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Archive for March 2010

A Tiger Return at the Masters is the Right Thing

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Will Tiger's return include a fifth green jacket?

Ever since Tiger Woods announced his indefinite leave from golf on December 11, the single biggest question hanging over him and all of golf has been: When will Tiger return?

If Tiger is bold, confident, and savvy, there’s only one answer to this question: The Masters.

Before I go on, let me say one thing. This isn’t a judgment of what Tiger Woods has done, what he’s been accused of, or the rumors, innuendo, and conjecture surrounding his past. At issue is what makes the most sense for Tiger the golfer to begin rebuilding what Tiger the person has so tragically dismantled.

Tiger’s return to practice two weeks ago sparked discussion about his imminent return. The arrival of coach Hank Haney has only served to turn up the heat on this raging debate.

Many pundits predict Tiger will return to action at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which opens ten days from now at Bay Hill. Tiger’s very familiar with Bay Hill – he’s won Palmer’s event six times, including the last two in dramatic fashion. He’s also quite close to Palmer, making the tournament that much more welcoming as he looks to get back into the swing of things.

NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller, in an ESPN.com article, suggested Tiger “needs to get one tournament under his belt” if wants to have any choice at winning the Masters. “Even if you don’t play well at Bay Hill, you just have to get things going,” said Miller, who added that Tiger needs to “get the cobwebs out, get his confidence going.”

Steve Stricker, a PGA veteran and a friend of Tiger’s, believes there’s more to a tune-up, however. “It’s going to be hard for him to not only worry about playing but all the hype,” Striker said in the same ESPN.com article. Playing in a tournament or two before the Masters would allow Tiger and the media to get all the hysteria out of the way before embarking on the season’s first major.

Stricker even intimated that a Tiger return at Augusta would take away from the Masters. “Whenever he comes back it’s going to draw a lot of attention to that tournament and the focus is going to be on him coming back… To turn it into Tiger’s comeback instead of the Masters Tournament itself.”

Miller, Stricker, et.al. make valid points. Popular opinion is that Tiger will not be able to return at the championship level to which we’ve grown accustomed. Any pro who hasn’t appeared in a tournament since November 15 will need some time to get back up to speed – even Tiger, who has proven to be human after years spent establishing his reputation as a machine. In fact, even with a tune-up, he isn’t really expected to compete at the Masters.

Which is exactly why that should be his first tournament back.

Imagine the historical significance of Tiger winning at the Masters if it’s his first tournament back. After the layoff, the scandal, under the burning glare of this spotlight – no matter how self-imposed it may be – to win a major in his first event… it would be an historic victory.

Don’t think the history would be lost on Tiger. He understands his place in the annals of golf. The man has won four times at Augusta, setting records in the process. From his historic victory in 1997 to his title defense in 2002, and his sudden-death win in 2005, the Masters has been a large part of Tiger’s legacy. Like it or not, that legacy has been tarnished, and what better way to begin restoring it than a win right out of the gate at Augusta.

Not that any athlete wants to think about failure, but it’s another reason Tiger should consider starting his comeback with the Masters: diminished expectations. He really has no downside when it comes to his performance if Augusta is his first tournament. After all, seemingly every quotable source deems a tune-up absolutely necessary for Tiger to even have a fighting chance at the Masters.

If he plays poorly, it’s effectively what would be expected, considering all the factors (layoff, major, media, etc.). The better he plays, the more he’s defied expectations; a win or anything close would go a long way to restoring his legacy.

So while every athlete plays to win, the suddenly PR-aware Tiger has to realize that losing is a very real possibility. Should he work out the rust at with an appearance at Bay Hill, he won’t have the layoff to blame for a poor showing at the Masters. But if Augusta is his first play, he can understandably spin his performance, even if spin control hasn’t proven to be a strong suit for him. (Sorry, I know I promised not to bring up the scandal, but in this case, it was pertinent. Forgive my indiscretion.)

Also, Stricker is right: The media will descend on Tiger’s first tournament in a way the sport hasn’t seen in some time. The circus is bound to be distracting, not just for Tiger, but for everyone. Why not use it to his advantage at a tournament that matters? If Tiger were to return at Bay Hill, the Masters, or the Orange County Chip & Putt Open, every competitor is going to be deluged with questions. From a purely tactical standpoint, he would get the most benefit not simply by getting in everyone’s collective head, but by doing so at a major.

Don’t think this isn’t a consideration for Tiger. He has done more than beat his PGA brethren over the years, he has demoralized them. From the red shirt on Sundays to fist pumping all weekend long, he plays the mental game as well as anyone else on tour. If the media can be an asset to frustrate and distract his competition, don’t expect him to leave it in his bag.

Yes, a decision like this is bound to ruffle feathers… so be it. The players who complain have all benefited from Tiger’s very existence ever since he arrived on tour. And they will certainly benefit again, because there will be a lot more that’s green than just a jacket if Tiger makes his comeback at the Masters. CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus told SI.com that Tiger’s return “will be the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years.”

If 20 million watched his press conference, how many would tune in for a Masters comeback?

Hyperbole aside, if it’s at Augusta, McManus may be right. The SI.com article cites an estimate that more than 20 million people watched Tiger’s scripted public apology last month. It would be no stretch to say that a Masters return would shatter the tournament record 14.1 television rating earned by the final round in Tiger’s 1997 victory.

