Greg Cote

Tiger & Phil at The Masters: Sadness, wistful hope and the sentimental power of sports

Tiger Woods, 42, and Phil Mickelson, 47, are years removed from their last major titles, but that doesn’t stop fans from rooting for them to matter, especially at the Masters.
Tiger Woods, 42, and Phil Mickelson, 47, are years removed from their last major titles, but that doesn’t stop fans from rooting for them to matter, especially at the Masters. TNS

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson barely made the cut at the Masters. They are not in realistic contention and likely will spend their Sunday well off the leaderboard. Yet fans at Augusta will follow them like idolaters would a fallen deity, and fans watching on TV will follow, too, hoping for an unlikely vintage charge, hoping to see greatness push back against time.

Athletes who have been a part of our lives and important to us for a long time age just as we do. It is all we have in common, really. It is the root of the emotional pull of sports, the sentimental power of it. Tiger, 42, shot 72 on Saturday and is 4-over-par for the tournament. Phil, about to turn 48, shot 74 and is 7-over. Both beloved icons are beyond what is irretrievable: Their prime. We love them anyway. We might love them even more for the frailty and the struggle.

It occurred to me the other day — for the first time, oddly — that the two biggest, most important athletes of my own lifetime had long careers one right after the other, spanning almost 40 years, one man taking the baton from the other.

Different generations, different sports, and all they had in common was the way they both went out. It was the way most athletes do. Sadly. With a sense of fading — the sight of them at the end enough to bring their fans to tears and slap them with the jolt not so much of reality, but of mortality.

My boyhood hero, Carl Yastrzemski, was winding down his rookie season with the Boston Red Sox in 1961 when, about 500 miles away, an Italian family in Pittsburgh was welcoming a baby it named Daniel Constantine Marino, who would go on to be a hub of my professional life in his long career with the Dolphins.

Yaz would play 23 seasons before finally retiring, at age 44, in 1983. His last game ever was one game into the rookie season for Marino, who would play 17 years before retiring, at age 38, an old, broken 38, following a playoff loss on Jan. 15, 2000.

The way it ended for each Hall of Famer is embossed forever on my mind.

I was in my late 20s, way too old to cry, as Yaz stepped to the plate for what would be the final time, on Oct. 2, 1983, at Fenway Park. He had announced that would be his final season. It was the seventh inning. I felt to the bone this would be it. You know Yaz knew it, too.

“One more,” I remember thinking, staring at the TV alone in my apartment, tears welling.

One more home run. The perfect ending. A slow circle around the bases and a doffed cap as a city poured out its love.

Yaz took a mighty uppercut, the kind meant to send a baseball into the bleachers.

The ball went sky-high, the popup nestling into the second baseman’s mitt.

That was Carl Yastrzemski’s last swing.

For Marino the ending turned out to be a 62-7 playoff loss to the Jaguars in Jacksonville.

“One more,” Dolfans had to have been imploring, wishing and willing one last hurrah for Marino, one last triumphant ride to a Super Bowl. Instead, he played as awfully as the team around him that day, and walked off a football field for the last time with the pained gait of shot knees.

Worse, Jags fans unmoved by his place in history or the snapshot of an epic career’s end showered him with jeering derision as he walked toward the tunnel. He kept his helmet on.

That was Dan Marino’s final swing, his last out.

The only Masters I have ever attended and covered was in 1998, one year after Woods had famously introduced himself to the world with that historic triumph.

Augusta ’98 seemed anticlimactic by comparison (Mark O’Meara won; ho hum) — except it wasn’t.

That was the year Jack Nicklaus got his last hurrah, or close enough to it to live in the memory, and in golf history, 20 years later.

Nicklaus was then 58, 12 years past his last major win. But that day he would shoot a 68 to climb the leaderboard and finish on it, in sixth place.

I’d been following the leaders that day, so I heard Nicklaus’ charge as the sound of the muffled roar of a distant gallery as the next birdie fell. It was the sound of love and appreciation for a Golden Bear in his career’s golden years as Nicklaus pushed back against time one last time, for one glorious afternoon.

Time always wins. Heck, it might even get Tom Brady someday! All of the money and fame in the world cannot stop it.

But wishing for that last hurrah that sometimes never comes, wishing for one last small victory over time, is a part of being a sports fan as epic careers wane.

For me it was the ache of watching Willie Mays at the very end, and of seeing Muhammad Ali when he no longer floated like a butterfly or stung like a bee. It was Yaz. It was Marino. In time it will be Serena Williams, once so dominant, but eventually and inexorably just an aging ghost, a fading echo of greatness.

Tiger, 10 years past his last major win, and Phil, five years past his, are in that category now.

So we watch, wistfully, to see if their greatness will show itself again, one last time.