Saturday, 18 July 2009

Woods, Federer and The Quest for Perfection...

Tiger Woods has failed to make the cut at the Open in Scotland this week.

If you even know what 'making the cut' means, you're more of an golfing aficionado than myself. I had to go and look it up.

But whether you're an aficionado or not, you'll understand how seismic it is for Woods not to be involved in the latter stages of a Major.

A bad day at the office...
(Photo: Getty)

Put simply, as the first two days of a four day major begin to draw to a close, the officials designate a cut-off point: a score competitors must not exceed in order to remain in the event (golf rewards lower scores, as it means you've used fewer strokes to make those holes - something even
I knew :P). That'll mean that only around 25-30 from an initial field comprised of maybe 70 players will remain in the latter two days of the event.

This is probably the first and last time you'll find a golf-related posting being made here.

But I think it warranted mentioning, as it's apparently only the second time this has happened in the context of the Majors during his entire professional career (the other followed the death of his father at the US Open in 2006, which would have to be considered extenuating circumstances), and with all the recent comparisons being made between Federer and Woods, I feel merits further examination (as well as giving me an excuse to make some other comparisons between the two sports, on the back of the ramshackle base of my fairly sketchy golfing knowledge).

To put the result into context, the equivalent would be for Federer to not make the second week of a Slam, crashing out in round two or three in a raggedy bout of ill-humoured play.

I know that comparing different sports is not always greatly meaningful, but I'm going to do it anyway, because as minds both more enquiring and nobler than my own have frequently observed, I can.

The Open, or 'the' Open, to give the event it's more accepted name in the UK, is one of Golf's four majors, the only one held outside the US.

American hosts may unwittingly, and justifiably, refer to events held in their own country as 'the Open', but I'm still not convinced the use of the lower case 't' by the media here, isn't in part, a subtler form of reverse prudery. A surreptitious 'bigging-up' of one's own event.

Yes I know it's recognised as 'The Open' by an entity no less than the PGA itself, and that there's grammatically no other casual way of referring to it.

But how uber-confident do you have to be in your home event's already very singular sounding name, when you can afford to lower the case of it's definite article?

Let's not forget that even after all these many years,
Wimbledon continues to distinguish itself (and perhaps more surprisingly, continues in some quarters to be referred to) as 'The Championships'.

However, having said all of that, I'm siding with my homies on this one,
in a somewhat short-lived wave of patriotic fervour.

In tennis at least, the sport's major events are held in four different countries. But if the US has somehow found it's way to hosting three of the four Golfing Majors, we're well within our rights to have ours termed 'The Open' - and to
drop the capital 'T' as and when it suits us.

But enough of that. the Open, is held at a number of locations in Scotland and England, and this year it's Turnberry's turn, in southwestern Scotland.

I mention that because it might help explain why some of the course's holes are named the way they are. But you needn't adopt a Glaswegian accent, to understand why my favourite names are, 'Fin-Me-Oot' and 'Roon-the-Bend'.

Spend a little time and you might even catch (or in the case of Tiger Woods, and Ana's squeeze Adam Scott, have caught) Reteif Goosen, Vijay Singh and Jim Furyik long-putting their way on '
Duel in the Sun', 'Tappie-Toorie' and 'Ca'Canny'.

Absolutely love it.

And no I'm not about to suggest that we begin renaming our sport's best known arenas around the world in this way (though you have to admit that there's something immensely satisfying in knowing that Juan Monaco defeated Tommy Robredo in the 'Tickly-Tap' Arena this week; or that Soderling blasted his way past Vinciguerra out in the '
Woe-be-Tide' Stadium).

For one thing, tennis courts (surfaces and climatic variation not withstanding) are the same wherever you go. What makes such wonderfully colourful names possible for Golf holes, is their manifold variation; a carefully tailored mix of nature, prevalence of hazards,
mood as well as climate and locality, that's designed to reward the more tactically astute styles of play.

Given such personalised attention to crafting courses, suddenly the idea of naming a hole 'Endless Bite' or 'Postage Stamp' doesn't seem that far-fetched after all.

I also don't think we're quite ready (rightfully) to let go of the time-honoured tradition of naming tennis's most prestigious arenas after the sports's more illustrious personages.

However I do think the time has come to recognise and make amends, where we've fallen woefully short. And maybe there, it wouldn't hurt to factor in some of that colourful
golfing inspiration.

