Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tiger vs. Padraig

It's weird that a guy can win two majors in one season and yet still, it seems strange to say he's the PGA Tour player of the year. Yet that's the situation this year with Padraig Harrington. There is nobody (literally nobody) on planet earth who thinks that Harrington is a better golfer than Tiger Woods, or necessarily that he even had a better 2008. And yet, here we are.

Here's Tiger's record for 2008, obviously cut short due to his knee injury.

Buick Invitational: 1st place
WGC-Match Play: 1st place
Arnold Palmer Invitational: 1st place
WGC-CA Championship: 5th place
The Masters: 2nd place
U.S. Open: 1st place

I mean.....good lord. And in his fifth place finish, he only finished two shots back of winner Geoff Ogilvy. So when combined with his three-shot loss to Trevor Immelman at the Masters, Tiger was a mere five shots away from going 6-for-6.

Harrington, obviously, had a lower batting average. His two major wins were his only victories in 15 PGA Tour starts, which also included three missed cuts and four top-fives. Now, I use the term 'his only victories.' They were the friggin' British Open and PGA Championship, so it's not like he's picking up a couple of Fall Finishes cheapo wins or anything. In any other season, two majors is a no-brainer criteria to earn a lad a player of the year.

If I were a voter, I would've picked Harrington too, and here's why. It's all well and good to say that Tiger would've won more events and/or majors, and in all likelihood, he would have. But, unfortunately for us all, he didn't play. For all we know, Harrington would've won those two majors even in an alternate reality where Tiger's knee held up. There's no guarantee Woods would've won them either --- remember, Tiger had a very dominant 2007 season, but even that one only included one major victory. Who's to say that Tiger would've conquered Birkdale or Oakland Hills? It's unfair to penalize Padraig for succeeding in the wake of another golfer's injury. What was he supposed to do, take the Claret Jug and Wanamaker Trophy to Orlando and leave them on Tiger's doorstep?

To quote the narrator in Pushing Daisies, the facts were these: Padraig Harrington won two majors in 2008, and thus deserves to be named the player of the year. Two majors more or less equals one major and three other wins. And really, what's most interesting about Harrington's success is that it doesn't diminish Woods by snubbing him from (yet another) player of the year trophy. In a way, it enhances it. The only knock that people have, er, knocked on Tiger over the years is that he isn't battling other legends of the game; Snead had Nelson, Nelson had Hogan, Nicklaus had Palmer, Player, Trevino, Watson, etc. These guys were competitors who challenged each other, whereas the other big-time modern players (Sergio, Phil, Ernie, etc.) all seem to become shrinking violets when Tiger gets to the top of a leaderboard.

Harrington's wins, however, were a revelation. Paddy had always been a well-regarded star and of course he had the 2007 Open to his name already. But that major was really just the case of Harrington outlasting Sergio in a who-can-screw-up-less contest, and Harrington was known more than anything as a golfer who had trouble sealing the deal for victory. But in 2008, this no-closer suddenly turned into Mariano Rivera. The key image of the '08 PGA Championship was the camera shot of Harrington's wild-eyed glare after his opening drive on the 17th hole. That was the look of a man who would not be denied. Who knows how many more times we might've seen that look on the face of Harrington (or Mickelson, or Garcia, or Els, or Singh, or Furyk, or even Mike Weir) over these last few years if it wasn't for the presence of a certain T. Woods? The modern stars may well have been as good or better than the stars of the past --- it's just that they never got a chance to truly shine due to the fact that Tiger was just simply that much better than everyone else. It would be like if the second, third and fourth greatest drummers in music history were actually Roger Daltrey, John Entwhistle and Pete Townshend, but they never got a chance to show it because they just happened to be in a band with Keith Moon.

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