Tiger Woods is favored to win the British Open. This fails to pass the smell test; it feels anachronistic; it feels like saying, “Boy, I am jazzed to go see that new Johnny Depp movie.”
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Three years removed from the Scandal That Sold A Million Tabloids, the common perception has it that Woods’ sense of his own invincibility — maybe his greatest asset as an athlete, that monomaniac instinct only the most dominant of competitors possess — had been shattered by having his scowling face shown next to those of his infidelities for months and months on end.
But Woods has dealt with physical injuries as well as mental and emotional wounds, and he’s 37 now, the same age as another once-transcendent athlete more or less reduced to comic impotency, Alex Rodriguez.
Golfers age better than baseball players, but they still age. Instead of being surprised at Woods’ diminishment, possibly we should be dazzled that instead, he has managed to break the Top 5 in five majors since seven billion people were able to listen to him specify that he didn’t want turkey unless it was a club sandwich.
And yet, here he is, favored to win the British Open, a tournament he hasn’t won since 2006, when he won it for the second year in a row. Here he is, favored to win again after being favored to win in this year’s Masters and U.S. Open, where he tied for fourth and tied for 32nd, respectively. Considering the field, it is not inconceivable that Woods, even battling an elbow injury that he insists no longer bothers him, could string together four good days of golf. That’s sort of the point.
As an object of gambling, golf might be the sports’ world’s most exotic arena, its least knowable enemy. There are a few reasons for this. First, in terms of its competitive nature, golf is remarkably, almost perfectly simple. From here stems the whole charm of the game, the reason middle-aged men haunt their local courses every weekend and wig-haired teenagers screw around for five hours on 95-degree summer days and retirees make it into their new careers and professional football and hockey and baseball and basketball players seek it out on their off-days — golf is the elemental sport, man or woman against the course.
Considering the argument of many that golf isn’t a sport, it’s from here that that error can be identified: golf, like running and javelin throwing and the other un-games, is sport at its most crucial, one athlete squaring off against an unconquerable opponent. You can never beat the course; you can only try to lose less badly to it.
What golf’s simplicity gives it in terms of range — golf is a sport you can play with the ferocity and focus of an F-16 pilot; golf is also a sport during which you can drink a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon with a cigar hanging from your mouth as you negotiate the sale of your company, Good Beets and Co., to foursome partner Sterling Sterlinghausen’s Best Beets, Inc. — it strips from it in terms of predictability.
Putting aside analytic gambling, which is an entirely different beast that usually deals with multiple bets at once and larger sample sizes, golf has none of the variables that tend to clue a weekend warrior in to where he’s putting his money; no glaring mismatches, no home-and-away record, no institutional consistency at all.
Which leads us to our next problem: there are so many choices. When oddsmakers pick a favorite in a football or baseball or basketball or hockey or soccer game, they have two choices; when they pick a favorite in a boxing match, they have two choices; when they pick a favorite in a men’s tennis Grand Slam, they have four, because there are only four dudes who ever win tennis tournaments. There are 156 golfers teeing off in the British Open on Thursday. Every one of those golfers has a legitimate hypothetical chance of winning the British Open, however small.
Since the last time Tiger won a major, the 2008 U.S. Open, there have been 20 majors and 18 different winners; only Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy have won twice in that span. Going even farther, only Angel Cabrera, Phil Mickelson, and Ernie Els had won a major prior to the 2008 U.S. Open when they won another in the time since. That means that 75 percent of the major winners over the last five years have been first-time champions.
Last and best of all, there’s the issue of the golfers themselves. When you pick a favorite to win a golf tournament, you’re staking your wager, whatever it is — money; bragging rights; your firstborn — on the ego, abilities, and consistency of one human being.
That human being could play the round of his or her life and still be outdone by another human being through no fault of their own. That human being could also suffer the slightest injury, a twinge in their shoulder that throws off the essential mechanics of their swing; or, they could be fixated in their mind on the terrible job a contractor just did repaving their driveway; or, their kid could have chicken pox, they haven’t slept in a week, and the last thing they want to be doing, no matter how large the stage, is playing in a golf tournament thousands of miles from home.
There are no teammates to buoy them up; if something’s wrong for that golfer, that golfer is now fighting that problem as well as the course. And nobody else knows. To the viewer at home, as soon as that golfer solidifies his place outside of the top 10 after the first two days are over, he’s a nonentity.
So: Tiger Woods is favored to win a major again. Have a better idea?