A few thoughts on the Masters...
Could Jim Nantz have been any less enthused when Argentina's Angel Cabrera won? After spending five hours raving about every American on the course (except for Chad Campbell, the Crown Prince of Boredom), Nantz sounded like he was announcing a list of dead soldiers as Cabrera tapped in for the classic win. It struck an anticlimactic final note to a thrilling Sunday that saw Tiger and Phil threaten early, Perry amass a late two-stroke lead, and Cabrera triumph after two playoff holes; the vocal flatness was not worthy of the moment.
And it's a shame, because the man they call El Pato (The Duck) showed a lot of grit. After struggling early in the final pairing, he dropped to -10, seemingly out of the story. Tiger and Phil set off fireworks four groups ahead, attracting the lion's share of the gallery and CBS' coverage, while Perry stayed abreast with par golf. Cabrera remained patient when he could have panicked. He did some old fashioned grinding through the middle holes and fought his way to -12 by round's end. After the Tiger/Phil surge ended in failure, and Perry bogeyed 17 and 18, he found himself in a three-way playoff. Most remarkable of all, he survived an awful tee shot on the first extra hole that faded into the right woods. A miracle bounce on his risky second found the ball careening off a tree trunk and back into the fairway, and a beautiful approach with his short iron led to an improbable par save. Perry and Campbell couldn't take advantage, and El Pato used his second life to finish the job on the next hole.
Exciting stuff, but apparently Nantz was too bummed that Perry, who he'd been breathlessly promoting all day, didn't become the 'oldest winner in major history.' I can't find the video online, unfortunately, but anyone who saw the end remembers the reluctant, almost apologetic tone as Cabrera pumped his fist in the waning daylight. It perfectly matched the polite, disappointed clapping of the gallery.
Hey Jim, we know the predominantly white, southern crowd didn't unleash its trademark roar, and we know the good ole boy from Kentucky would have been their preferred winner (which is their right, as fans, and which I don't begrudge), but did you see that isolated battery of Argentine fans, waving their flags and singing to Cabrera? That was pretty cool, too. Imagine if this tournament had been in Argentina, and an American had beat the odds and won amid an ambivalent crowd. You'd probably break out some trademark platitudes then. But I guess empathy isn't your strong suit.
And check out ESPN's front page caption beneath Cabrera's picture this morning:
The '09 Masters will be remembered not for Angel Cabrera's playoff win, but for Kenny Perry's flop and his grace in defeat.
Tell you what, guys: you remember Perry's flop, and his "grace," and the rest of us will remember the guy who held strong, got a little lucky, and donned the green jacket on Sunday night.
Also, isn't "grace in defeat" becoming a ridiculous concept? With so much media coverage, it's almost impossible for an athlete not to be graceful when he or she loses. It'll be a long time before you see a post-match reaction like this:
"It's just a farce. I can't say it any better than that. The course was shit, the crowd was shit, and frankly, I'd be embarrassed to win today," said Perry, after losing the Masters on the second playoff hole. "Angel is not a better golfer. Nine times out of ten, one on one? I beat him. I know it, he knows it, and the rest of these assholes know it. This whole thing is nothing but a fucking joke." Perry grabbed his crotch in a gesture of defiance before continuing. "And it should be for Americans only. Doesn't he have his own Mexican invitational, or wherever he's from?" Perry proceeded to remove his shirt, spit into the camera, and stalk off cursing into Butler Cabin.
It's too bad, because that'd be fun. The closest we ever get is the hilarious petulance of Andy Roddick when he loses in a major.
Staying with CBS for a second, let's examine another Nantz hobbyhorse. Throughout Sunday, he kept reiterating that Perry was feeling no pressure, that he was 'playing with house money.' Apparently, Kenny was so satisfied with his home and personal life, and had such a good Ryder Cup, that feeling any kind of nerves at Augusta was frankly beyond the realm of possibility. Win or lose, he'd still be the world's luckiest man, so why should he worry about something as trivial as his first green jacket?
In case that doesn't sound ridiculous enough, let's examine the stakes: Perry is a professional golfer. The highest goal of any professional golfer is to win a major tournament. If you ask most golfers which major they'd prefer, if they could only win one, 90% would say the Masters. Perry has never won a major, and at 48, will probably not have another good chance. His entire legacy was on the line.
