A few random thoughts from one of the year’s best sports weekends:
• Professional athletes are overpaid. (The sun rises in the east, barbecue ribs are best with dry rub … ) But there are a precious few athletes who earn their eight-figure combined salaries and endorsements. Phil Mickelson is one of them.
Last Friday, I spent a couple of hours following the then-unkown Harris English as he extended his lead at the FedEx St. Jude Classic at Southwind. Playing in a trio with Arjun Atwal and Jason Kokrak, English could have been on a first-name basis with those of us in his “gallery” after four holes. Those of us following a player who reached 10-under-par with a birdie on the 15th hole knew each other’s beverage preference before English finished his round.
Then I joined the Mickelson gallery shortly after he teed off at the first hole. There were more than 1,000 golf fans nudging, elbowing, and excusing one another for position to see every shot Lefty took, including one from the pine needles, just beyond the rope on the second hole. (He reached the green through the trees.) Just as rare as a pro athlete earning his keep is the athlete with a visible, tangible case for the value he brings an event. (Honestly, how many fans in the Staples Center can be said to have come just to see Kobe Bryant?) Phil Mickelson brings a crowd. He’s a visored pied piper, making a golf tournament a bit more bankable with every appearance.
• Here’s a somewhat bewildering FESJC factoid for you. No former Memphis champion has won a major golf tournament since Nick Price —who first won here in 1993 — raised the trophy at the 1994 PGA Championship. (Price also won the British Open a month earlier.) With recent FESJC champs both young and talented — Dustin Johnson is 28, English just 23 — you have to figure this drought will end soon.
• For the first time since 1979 (and only the seventh since the National Hockey League first expanded in 1967), we have a meeting of the Original Six in the Stanley Cup finals. There are few spectacles in team sports this side of the English Premier League that offer the cocktail of history, intensity, and rivalry like a postseason matchup of NHL founding members. The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins playing for the most famous trophy in North America will be heavy drama. Give hockey a chance this week, and you may be hooked for life. (With the Detroit Red Wings moving to the Eastern Conference before next season, five of the Original Six will play in the same conference, making the likelihood of this kind of final series that much more remote.)
• I’ve got a scientific theory on the 35-year absence of a Triple Crown winner in the sport of kings. (Says the sportswriter with an English degree.) As the fastest and strongest race horses are bred one decade after another, might evolution not result in a “supply” of potential Kentucky Derby winners (or Preakness winners, or Belmont winners) so large that the odds of any single horse being superior over three races in five weeks are impossible to meet? Two of this year’s champions — Orb and Oxbow — ran gallant races at Saturday’s Belmont, only to lose to Palace Malice, a horse that skipped the Preakness three weeks ago. (Could be a lesson there on added rest for the longest of the Triple Crown tests.) I remain a huge fan of these three events, but am more convinced than ever that Affirmed (in 1978) won the last Triple Crown we’ll ever see.
• Looking for a valuable ticket stub? Hop on eBay and find one from the fourth-round match between Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling at the 2009 French Open. With Nadal winning his eighth title in Paris Sunday, that match against Soderling four years ago is the only one the Spaniard has lost in nine years at Roland Garros. Nadal at the French Open has become the equivalent of Secretariat at the 1973 Belmont.