tube. Trust me, they were transcendental players, who would have been superstars at any time, in any era.
There are countless more great athletes that lost their greatness. It is unavoidable. In most instances time steals the magic, and injuries, and sometimes lifestyle choices. Whatever the case may be, at some point, the greatness dissipates.
Now, as bad as Tiger Woods looks today, I am not going to say he never wins again. Golf is the cruelest and most perplexing sport. You can go to bed one night a great player, and wake up the next day and lose it all. It's a sport that can click for the good or bad, at any moment. It only takes one good, or bad, swing thought.
Nonetheless, the greatness will go. Consider only one of the great Arnold Palmer's 62 PGA Tour victories came after his 40th birthday. Major champions David Duval and Ian Baker Finch lost their games at young ages.
Certainly, you can make the case that Woods' lifestyle has played a role in his demise, or the rash of injuries that have plagued him since he won his last major in 2008. It is more than likely a combination of things, including injuries, over thinking his swing, and an ego that let's him think he can still pump it out there with the younger generation, causing him to over swing with his driver.
Whatever it is, he has lost his greatness. Perhaps he can recapture it.. I will not put it past him. But he is definitely on the clock, and the alarm clock may have already gone off.
The good thing about this is they will remain great in our minds. Mays and Mantle can still hit bombs, and Ali dances as pretty as ever. Johnny U. can still find Ray Berry, and Tiger can still roar (and, at least the PGA Tour players have a second life on the Champions Tour).
Their magic will live on in our recollections, historian's chronicles, and the respective halls that will forever enshrine their accomplishments.
Nonetheless, watching the greatness go is a sad endeavor.
(Follow me on twitter: Rickey Lamar Hampton@Bighamp76)