There's plenty of unimaginatively named courts on tour, but I think the worst offender by far, especially considering it's fifth Slam pretensions, has to be Indian Wells' daringly named 'Stadium Court'.

Which dunderhead came up with that one? I could have done better than that. It's like hosting the FA Cup final at a venue called 'Arena Pitch'.

I also think, and this one's more controversial, that it's time to rename Wimbledon's Court One. Centre Court is an iconic part of the tennis landscape, and continues to be an important feature of players' careers (both past and present), and of the fans' fevered imagination. You don't mess with history.

But the other showcourt, Court One, sounds like something I'm used to putting my name down for at my local tennis club, or one of those untended park courts where you can play a different sort of 'grass court tennis'.


I suppose it's all part of that image that seeks to project a pristine and uniquely understated elegance, unsullied by corporate sponsorship:
'Slazenger' is the only Sponsor's name you'll see over the entire two weeks.

But would it be out of place for me to point out that Wimbledon's attempts at minimalism must at least know some bounds if it allows for the event's officials to sport those rather dapper Ralph Lauren uniforms? Not to mention the amount of corporate hospitality that goes on behind the scenes.

Besides, I think the 'Bunny Austin' Arena or the 'Fred Perry' Stadium chime rather well historically. What exactly is so mainstream about that?

But I digress. Quite astonishingly.

After all, we're meant to be discussing all things 'Wooderer'.

What I find perhaps more surprising than anything is Woods' own explanation that nothing other than a bad day at the office was to blame.

"No doubt I'm frustrated, it just didn't happen for me," he said. "I played three holes very poorly.

"Up until the 7th I was doing fine, I was where I needed to be, but bogey, bogey, double bogey got me going the wrong way.

"Until 8 I felt I was in there for the tournament. I thought if I could finish under par I might finish the day in the top 10. But I didn't, I went the other way.

"I birdied two of the last four and I think that's not going to be enough. You can't make mistakes and expect to not only make the cut but also try and win a championship."

(Source: BBC)

Or perhaps more succinctly:

“I know how to win majors: you have to play clean,” he said. “I just couldn’t do that here.”

(Source: The Times)

I'd hazard a guess that Federer didn't think he'd been playing that 'cleanly' coming into the French Open this year. Or for that matter, for much of 2008.

So much has been written on the subject of how similar these two champions are. But I think that last quote by Woods there is the most revealing of all.

When he speaks of playing 'cleanly' he's not referring to subjugating the field with the razzle-dazzle strokeplay he's famous for. Though there's plenty of that on offer too whenever you watch Federer
or Woods.

He's seems to be alluding more to that higher ideal, that mixture of on-demand accuracy and fluency of execution, that have enabled both him and Federer to post such intimidating numbers over the last decade, and blow away the rest of the field almost as an unintended side-effect.

A 'quest for perfection', you might call it.

You get a sense of this, even in his earlier comments. You might think that Woods is a little presumptuous in the way in which he speaks of finishing in the top ten in the same breath as discussing why the preponderance of his very own set of UFEs, led to him not making the cut.

But like Federer, Woods is probably best placed to 'take what you give him', ready to pounce on any opportunity presented. It probably seems to him a mere natural step, to go from cutting out those horrible errors to finishing up in the top ten: transforming a particularly ugly spell of play, into a winning opportunity in the blink of an eye.

But beyond that I think Woods, like Federer is a hybrid of the best traits of a whole host of top players, while also being an entity unto himself.

It's interesting to note -- and yes being as uninitiated as I am, I had to go to Wikipedia for this, which is also an entity unto itself -- that his approach at it's core, is cautious - his dominance comes
not from regularly posting extremely low rounds, but instead from avoiding bad rounds.

You might think that attention to consistency reads like Lleyton Hewitt's genetic blueprint, but let's also not forget how Woods shocked the golfing world in his earlier years with those monstrously long drives of his, the accuracy of which made necessary the so called 'Tiger-Proofing' of courses: adding yardage to their tees in an effort to slow down long hitters like Woods. A bit like the slowing down of the grass at Wimbledon, maybe?

Just how much of a 'grinder' can he be with weapons like that?

