Monday, June 22, 2015

Dustin Johnson and the fatal three putt

Golf can be such a cruel game.  While this sounds like a cliché sports fan utter all the time whether it’s just watching a PGA event or having fun playing a round, Dustin Johnson certainly proved this to be true yesterday.  At the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay it looked like 21-year old Jordan Spieth was going to secure the year’s second major with a three shot lead after 16 holes.

                                                                           Getty Images
Before you could blink, Spieth made a double bogey at 17 followed by a Johnson birdie and the two were tied heading to the 18th tee. If you didn’t know this much by now, you probably at least know how it ended. Spieth made a birdie on the par five 18th and Johnson had to counter to force a full-round playoff which would have been today. Johnson got on the green in two and had a 15-foot eagle putt to win his first major championship.  At the very worst he’ll get a playoff right? Not so fast. Johnson’s eagle putt sailed long leaving him with some work to do for birdie from about five feet out.  After missing the birdie putt, Johnson tapped in for par and Jordan Spieth was the U.S. Open Champion.

Not exactly the way you wanted to see a major end.  Even Spieth was shocked at Johnson’s three putt. Not to take anything away from the youngster who’s playing well above his age, as he is halfway to the grand slam, but all the focus is on Johnson letting it slip away on this day after.

Granted, Johnson didn’t play his best round of golf on Sunday, especially when it came to putting.  The 18th was not the only time Johnson missed a short putt.  But while it’s easy to look at is as a sports fan and say he choked and didn’t deserve to win, it’s hard not to feel for Johnson.  He’s been through a lot in his career. He was suspended for six months from the PGA Tour in 2012 for a failed drug test.  He was disqualified from the PGA Championship in 2010 for grounding his club while on the cusp of victory.  He has finished in the top ten at majors seven times.  But he has never walked away victorious.

Yet, perhaps this would be the time when he got to exercise the demons.  Dustin Johnson had a walk up the 18th fairway at Chambers Bay knowing he would have a putt to win.  Five minutes later, it’s another disappointing finish at a major for the Coastal Carolina product.  As I said, golf is cruel sometimes.

So where does Johnson go from here?  The first comparison I thought of shortly after the dust had settled was Adam Scott.  The supremely talented Australian had his first major seemingly in the bag, but let the 2012 Open Championship slip away making four straight bogies to end his final round as Ernie Els stole the Claret Jug by a stroke.  Scott bounced back to win the 2013 Masters in a playoff over Angel Cabrera to soften the blow from the Open.  Perhaps that will be Dustin Johnson.  He certainly has the talent to win a major and it’s just a question of if he can seal the deal.  Or perhaps yesterday will prove to be a defining moment of Johnson’s career.  Stay tuned.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Triple Crown: An accomplishment regardless of audience

 As Larry Collmus said on Saturday evening as it became evident, “American Pharoah is finally the one!” and just like that 37 years of waiting for a horse to win the sport’s triple crown was all over.  But a lot of the immediate reaction just 48 hours later has not necessarily been about the accomplishment itself but more so, something along the lines of “Do you care?”

                                                           Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Victor Espinoza crosses the finish line at the Preakness
aboard American Pharoah after a rainy day at Pimlico,
The answer to that question should be a yes from all sports fans.  Perhaps horse racing isn’t as popular as it was in the 70s when Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed all took home the sport’s most prestigious award but in no way should that diminish American Pharoah ending the drought. For 37 years, a horse not winning the triple crown was exactly what drew people in.  All eyes were on the Kentucky Derby winner heading into the Preakness and in some cases the Belmont yet it never quite happened until Saturday.  Now that it has it’s not a big deal and no one really cared to begin with?

After watching attempts from Smarty Jones, Big Brown, and California Chrome fall short, and seeing I’ll Have Another get scratched from the Belmont, I can say I was happy I was able to see this happen.  It seemed like year after year we would get teased with the possibility, but ultimately it wouldn’t be enough.  It’s the same narrative every year.  Most of the other horses don’t run in all three races.  The Belmont is the last race and is the longest one so how can a horse who already won the first two legs hold up for the third jewel of the crown when lots of the other horses are fresh? For once, these doubts were brushed aside.

This is the pinnacle of the sport. So yes, if you’re a sports fan, you should care.  All you had to do to care was watch three 2-3 minute races over the span of five weeks to realize what happened and respect it.

Some argue that the mystique of the drought is what drew some in and now that Bob Baffert, Victor Espinoza and the rest of American Pharaoh’s team have ended it, there’s not as much excitement surrounding the sport.  Maybe that will prove to be true.  However, that’s a conversation to have at this time next year when we’re going through the triple crown races again and we can see who cares and who doesn’t now that everyone has already seen the sport’s greatest accomplishment become a reality.  But for now, why not enjoy history?  After all, it might be another 37 years until we see it again.