Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Ultimate Tiger

TigerBlog's second shot on the par-5 was in the middle of the fairway, maybe a little to the left of center.

The green was ahead and a bit to the right. It was maybe 140 yards away. TigerBlog had a seven iron.

There was a tree in the way. TigerBlog figured he could go over the top of it, though, and that's exactly what he did. Over the tree. A little to the right. It splashed onto the green, rolling to a stop about 10 feet from the hole.

It was TigerBlog's best shot of the day - which makes it his best shot in the last 18 years - as he played at Springdale Monday in the Friends of Princeton Lacrosse golf outing.

His worst shot was the one that almost killed Greg Waller.

TigerBlog had not played golf in 18 years prior to his round at Springdale. He hadn't hit a shot at all, he's pretty sure, until he went to the driving range Sunday.

When TB said he would play in the event, his email said this: "Haven't played in nearly 20 years, wasn't good before, don't own golf shoes." As it turned out, his game is still pretty much the same as it was back then.

Here's the scouting report - all drives with woods go wildly to the right, no short game at all, zero ability to get out of the bunkers, reasonably below-average putter, can hit irons pretty straight.

The shot that almost took out Waller - the face-off man on the 1992 NCAA championship team and still the school record holder in ground balls in a season and career (he had 131 ground balls in 1991; Zach Currier had 130 last year) was supposed to be a soft chip from about 50 yards off the green. Waller and Brock Sturdivant, a teammate of Waller's and the fourth in their group, Ed Calkins, were standing about 40 feet to the left of the green, seemingly out of range.

TB jokingly said "heads up" and then hit his chip shot, which instead of softly dancing off his wedge instead rocketed directly in Waller's direction. Had Waller not been paying attention, it's possible it would have nailed him right in the side of his head. As it was, he and Sturdivant dove out of the way safely.

Perhaps the fates were trying to tell TB something as well, since he managed to find basically every sand trap on the course. Hey, he found two separate ones on one hole.

Maybe something was trying to tell him that he should stick to the beach.

Oh, and it was Bryce Chase's birthday. The godfather of Princeton lacrosse turned 77 Monday. He saw TigerBlog hit one shot - an iron off a tee - and gave TB this glowing compliment: "hey, you don't suck as much as I figured you would."

If you know Bryce, you know it was meant with love. 

TigerBlog's lack of golf ability aside, there wasn't anything not to like about this day. The lacrosse group is an extremely close, tight-knit one, in many ways indicative of the very best of what Princeton Athletics hopes its athletes will have in their experience here.

More than half of the golfers, TB would guess, had at least one NCAA championship ring. Almost all were Ivy League champs at least once. They all moved on to successful careers.

And, in the most Princetonian of ways, they are the most loyal people you will ever meet. To each other. And to the school.

The golf started at 1. TigerBlog's first goal was to finish the round without having lost every ball in his bag, and, to his shock, he only lost three. So that was a win.

TB goes way back with Calkins and Waller, but this was the first time he'd ever met Sturdivant. They of course had a lot to talk about, what with Princeton lacrosse and lacrosse in general as the main subjects. Sturdivant, who grew up in north of Baltimore and who now lives in Nashville, was on campus with his son, who has been at the boy's lacrosse camp.

Of course, they had a lot of time to chat, as it took more than five hours to get around the 18 holes. It was a team competition. Each of the four golfers in each group (TB's group started on the fourth hole) would tee off. All four would then play the best tee shot (it was TB's an astonishing three times) and then play their ball from there, with the team to count its top two scores on each hole.

It was obvious from the first hole that if TB's group was going to win, well, then TB wasn't going to be able to carry them. In what he will assume is part of the politeness of golf, they invited TB to play with them again next year.

The winners were the foursome of Kevin Lowe, James Mitchell, Paul Murphy and Ben Strutt. TigerBlog is pretty sure he hit more shots than the four of them combined.

After the golf there was a cocktail hour, followed by remarks from Ford Family Director of Athletics Mollie Marcoux Samaan, women's coach Chris Sailer and men's coach Matt Madalon.

And then it was time for one more thing before dinner.

The invitation mentioned that Jon Hess would be honored as well. All of those thing that TB said about Princeton lacrosse player in general? Hess takes them all to another level.

Hess graduated in 1998. How's this for a lacrosse resume:

* three NCAA championships
* 43-2 record his last three years, including 18-0 in the Ivy League
* 1997 Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four
* two-time first-team All-America and one-time second-team All-America
* Ivy League Player of the Year
* third all-time at Princeton in points (215) and assists (133)

That's pretty good, no? 

Hess today is exactly how Hess was 20 years ago as a player. He was the leader. He was the hardest worker. He was the glue of everything. He was the spokesperson. He was the one who made everyone around him better.

TB has heard the story before, many times, about how Hess was the absolute last person in the Class of 1998. Not the last lacrosse player. Not the last athlete. The last one admitted.

Maybe it was that experience that made him the one who, probably more than anyone else, understood the great fortune that made him a Tiger in the first place. Either way, in a sea of loyalty, his connection to Princeton is the strongest.

In many ways, he's the Bryce of his generation, the one who keeps everyone else connected. He was honored Monday for his work as the former president of the Friends' group, a position for which he was a total natural.

When Jon spoke, he said something that perfectly speaks to who he is. "If you want to honor me," he said, "make a connection with someone here you don't already know. Shake the hand of someone here you've never met."

That's typical of him.

Jesse Hubbard, Princeton's career leader in goals and a member of the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame, introduced Hess to the room. He's remarks were great, with his focus on all of the accomplishments and accolades as he made the case that his teammate and close friend is one of the greatest lacrosse players ever.

He also told the story of the 1998 NCAA quarterfinals, most of which TB knew and one part of which TB had never heard before.

Princeton's 1996-98 championship run, and the legacy of those who fueled it, would be somewhat different had the Tigers not won in 1998, when Hubbard and Hess led a great senior class. It would have been a mark against their careers, and it would still have bothered them to this day.

Princeton and Maryland were tied 3-3 at halftime on Memorial Day in 1998, but Hess would have an assist and a goal in the first five minutes of the third quarter to start the Tigers to what became a 15-5 romp. TB knew that.

He also knew that, two rounds earlier, Princeton trailed Duke 8-4 in the second quarter in the quarterfinals at Hofstra. What TB lacks in golf skill he makes up for in his ability to see how games will unfold and which team will win. Usually, as a game is going along, TigerBlog can feel if it's going to be close, going to be a rout, if the team that is down will come back. He's right a lot more than he's wrong.

That day was one of the days he was wrong. Watching that game, TigerBlog had a sinking feeling that this just wasn't going to be Princeton's day. He remembers it vividly. He was on the sideline for a part of the second quarter, and something just didn't feel right.

Princeton pulled with two at the half at 8-6, but Duke was still playing well. And worse, was playing with visible confidence. They were not awed by the moment.

What TigerBlog didn't know, and never heard until Jesse said it Monday, was that Jon Hess went off on his team in the lockerroom. As Jesse said Monday at Springdale, Jon challenged everyone, yelling "who's going to step up? Who's going to step up?" When nobody responded, he yelled "I'm going to step up."

Hess then scored twice in the first 1:21 of third quarter. Princeton would win 11-9. Hess was much more of a feeder in his career. His two goals actually came 23 seconds apart. It might be the fastest he ever bunched two goals in his entire career, and he did it at the time Princeton needed him most.

Jesse wrapped up his remarks by describing Jon Hess in three words. He called him "the ultimate Tiger."

It's such a great description of him.

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