Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sweat Equity

My old colleague and friend Bob Ryan said a very strange thing on ESPN yesterday. Competing in the sprint-shout event in "Pardon the Interruption," Bob declared that if Tom Watson, 59 (born three months after yours truly) were to win the British Open, it would be "bad for golf."

I've been trying to get my mind around that statement ever since. How in the world would the most astonishing individual feat in a sport's history be bad for it? After lengthy consideration, I came up with a possiblity. If Watson goes on to win, then millions of less-gifted golfers around his age (not me, I assure you) will insist they can still hit from the back tees, lengthening the time of everyone's average public course 18-hole round to approximately 13 hours.

But of course, Bob didn't mean that. While I have become much less omniscient since leaving columnizing, and now hesitate to read minds, I have known Ryan a long time, and am fairly sure that his point was that if a senior citizen were to win the most prestigious event in golf, millions of sports fans would then conclude that golf was an easy game, wholly lacking in the athleticism required to make it a real sport for manly men. Brock Lesnar won't be winning anything at 59. He probably won't be breathing.

The old "that's not a sport" wheeze. It saddens me to think that Ryan, with whom I've watched several very strange sports at various Olympic venues, would fall that ancient canard. With the exception of multiple sixth-inning pitching changes, no element of sports makes me as angry as the insistence by fans of sport A that sport B isn't a real sport, because it involves different physical and mental demands than THEIR favorite game.

I have always had a simple answer for people who make that claim. Not a sport? OK, you do it Auto racing doesn't have enough aerobic exercise to qualify? Here's Matt Kenseth's number 17 DeWalt Ford. Matt called in sick today. You'll be starting in 10th position at Martinsville. Good luck!

Golf not a sport? Let's see. You have a 7:45 a.m. tee time at the Open Championship. The forecast is a little iffy, what with those 40 mph winds and the rain. Or, we'll make it simpler still. 15 foot downhill putt at the 72nd hole at Oakmont for the U.S. Open. It's only for a million bucks. Just draw the club back nice and easy and make a smooth stroke now. Any old codger can do the same.

What's really most aggravating about the "not a sport" crowd is that most of them, and all of the most insistent ones, are baseball fans, or rather, baseball snobs. Talk about projection! In terms of the physical stress it places on the participants, baseball, one of the most wonderful sports ever invented, and one I've loved my whole life long, isn't exactly the decathlon.
Here's a tip. When a baseball snob starts ripping some other game for its effete lack of real exercise, work Mickey Lolich into the conversation as quickly as possible.

As noted, I have covered some very strange sports at the Olympics. I became a figure skating expert for three weeks (Nancy-Tonya). I spent an afternoon dealing with synchronized swimming. Did I become a fan? No. But I did learn an appreciation of the skills and physical demands these unusual pursuits place upon their athletes. The ice is hard when you fall. As an experiment, try holding your breath for over 60 seconds, a routine demand on synchronized swimmers. It's cool to ignore those sports, or even say they are weird to you. But they are sports, and to insist otherwise is to reveal ignorance.

One of golf's most abiding glories is that a golfer can play until the day he or she dies. My father's 89 now, and he still gets out for nine holes with a cart four or five times a week. If Watson has already validated that glory. The fitness truck is all very well, but fairways and greens don't how old you are, or your body type. If Watson wins (very unlikely), the community of golf will rejoice. Anyone who doesn't is an outsider, even if they play every day.

Unfortunately, if Watson wins, the next time I play with my younger brothers, they'll MAKE me hit from the back tees.


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