The next few days are going to be hard on millions of thumbs. Sports fans all across the land will be wearing out their remotes switching between the PGA championship and five games between the Yankees and the Red Sox. With Phil and Tiger going head-to-head in Medinah, the weekend looks set to be a fine show of competition.
The Red Sox-Yankees dispute is baseball’s most durable rivalry, and these five games will be seasoned with a little extra intensity. New York is only a game-and-a-half ahead of Boston in the standings. For baseball traditionalists, a tight pennant race, late in the summer, between these two teams, is almost as sweet as first love. That the Red Sox Curt Schilling will be pitching against the Yankee Mike Mussina in the fourth game makes for anticipation almost unbearably intense. Millions will report to the office emotionally spent on Tuesday morning, and a few will be feeling a kind of sullen gloom. Losing these games is hard; you don’t bounce back the way you would after dropping one to, say, Toronto. Which is in Canada, after all, where they weren’t even playing baseball when the Sox let Babe Ruth get away to the Yankees. Southerners got over Gettysburg (another Yankee win) faster than Sox fans came to terms with that one.
Beating out the Yankees for the American League championship a couple of years ago, in one of the great comebacks in the history of sport, was supposed to have driven a stake through the heart of the curse. The Red Sox — and more to the point, their fans — were now free from the bondage in which they had been held by the hated and superior Yankees.
Not hardly. In rivalries such as this one, the thing is never settled. As in Valhalla, after every battle, the dead rise and rejoin the ranks and the armies get after it once more. The thing never dies, it is too wonderful.
The contest on the other channel, the PGA Championship, is the last of golf’s four major tournaments. The others are the Masters and the two Opens, one of which is played in the U.S., the other somewhere in the British Isles. The one here is called the “U.S. Open.” The other one is simply the “Open,” owing to the fact that it has been around a lot longer.
It is the nature of the game that golfers don’t really compete against each other (this was less true in the days of match play). To win in big-time tournament golf, you must master yourself and then the course. All the other players are trying to do the same.
Still, it is a competition, and competitions seem to breed rivalries. There seems to be some deep human attraction rivalries; and perhaps we draw some kind of emotional sustenance from pulling for Hector over Achilles. Wellington over Napoleon. Time over Newsweek. Coke over Pepsi. The Beatles over the Stones. Ali over Frazier. Alabama over Auburn. Maybe we’re just genetically hard-wired for conflict, and rivalries are how we dress it up and give it some poetry.
Whatever… There is something undeniable about our need for rivalries. And even in golf.
Once there was Palmer and Nicklaus. Now there is Woods and Mickelson. There are a lot other golfers playing the Medinah course outside of Chicago this weekend, but they are, in the narrative of sports writers and fans from sea to sea, “the field.” The contest is between Tiger and Phil.
Tiger, of course, is pretty clearly the best ever to play the game. Nicklaus still has the numbers on him (tournaments won, majors won, etc.) but Tiger has plenty of time to catch up If he fails, it will be because of injury or apathy. He is a superb physical specimen — maybe the most athletic looking golfer ever — so an injury seems unlikely. And his concentration has wavered so seldom that when he lost focus after the recent death of his father and missed the cut at the U.S. Open, fans were astonished at his distraction. After taking a few weeks off, he won the Open in a show of steely concentration that would be the envy of a test pilot.
Phil Mickelson, meanwhile, had won the Masters in the spring and looked as if he might make it three majors in a row (having won the PGA in 2005) by holding on to the lead at the Open, in spite of playing erratic golf, especially off the tees. He knocked his drive on the next to the last hole of the tournament into a garbage can, but was still in the lead when he stepped up to the 18th and final hole.
He was playing badly, to be sure, but it seemed like something more magisterial than a loose golf swing was at work. Character and fate and all the Greek stuff were lurking, making sure that Mickelson blew it.
When it was over, he apologized to his fans for letting them down. It would never have occurred to Tiger to do something like that, but, then, it would never have occurred to him not to win a tournament when leading going to the last hole. Especially not a major.
Yet, despite such differences, Phil is his rival. They are close enough to parity in raw talent that either could win this weekend — or on any other. They are opposite enough in temperament to make it a fascinating rivalry. Phil plays with a smile, as though he considers it a kick to be golfing for a living. Walking the fairways, Tiger looks like a gunfighter on his way to work. Tiger is disciplined and bold when he needs to be. Phil is impulsive and a swashbuckler. When Tiger is off his game, he will bear down and take what the course gives him. Phil will double down and try to cut a dogleg to steal a stroke. The golfers in the gallery love Phil. How could they not, golf being about misfortune more than glory? The sports purists love Tiger. He has the soul of a champion.
They are playing together the first two days of the tournament. (The third member of their group is Geoff Ogilvey, winner of the U.S. Open that Mickelson let slip away.) On the tournament’s first day, all three of them came in at three under par and a couple off the lead. We’ll see how they do on Friday. It is possible that Tiger and Phil could be paired through the weekend and that they will go into the back nine, head to head, for the championship.
For the fan who can survive the stress of that, there will still be two more Red Sox-Yankees games to play.
It’s going to be a brutal four days.
—Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.