They’ll play the next U.S. Open golf tournament in a couple of weeks at the penitential Bethpage State Park course on Long Island, and Tiger Woods will be favored to win. That’s because he’s favored to win every tournament he enters.
Tiger is unquestionably the best golfer of his era and, to my mind and that of many others, the best ever. Your position on the latter issue depends largely on how you compare modern athletes with those of previous periods, and, by me, it’s no contest. Thanks to advances in nutrition and exercise physiology, and the fact that their remuneration allows them to devote themselves to their sports year-round, today’s jocks are uniformly better than those of the past. A golfer is like a baseball pitcher in that he spends all his time perfecting a single motion, so all the athletic virtues aren’t necessary for his success. But they don’t hurt, and no golfer has them to the extent Tiger has.
Add to that a single-minded dedication to golf and a literal lifetime spent in honing his skills and you have a combination that can’t be beat. Tiger is 33 years old, young for his sport, but because he’s been swinging a club since he was in diapers he has an edge in savvy over players eight or 10 years older.
Victory in professional golf’s “majors” (the Masters, PGA Championship and U.S. and British opens) is how golfing greatness most often is measured. Tiger has 14 of those titles, just three fewer than Jack Nicklaus. Jack won his last major at age 46 while Tiger still is going strong, so short of a catastrophe he’ll break Jack’s record. But even if Tiger’s career ended tomorrow he’d still be No. 1 all-time on any other objective scale.
The above paean, however, doesn’t mean I root for Tiger. In fact, on the occasions when I tune in golf and he’s in contention, I usually pull for the other guys. Maybe that traces to a young life rooting against the Yankees. Maybe I’m a crypto racist—crypto even to myself-- but I don’t think so. There’s always been something about the guy that puts me off.
Part of it is my visceral reaction against the way he was raised, which seems more like an experiment in conditioning than what’s normally thought of as a childhood. Many are charmed by the tales of daddy Earl, a former Army officer, handing Tiger a sawed-off club at age six months, taking him to the driving range at 18 months and beaming as he broke 50 for nine holes at 3, but I think it’s weird. Worse, the example has caught on and we now frequently read about kids being channeled into high-powered sports-training regimens while still in grade school. Lots of ambitious parents are thinking that what worked for ol’ Earl might work for them.
Further, the Tiger who first appeared on the PGA tour in 1996 was no ordinary young man embarking on a great adventure but one with multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts in hand who’d been packaged for maximum financial return by IMG, the sports-agency and promotional octopus. Like his fellow tourists, Tiger usually would show up in the press tent after rounds to review his day’s shots, but any journalist wanting more would have to go through IMG, and the answer usually would be “no.”
That’s still the case, I’m told, and even those permitted to ask don’t get much in the way of answers. Tiger’s an adult now—married and the father of two—and spent two years at Stanford U., an estimable educational institution, but he’s still in the IMG cocoon, and if he has opinions on anything besides golf he keeps them to himself. Hey, they might hurt business. Similarly, while he must have friends (just about everyone does), they apparently take a vow of silence to stay in his circle. What goes on with Tiger stays with Tiger, or so it seems.
Tiger’s domination has been a mixed blessing for golf. There really are two PGA Tours: the regular one and the Tiger Tour, which has about half as many events. When Tiger plays the crowds are large and TV ratings are high, and when he doesn’t, they’re not. Other guys out there can play— probably more than in any past era—but the spotlight is so focused on him that they’re in permanent shadow. Sean O’Hair, Nick Watney, Paul Casey and Geoff Ogilvy probably could stump a “What’s My Line?” panel, but they were among the Top 10 on the year’s PGA money list last month.
It’s not just me that’s lukewarm about Tiger. As excellent as he is he suffers from a charisma deficit, and while his galleries always are large they lack the emotional connection to him that “Arnie’s Army” had to Palmer or “Lee’s Fleas” had to Trevino. People love an underdog and there’s nothing about Tiger that suggests that quality. Chances are, there never will be.
Indeed, his career so far recalls the line from the old shampoo commercial, where the gorgeous blonde pleads “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” While the parallel isn’t perfect, that also applies to Tiger.