DECATUR — As LeBron James is reminding us this week in the NBA Finals, we should never underestimate the value of a villain.
While it’s great to have someone to root for, what spices up the soup is having someone to root against.
That’s why these are destined to be a much-watched Finals, because while Lebron is an athletic freak whose talents must be acknowledged and should be appreciated, there are droves of people who secretly hope his next steal and dunk turns into a sprained ankle.
That’s also why the PGA is so grateful to have Tiger Woods back swinging for the fences this week at the U.S. Open. He drives TV ratings through the roof because while there are millions who will cheer for him to go eagle-birdie-eagle and steal the show, there are millions more who are hoping he hits one into the sponsor’s parking lot.
In almost every sport there are heroes and villains and as with Lebron and Tiger, they’re often the same person.
The exception to that rule has set up shop in Decatur this weekend and it’s the Symetra Tour, better known as the developmental tour of the LPGA.
This is where we applaud athletes chasing their dream, so effort and enthusiasm are seen as real virtues, not scoffed at as substitutes for talent.
The only problem is that while it’s OK not to have any visible villains, it always helps to have a reason to get behind someone with half a chance to win. We still appreciate the presence of a hero.
We’ve had that at times in the past, like when Vicky Hurst arrived as “the next big thing in women’s golf” and won here in 2008.
But what we’re reminded each year is that the process of identifying golfers worth rooting for plays out in the early rounds, then by Sunday we’ve learned enough to attach story lines to the leaders.
Unlike the LPGA, the Symetra Tour is not so much about showcasing its stars as it is about growing them. No one understood that Lorena Ochoa was a shooting star who would impact all of women’s golf until after she had won here in 2002.
As corny as it sounds, what we learn is that in a field of 144 golfers, there really are 144 distinct stories. We’ll never know them all, but if you could spend 15 minutes with each player, you’d get an interesting snapshot of every one.
On Friday I learned about and wrote about Rachel Connor and while she might be more outgoing and publicity friendly than most, she’s by no means the only golfer with a compelling story to tell.
On the first tee Saturday, I was reminded that a terrific player worth rooting for is Nicole Jeray.
For one thing, in a sport dominated by just-out-of-college kids on their way up, Jeray is a 41-year-old still slugging it out on both this tour and the LPGA Tour. Hard not to root for someone who will get her AARP card in nine years.
She’s also a two-time winner here, taking the title at Hickory Point in 1998 and 2000.
She’s an Illinois native, the youngest member of the Northern Illinois University Hall of Fame, friendlier than a cool summer rain and she overcame a bout with narcolepsy (the sleep-wake disorder) and has used it as a rallying cry to help others who struggle with the disease.
What’s not to root for?
Here’s my recommendation to the local tournament committee:
The Symetra Tour no longer employs Lisa Mickey, the single best sports media person I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with. No one knows the players and the Tour better than Lisa.
Next year, hire her for the weekend. Have her type developing story lines on the excellent electronic message board used for the first time this year next to the 18th green, for patrons to easily see.
Tell the gallery what makes these ladies individually distinct. Then ratchet up the rooting as the back stories come into focus.
It’s been proven that out here, we don’t need the villains. And there’s always a deep supply of heroes-in-waiting.