Tiger and Mario

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If you’re reading this, I’m going to go on the assumption that, much like myself, you’ve consumed a fair bit of Tiger Woods related #content over the last few days. There have been countless articles written and podcasts recorded about his latest comeback, touching on everything from his decision to hit iron on 18 when he had a chance to win, to what it means for both himself and the game of golf going forward. Its been great, and a perfect reminder of the kind of pull that he has over not only the golf world, but sports as a whole. We often hear about how Tiger isn’t just the guy who moves the needle, but that he’s the actual needle itself, and there’s no better example of that than what we’ve seen here over the last few days. He has created a level of buzz that no one else can.

I wasn’t going to write anything about him, and what all of this means, but inspiration struck when I listened to Kyle Porter’s excellent appearance on the No Laying Up podcast on Monday night. In between their usual fits of laughter and Ryder Cup talk, Kyle and Soly talked about parallels between what we’ve seen with Tiger over the last few weeks and other sports legends that have come back from tremendous amounts of adversity to climb the mountain again. As Kyle pointed out, it’s a fascinating topic because I think deep down, all sports fans are intrigued with the idea of seeing a once great athlete figure it all out one last time, even if it is just for a fleeting moment or two.  The reason for that is obvious: the whole “Father Time is undefeated” adage is mostly true, and even if you’re one of the greatest of all-time, it’s really difficult to continue competing at the highest level against players who are faster, stronger and so much younger than you.

For every Roger Federer, there’s a dozen Ken Griffey Jr.’s. The drive, and the will, and the mind might all be there, but without the body to go along with it, none of that matters. While Federer has dealt with his fair share of injuries over the years, his body didn’t betray him the way Griffey’s did, and if you grew up watching baseball in the 90’s, you felt robbed that you didn’t get to see Griffey last even a little bit longer. Less then a month after he missed a pinch hit appearance because he fell asleep in the clubhouse, Griffey retired. He walked away like a lot of other legends did before him, and since that five win season in 2013, we haven’t had a lot of hope that things would be a whole lot different for Tiger Woods. Remember, this is the same guy that just over two years ago, was quoted as saying, “I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy”. Selfishly, as sports fans, we want to see all of our stars go out on a high, but that’s just not feasible.

Tiger’s last few months have shown some promise though, with his performance at the Valspar being the best indicator yet that there’s still plenty of fight, and game, left in the Big Cat. The comparable here for Tiger’s last act might not be Roger Federer, and I think we all hope that it isn’t Wizards-era Michael Jordan, or Griffey.

Enter Mario Lemieux.

Lemieux was the first overall pick in the 1984 NHL Draft, going to the Pittsburgh Penguins when they were in the absolute basement of the NHL. They had the worst record in the league for two consecutive seasons before Lemieux arrived, and were in serious enough financial trouble that there was talk of moving the team. Lemieux’s arrival though was exactly what they needed. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1985, putting up 100 points in 73 games, and while they didn’t make the playoffs for a few years, he made them respectable on his own, and in the years to come, the debate of Lemieux versus Gretzky was a very real one.

The problem, though, was that Lemieux frequently missed time with injuries. Back in the 80’s, the NHL was nastier than it is today, and Lemieux was frequently targeted by opposing players, leading to severe back problems. After a few years of missing games, Lemieux went under the knife to fix a herniated disc in 1990, and over the next couple of seasons, he remained the best player in the league despite missing a ton of time with recurring back issues. If that wasn’t enough, in the middle of arguably his best season in 1993, Lemieux announced that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which kept him out of the lineup for two months while he was undergoing radiation treatment.

He came back from that, but had to undergo a second back surgery before announcing he would be taking a leave of absence because of how tired he was from the radiation therapy. Lemieux would end up taking the whole year off before playing two final seasons and retiring as the only player to average more than two points per game. The Hockey Hall of Fame waived the mandatory waiting period for Lemieux and inducted him as part of their 1997 class. Despite all of the greatness we saw out of Lemieux, hockey fans definitely felt robbed. How could they not?

The next few years were rough for the Penguins, as they had to declare bankruptcy and once again, there was a threat of relocation. Lemieux didn’t want to see the team leave Pittsburgh, so he stepped up and bought the team, but that wasn’t it. In December of 2000, Lemieux came out of retirement in what is still one of my most vivid memories as a sports fan. Sure enough, he still had it.

The next few years saw Lemieux play at an incredibly high level, proving that he was still, somehow, one of the best players in the world. The Penguins weren’t always competitive in those years, and Lemieux still missed time with various injuries, but with 229 points in his final 170 games as a player, it was more than enough as a proper sendoff to one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Oh, and there’s also this, to help Canada win gold at the 2002 Olympics, which is a play that, to this day, I can’t understand.

When Lemieux came back, there was no expectation that he was going to be the best player in the world, but when he put up three points in that first game against the Maple Leafs, it was easy to feel things. We never got peak Mario again, but those 170 games were pretty special, and that feels like where we could be headed here with Tiger.

The guy that won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble is never coming back, and for anyone to really say that they know what the future holds for a 42-year old with a long history of back problems is absurd, but what we’ve seen so far in 2018 feels different than all of the other comebacks.

He’s swinging freely with incomprehensible speed, and at least so far, he doesn’t look to be in any pain. The yips that we saw around the greens a few years ago appear to be gone, and last Sunday aside, the putter is looking great. The irons look very dialled in from every distance, he’s working it in both directions and there’s sauce oozing out of every orifice.

Watching him on the 611-yard 5th hole on Saturday brought back all of the memories. After a drive of 300+ yards in the middle of the fairway, he waited for the green to clear from 283 out, and then unleashed a massive 3-wood that included a step back and recoil that we haven’t seen in years.

It wasn’t exactly the same, but it brought me back to the 2013 Presidents Cup when he blasted a 5-wood onto the 15th at Muirfield, helping to seal the win for him and Matt Kuchar against Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama. In a year of great shots, this one was probably his best.

I’ve thought a lot about that 3-wood from 283 out in the last few days, and how I wasn’t sure that I’d ever see something like that from him again. It was a moment, at least for me, where it became easy to believe that this comeback might actually be real. The way he finished out the week only cemented that belief. It likely won’t ever be the exact same again, but a reasonable facsimile? That’s definitely in play.

The comparison to Lemieux isn’t a perfect one. Many of Tiger’s wounds have been self inflicted over the years while Lemieux’s weren’t, but given what we’ve seen from him over the last few weeks, it’s hard to not respect the amount of perseverance that Tiger has shown to get to this point. Depending on your viewpoint, he’s either the best or second best player of all-time, and he dealt with not only crippling injury, but massive public embarrassment, both on and off the course. The fact that he’s back and playing well is pretty remarkable given the circumstances. He didn’t have anything to prove, and if he walked away, it would have been completely reasonable, and maybe even expected. He didn’t do that, and now it’s looking like we could be in for one hell of a ride in 2018.

We might not get robbed after all.

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