Tiger has gone from legend to polarizing figure. He will attract viewers who want to see him win again, others who hope for his failure, and still more who just want to experience the spectacle of it all. If 43 million people watched at least part of that final round in 1997, and more than 20 million tuned in for his press conference, it’s amazing to think what the event would garner in these circumstances. And if he’s in the hunt on Sunday? The mind boggles…

So with all these considerations, Tiger has every reason to continue practicing with his coach at home for next few weeks. Make your return on April 8. In Augusta. At the Masters.

Whether people like it or not, it just makes sense.

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Written by sportsinbriefs

March 15, 2010 at 11:04 pm

A Policy in Vain – Italian Soccer’s Crackdown on Blasphemy

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Domenico Di Carlo can be excused for looking a little exasperated - so long as he doesn't say "dio"

“Oh God!”

The phrase can mean a lot of things in the context of a sporting event: Exasperation after a bad play, disagreement with an official’s call, or merely a casual request for divine intervention, for instance.

Utter those words on the pitch in an Italian professional soccer match, though, and you might get more than you bargained for.

Like a red card and a subsequent one-game suspension.

Italian soccer officials recently concluded that blasphemous outbursts fall under the umbrella of “offensive, insulting or abusive language” and therefore should be penalized with an ejection and suspension. That’s right, make a comment about a deity in the wrong tone of voice, and you can hit the showers.

And if you think Italian officials are taking this new edict lightly, think again. They even have technology on their side. Last week, Chievo player Michele Marcolini was captured by a camera apparently muttering “dio” (God) as he left the field after picking up a red card.

That’s right, a camera. He didn’t scream it at the top of his lungs, making nuns weep, mothers hide their children, and eliciting a bolt of lightning from the heavens. No, he may have been seen saying something.

Such an offense warranted a review by the College of Cardinals – sorry, I meant to say, league officials – who instead determined that he was referring to someone named “Diaz.” There was no player on either roster with that name, but why should that matter?

Marcolini’s coach, Domenico Di Carlo, wasn’t so lucky. Three minutes into the second half of the same match, Di Carlo reportedly said “porco dio,” which equates God to a pig in an unkind manner. Those two words earned him an ejection from the game and a suspension for Chievo’s next contest.

Now, I have never been to Italy. I won’t profess to know Italian sensitivities over any reference to God. By geography alone, I would suspect that a country that encapsulates The Vatican may be a little touchier than, say, the United States.

Even so, does this really deserve an ejection and a suspension? Is it a more egregious offense than sliding, cleats high, at an opponent, which normally would earn just a yellow card? Is a statement to no one in particular more offensive than an insult directed at an opponent?

At least Marco Materazzi didn't blaspheme towards Zinedine Zidane

At least Marco Materazzi didn't blaspheme towards Zinedine Zidane

Remember, this is a country that won the World Cup in 2006 only after Italian defender Marco Materazzi so insulted French star Zinedine Zidane in the final match that Zidane head-butted Materazzi.

So just to get the record straight, questionable use of the Lord’s name in an Italian professional match is prohibited. But creating new ways to insult a French star during the World Cup in an effort to infuriate him, well, that’s downright patriotic.

It’s interesting that the powers that be have chosen to create this new use of the offensive language rule, instead of enforcing the original intent of the rule – that is, the verbal abuse of other players. Nothing is made of the caustic exchanges between players during a match, which are likely enough to make a sailor blush. Cameras and lip readers aren’t employed when players go nose to nose to hurl insults at each other.

This smacks more of Italian officials creating an opponent they can beat, instead of taking on real issues and failing.

For instance, Europe has seen a massive influx of immigrants in the last several decades, resulting in a rise in racial tensions. Soccer stadiums across the continent have been the site of racial and neo-Nazi chants from fans. In Italy, fans have been heard singing “a black Italian does not exist” towards opponents. Worse insults have been hurled by Italian fans, even at their own players.

Italian officials publicly agree that this sort of behavior can’t be tolerated. The president of the Juventus club angrily called out his own team’s fans after their demeaning behavior towards Mario Bolatelli, who is Italian-born but of Ghanaian descent.

But beyond rhetoric, little has been done to stem the racial tide. Small fines have been levied on clubs, with stiffer penalties threatened but never imposed.

So what do you do when you can’t correct the evil you know? Find a much lesser evil, and fix that one, even if no one really cared about it in the first place. (Of course, this is proof positive that Italian soccer officials are taking tips from politicians, who have employed this strategy ever since the sound bite was invented.)

And who gets to judge what’s offensive and not? Kaka, who starred for AC Milan before his transfer last year to Real Madrid, would routinely point to the sky after he scored a goal as a gesture of thanks to God. Would it have been blasphemous, if he missed a shot, to spread his arms wide and implore to the heavens? Does a player who looks skyward and shakes an angry fist get the same punishment as someone who verbalizes his disappointment?

If all of these questions sound like childish hair-splitting or meaningless topics of debate, you’re right. Italian officials have chosen to argue over the dust in the corner and ignore the elephant in the room. And every time they decide another player or coach should be suspended because of this rule, I have but one reaction:

“Oh, God!”

Written by sportsinbriefs

March 6, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Posted in Soccer