My younger daughter’s third-grade basketball team finished its season undefeated a few sunsets ago, and not because I was the coach. We had three girls who basically could score at will, and since all three had strong wills, we never were seriously threatened. In our first two games, however, the people who ran the gym refused to keep score.
“It has nothing to do with winning and losing at this level,” I was told.
Seven years later, pro golf has a guy who just reached the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking by finishing bogey-bogey and losing in a playoff to a guy ranked 186th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting. There’s another guy, perhaps the greatest player ever, telling us that his winless 2018 might be the best season of his career. Then there’s the Ryder Cup captain who used three of his four picks on players who combined for one victory during the two-year qualification process.
So, Vince Lombardi was right. Winning isn’t everything, and at this rate, it won’t mean anything by the time my daughter is old enough to survive in the real world. We’ve become very adept at rationalizing the act of coming up short, which works rather nicely in a game that makes superstars of those who win 10 percent of their starts.
Golf is the only sport in which failure is not defined by losing. Collect five or six top-10 finishes and another small pile of top 25s, as Emiliano Grillo has done this season on the PGA Tour, and you’re looking at $2.5 million in earnings without coming all that close to a victory. Grillo did nothing at the majors and qualified for just one World Golf Championship. He doesn’t miss many cuts, however, which is why he averaged almost $100,000 per start and made it all the way to Aronimink and last week’s BMW Championship before running out of playoff gas.
Yes, winning a golf tournament is very difficult, but every week, somebody has to do it. The latest champ is a resurrected Keegan Bradley, who emerged with his first triumph in six years because Rory McIlroy couldn’t make a 5-footer and Justin Rose couldn’t play the 18th hole. Bradley’s heroics emitted a feel-good factor so distinct that NBC analyst Johnny Miller was seen wiping away tears at the end of the telecast.
You know we’re getting soft when the peacock of pessimists starts bawling in the booth.
Rose climbed to No. 1 in the world by finishing second, which is why the world ranking needs another mathematical overhaul and an arbitrative source to oversee its mechanics. How can a guy who has won three major titles in the past 16 months not preside atop the list? What Brooks Koepka has done is historic. Rose is an excellent player having a terrific season, but just one of his four victories since last fall was notched against a premium field.
And if you can’t close the deal? Close is close enough. Rose’s garden is full of runner-up finishes. Solo seconds in Boston and Philly each earned him more world-ranking points than his T-2 at the British Open, which defies logic. The Englishman might be the game’s most consistent player, but Koepka clearly has outperformed everyone at the tournaments that matter most.
Koepka and Padraig Harrington are the only guys to win three majors in six starts since Tiger Woods, who has begun to reflect on his successful comeback with a dash of hyperbole. “This has been one of my best years, considering that I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Woods said of qualifying for next week’s Tour Championship. “I just didn’t have a clue.”
Rewarding? Satisfying? Surprising? Yes, yes and yes. Woods certainly has ample reason to trumpet his accomplishments over the past eight months, but comparing 2018 favorably to any of the half-dozen or so years in which he dominated is preposterous. Any man with 79 Tour victories, including 14 major titles, never should lower his standards to the point at which he is fully content with a winless season. Not with a clear conscience, anyway.
The Tiger of 2005 would not have been mentally capable of such a cheery big-picture assessment. Above all, the Dude in the Red Shirt portrayed himself as a competitive hitman whose sole purpose was to intimidate, demoralize and beat competitors like a conga. Just because he’s a kinder, gentler Woods doesn’t lessen the importance of winning a tournament, or alter the opinion that his six top 10s, including two runners-up, have included lapses and errors that he simply wouldn’t have tolerated in his prime.
You know what they say about a Tiger and his stripes. I liked him better before he turned into a llama.
He’ll claim that 80th title soon enough, at which point the comeback will take on a more significant dimension and Woods can focus on Sam Snead’s PGA Tour record of 82 victories. Winning isn’t everything, and it certainly isn’t the only thing, but for crying out loud, Johnny, it should mean a lot more than it does these days.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org