One of the cruelties of sports is that often times the sad decline of an athlete's abilities and skills are captured on film or video. I can still remember the NFL Films footage of Johnny Unitas playing out the string with the San Diego Chargers around 1974 getting barely tapped by a Pittsburgh Steelers player and stumbling backwards before ending up heels over head on the ground. There is also the film of forty-something Willie Mays falling down while trying to field a routine fly ball for the New York Mets. You also have the dramatized scene from Pride of the Yankees where Gary Cooper portraying Lou Gehrig can't believe that his teammates are congratulating him for making a routine play at first base and realizing that the disease that will eventually kill him has taken a major toll on his skills and that it might be time to sit out a game.
Last night, watching Tiger Woods stumble his way around Chambers Bay golf course en route to a career-worst 80 in the first round of the US Open I flashed back to all of those scenes. Fifteen years to the day that Tiger beat the rest of the field by 15-strokes at the US Open at Pebble Beach, he finished three shots worse than a 15-year old boy that qualified for the tournament as well. And because he is TIGER WOODS, THE ONLY GOLFER CASUAL FANS CARE ABOUT, all 80 of those shots were shown on Fox Television--many of them in primetime.
Tiger's Unitas, Mays or Gehrig "moment" came on the 18th hole when he cold-topped a 3-wood from the fairway (one of the few fairways he hit the entire day) and hit a ground ball that ended up in an 8-foot deep bunker that everyone before the tournament stated that no professional would ever hit it in because of it's location. And sure enough, the only pro to hit it there yesterday was Tiger Woods. But as the ball was rolling into the bunker I heard something that I had never heard before when it comes to Tiger (perhaps because it sounded like Fox gave every patron with their own microphone): the fans were laughing at him. And it was not the "Tiger is laughing at making another unbelievably great shot and we are laughing with him" deal. This was a "Holy crap this guy is terrible" kind of laugh.
Another classic sports shot I'll always remember came from a late December Monday Night Football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears where the camera found the gray-haired Brett Favre sitting on the bench bundled up in a parka and a stocking cap looking like a man who wanted to be anywhere but on an NFL football field on a freezing cold night. And after that grounder into the bunker on 18 I saw that same look on the face of Tiger Woods--he wanted to be anywhere but on a golf course yesterday. And for a man who for more than a decade was nearly unbeatable on that stage to reach that point, you have to wonder how much more he has (or is willing to) give.