No, that somewhat low key ability to quietly sustain high levels of play has an enigmatic quality about it that leaves observers unable to explain what they've just witnessed and how he came out on top: an attribute he shares with Federer, but also to a lesser extent with Andy Murray.

Still, when I picture Federer playing, my analytical skills fall far behind my appreciative ones. On dozens of occasions I’ve tried to describe to myself how he won a particular match. Often all I can visualize is Federer patiently slicing his backhand from behind the baseline, and then . . . winning the set 6-3. But this year’s French Open and Wimbledon crystallized for me what it is that he does better than anyone else, on and off the court: He takes what you give him.


This 'taking what is given' is what Murray is all about, though not in the same way as Federer and Woods of course, and sometimes to his own detriment. But it's a style of play that's allowed him to subjugate the rest of the field with impressive regularity.

Looking through Woods' achievements I was at first struck by the fact that Woods has only once won three Majors in a year. Not quite Federer like, but it's there that you're forced to recognise Tennis and Golf are two different disciplines: one pits you in one-on-one combat against a selection of the field, the other in a more measured and continuous battle against the
rest of the field.

It's that difference in nature that gives rise to such disparities. Hardly surprising it should prove more difficult to sustain high levels of achievement in such circumstances.

But the year Woods won those three Majors, he also went on to win the fourth that eluded him at the beginning of 2001, making him the only player of the modern era (which in Golfing terms I understand, begins around 1960) to hold all four concurrently - the so called 'Tiger Slam' (which like it's Serena counterpart in tennis couldn't strictly be termed a 'Grand Slam' as it wasn't achieved in a calendar year).

Incidentally I also came across this bit of information in his Wikipedia bio:

He plays fewer tournaments than most professionals (15–21 per year, compared to the typical 25–30), and focuses his efforts on preparing for (and peaking at) the majors...

Which to me also sounds quite a bit like Serena, and Federer too. Except that is, when you complete the sentence.

...and the most prestigious of the other tournaments.

And then the similarity is reduced back to only Federer once again.

There's plenty of other similarities and parallels I could quote, such as Woods astonishing record from 1998-2005 of making
142 consecutive cuts (which, if you've been paying attention, should now be able to define), that mirrors with a kind eerie precision, Federer's record of 21 consecutive Slam Semis, achieved from 2004-2009 (and counting).

But more interestingly I thought, they both have what we in tennis have come to know as 'The Aura'. And what's more, I've got the numbers to prove it. Well an enigmatic lady that goes by the name of 'Jenny' does actually.

A related effect was measured by economist Jennifer Brown of the University of California, Berkeley who found that other golfers played worse when competing against Woods than when he was not in the tournament. The scores of highly skilled (exempt) golfers are nearly one stroke higher (i.e. less valuable) when playing against Woods. This effect was larger when he was on winning streaks and disappeared during his well-publicized slump in 2003–04. Brown explains the results by noting that competitors of similar skill can hope to win by increasing their level of effort, but that, when facing a "superstar" competitor, extra exertion doesn't significantly raise one's level of winning while increasing risk of injury or exhaustion, leading to reduced effort.

There you have it: Statistical proof of The Aura's existence, and the so called 'Weak-Era' theory partially* debunked in a single shot by a number-cruncher from Berkeley. That sort of thing doesn't happen everyday.

What else? Woods is chasing Niklaus' 18, which most reasonable minded folk expect him to make. Fed has already achieved 15. Excuse me, that one you probably did already know.

Ok then, Woods is considered the Greatest Closer of All Time, with Jack Niklaus, for the time being at least, sharing Fed's GOATly status. I wonder who the best ever closer is in tennis?

One other thing Woods shares with Federer is his share of critics. There's those who believe he's been nikefied, that his dominance is bad for the sport, that he's not a good role model, that he's not modest enough; there's even those (though not as many as there are in tennis thankfullly) that consider his success to be due in large part to a 'weak-era'.

Nice to know we don't suffer alone.

* There is of course a lot more to be debunked, but that sadly lies beyond the scope of this post.
blog comments powered by Disqus


All images on this site have been found in the public domain.
Credit has been given wherever possible.
If you feel your copyright is being infringed upon by any particular image, please contact me and I'll have it taken it down.

You Said...

Powered by Disqus

Receive Updates by Email...

Enter your email address:

  © Free Blogger Templates Spain by 2008

Back to TOP