This was back in the 1980s, when Dwight Gooden could still throw fastballs past the world, before he began to throw away his talent and his prime and his promise on drugs. Back when there was a K Corner at Shea Stadium, when you didn't want to miss a start because you were sure this would be the day, or night, when he threw a no-hitter or struck out twenty. He was that kind of show. He had that kind of arm. The old guys in New York said that watching Gooden pitch when he was 24-4 at age twenty was like watching a young, righthanded Sandy Koufax.
And then one day I read in the paper that the Mets manager and pitching coach were going to get Gooden to throw more breaking balls, to get batters to hit more ground balls.
Their thinking, they said, made perfect sense. He wouldn't have to strike out as many people; wouldn't have to throw as many pitches.
Except for one thing.
He was born to strike people out!
He wasn't born to be Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine, to paint the corners or hit the black. The Lord gave him one of those arms. He was a fastball pitcher. He was meant to throw rising fastballs that sounded like a train whistle as they f lew past batters swinging and missing.
He wasn't a surgeon, he was a guy who had batters scared silly because they knew what kind of a haymaker he was going to throw, right up until he threw it.
Which is the way Tiger Woods used to play golf before he tried to reinvent himself as the perfect golfer.
"You watch him when he's just out there with his buddies," someone who knows Tiger from Isleworth, his home course in Florida, was telling me not long ago. "And he's as unbelievable to watch as he ever was. He hits it a mile and doesn't worry if it goes crooked, and he hits shots from everywhere that you have to see to believe, and he makes putts. And the best thing is, he seems to be having a ball. But then everybody watching him on television these days can't believe it, because he's like a different guy. The new Tiger. But here's what we all ask ourselves: What the hell was wrong with the old Tiger?"
Nothing. Unless you're like Tiger and think that three majors in a year isn't worth squat if you can win four. Or that seven wins in eleven majors in one stretch isn't enough—even if golf hadn't seen anything like that since Hogan—if you can win all eleven. At some point along the way, Woods decided he was going to do one of the absolute dumbest things you can do in sports or life.
He went out and tried to fix what wasn't broke.
He was going to become a more perfect shot maker than Hogan.
Except he wasn't born to be Hogan. He was born to be Tiger!
Maybe Butch Harmon would have told him that, if he hadn't blown off Harmon the way he blew off poor old Fluff the Caddie. I talked to a lot of golf guys I trust at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, when it became obvious to me that people had become more interested in Phil Mickelson and what he was doing on the course than they were in Tiger.
And to a man—and woman—they all gave me the same basic story:
"Nobody tells Tiger no."
So nobody stopped him as he started jacking around with a swing that didn't need to be jacked around with. We can talk about how amazingly stubborn he was about drivers, and how he stayed with his short, steel-shafted driver way too long, and how he started getting passed for no reason except his own stubborn self. Tiger is where he is today, in his majors slump, because he convinced himself, in a golf universe he believes only he inhabits, that only he knew what was good for him.
Jacking around with the swing that won him his very own modern version of the grand slam, the holder of all four major titles at once. The best golfer of his time, the guy who really thought he was going to get to nineteen majors (even if I never did), came down with Seve Disease—another guy who forgot what he was.