The only human beings who don't feel pressure are sociopaths. And sociopaths usually don't have the drive or desire to become awesome at something like golf. They do things like wear panda costumes and murder strangers with a chainsaw instead. On the other hand, some people do excel under pressure. Here are the two types:
1) Those who have been in so many pressure positions that they're more acclimated than the average Joe. Experience, including the experience of failure, leads to eventual success. And don't get me wrong- experience alone doesn't mean a player becomes increasingly better at dealing with nerves. Look at Greg Norman. But it happens.
2) Badasses. These are guys who care more about winning than anything else in the world. They might be watching the birth of their first child, but deep in their minds they're evaluating how to to tweak their game and grab another advantage. Everything else is secondary. They're single-minded in the pursuit, and ferocious in the execution. Most of them aren't considered "nice," because they're too competitive. These are the Michael Jordan/Tiger Woods types. When the pressure mounts, they don't see a scary situation with a potential failure result; they see a challenge to their ability and their very worth as human beings. They may not always win, but they're never scared, and the pressure usually heightens their performance. They play with a kind of desperation that a sane human being would never associate with sports, and they have very good track records when the heat is on.
For an example of the difference, consider two post-round interviews yesterday.
After playing excellent golf that vaulted him to within two shots of the lead, Phil Mickelson made a stupid mistake on 12 by taking the wrong iron and landing his tee shot in the water. He ended up with a double bogey. On 15 and 17, he missed very short putts for eagle and birdie, respectively. If he'd kept those four strokes, he would have won the Masters by two. But when they stuck the microphone in his face after he finished, he was all smiles. He didn't seem too fazed by his missed putts, he was cordial and affable with the interviewer, and his reaction to the blown chances was basically a shrug of the shoulders.
Mickelson is known for having trouble in majors. He's won three now, but historically he's not a gamer. After starting so strong yesterday, it was obvious he didn't feel much regret at falling short. He'd made his point, nobody could call him a choker, and he was relieved to be off the course.
Tiger, on the other hand, didn't play as well as Phil. He still made up some ground, and after a birdie on 16 to reach -10, he had a legitimate shot at finishing birdie-birdie and entering the playoff mix. Uncharacteristically, he hit poor drives on the last two holes, bogeyed both, and was quickly out of contention. In his interview, he stood ramrod straight, had a cold, distant look in his eyes, and answered every question as tersely as possible. The words came out in detached, staccato bullets. He displayed no emotion except a mild irritation that he had to be interviewed at all. The whole thing lasted a minute, tops.
And that's because Tiger was pissed off. He started the day at -4, seven shots off the lead, with no realistic shot at the green jacket. He had to birdie two very difficult holes at the end to even stand a chance. When that didn't happen, he could've easily taken Phil's approach and viewed the day as an ultimately-empty-but-still-heroic effort. Instead, he was angry at himself and regretted the missed opportunity. A cheerful demeanor was furthest from his mind. Regardless of the circumstance, he always believes in his ability to win, and when it doesn't happen, it's a personal failure that won't be erased until the next major victory.
That's why Tiger is a badass, and it's why he'll end up with more majors than any golfer in history.
But you know who's not immune to pressure? And who may not handle it with complete aplomb? Kenny friggin' Perry. The 48 year-old with no major victories, who's been in contention maybe once in his entire life. Who's never had to deal with the anxiety of holding a lead on Sunday at Augusta. I don't care what kind of personal bliss he experiences every day of his life, or how at peace he is with the greater world. When the last few holes come along, and the idea of being Masters champion starts creeping into your head, you will feel the weight. No exceptions. The real question Nantz should have been asking, as someone who's announced countless tournaments and presumably knows something about pressure performance, is how he'd deal with that weight.
Answer: poorly. He scrambled to save par over and over on the front 9, gathered himself briefly through 16, and then collapsed. He choked, and choked again, and then once more for good measure. And Cabrera won. Time and chance happen to us all, and Sunday belonged to El Pato. His small band of countrymen gave him what love they could, but he deserved more.