When Michael Jordan made his second comeback from retirement to play for the Wizards, a young player for the Pistons was asked in a press conference if he looked forward to playing against Jordan and seeing what he still had left at his age. The player responded by saying that Jordan isn’t the player he once was and that he was gonna have a hard time keeping up with the younger guys. Joe Dumars, the man Jordan has said was the toughest defender he ever faced in the NBA, pulled that kid aside and explained something to him: don’t ever give Michael Jordan a reason to be extra motivated to play against you or he will light you up for 40 points every time you play him.
Stephen Ames should have listened to Dumars and treated Tiger Woods the same way. Having to face Woods in the World Golf Championships Match Play, Ames was asked if he felt he had a chance. Anything could happen, he said, “especially where he’s hitting the ball”, alluding to the fact that Tiger hadn’t been hitting the fairways much lately (which didn’t prevent him from winning two straight tournaments already this year). As the old saying says – bad career move.
Woods responded to Ames’ comments by beating him as badly as you can possibly beat someone in match play. In match play, the scoring is done per hole. If you finish the hole in 3 and your opponent finishes in 4, you win one point. If you finish in the same number of strokes, you each get a half point. And you play until the score is unbeatable, so for example if one person is up by 4 points with 3 holes to go, there’s no way his opponent can win so that’s the end of the match and that’s called “winning 4 and 3″.
All Tiger did was win 9 and 8, meaning that after 10 holes, he was already so far up that Ames could not possibly come back even to tie. That’s the worst you can possibly get beat. It’s the equivalent of a pitcher throwing a perfect game on only 27 pitches. It’s simply unheard of. He birdied 7 of the first 9 holes. And you gotta love Tiger’s reaction after the round:
Woods apparently took his comments seriously. As he climbed into a van behind the 10th green after halving the hole with pars, he was asked he had seen what Ames said.
Did it motivate him?
Asked if he cared to elaborate, Woods smiled.
Ouch. This poor guy still isn’t sure what hit him. All elite athletes are cocky. It’s that cockiness that allows them to play through the pressure. And if there is an iron clad law in sports, it’s this: don’t trash talk the best players. Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird – they’re tough enough to handle when they’re crusing along on auto-pilot. When they’re really motivated? You’re done.