As a writer I enjoyed covering golf, partly because its deliberate pace encouraged analysis and partly because its participants—mostly nice, middle-class guys—were unusually articulate for athletes. Also, golf courses are pleasant places to stroll once the necessity to hit the ball has been removed. For newsies the game provides a good walk unspoiled.
I don’t watch it very often now. I don’t know most of the tour players anymore and sans that contact find them hard to warm up to. I hate to sound like Andy Rooney, but it seems to me that most past-era golfers had more personality in their big toes than the present ones have in their whole bodies. Every young American player these days is a country-club kid who majored in greens maintenance at some Sunbelt U., and every European contestant has been a pro since puberty. What can you say about these guys once you’ve given their scores?
But I do tune in occasionally, and a couple of Sundays ago turned on the last round of the U.S. Open about when the leaders were teeing off. The first guy on my screen was Tiger Woods, which wasn’t surprising. Wherever he’s played the last 15 years, in contention or not, he’s been the star, and he was among the top-dozen low scorers teeing off this day. Surprise, though; the announcers were saying that Tiger was having a really bad round and had dropped well off the pace. They mentioned his name only in passing during the four hours that remained in the telecast.
It took a while to sink in, but it’s occurred to me since that an era might be over. Tiger ‘s 75-73 finish in the Open, which dropped him from a first-place tie to a final 21st place, and coming on top of his 40th-place finish in last April’s Masters Tournament, seems to have convinced even the TV people that he’s no longer the whole story in golf. The days of all-Tiger-all-the-time appear to be over, at least for the time being.
Don’t get me wrong, Tiger still can play. He’s won a couple of events on the PGA Tour this year, might add another this weekend, and ranks high on several of the circuit’s statistical categories. He’s a threat to win in any given week but, then, so are Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Phil Michelson, among others. Not only has the Tour’s A list been lengthened to eight or 10 names, from one, but the idea that Tiger will beat Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 career victories in the game’s “majors” (the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA Championship) no longer is taken for granted. Tiger has 14 but none since 2008, and any future wins promise to be harder to achieve than his previous ones.
If you follow this space you probably know that I’ve never been a Tiger fan; I never wished him bad luck but I always found him hard to root for. Part of that has been my reaction to his upbringing as a golfing prodigy by his soldier-father Earl, a process that was more an exercise in conditioning than anything resembling a childhood. When he first appeared on the PGA Tour in 1996, at age 20, Tiger was not simply a talented young man embarking on an adventure but a tycoon with multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts in hand and surrounded by a posse of handlers from IMG, the sports agency and marketing octopus. Anyone wishing a moment of his time had to run a gauntlet of IMG trolls, and few made it. He’s always been more of a brand than a person, and neither the passage of time (he’s 36 now) nor adversity in various forms has changed that.
One reason for Tiger’s decline has been physical. Like baseball pitchers, golfers spend their time honing a single motion, so it’s a stretch to call many of them athletes. The young Tiger, though, was a jock in every way, and his superior strength and flexibility gave him an advantage over his competitors that, I believe, never has been recognized properly. The years, however, inevitably take their toll, and two knee surgeries plus a variety of muscle strains have showed he’s not exempt. Even though one can play top-level golf well into one’s 40s, Tiger ain’t the man he used to be, and probably knows it better than anyone.
The main stones in Tiger’s shoe, of course, are the revelations that changed him from a sports-page character to a tabloid star. They came to light in the most-humiliating way after he rammed his Escalade into a tree near his driveway in the wee hours of a November, 2009, morning, fleeing a wrathful wife who’d discovered his infidelities. The bimbo explosion that followed cost him his family and a divorce settlement reportedly worth $750 million. It made Bill Clinton look like a friar, destroyed Tiger’s carefully groomed image of rectitude and discipline and turned his name into a punch line.
That would be painful for anyone, but must be especially so for Tiger, a man for whom control is everything. The fellow who exacted a code of omerta from friends and associates suddenly found that, rather than being in a row, his ducks had scattered, probably never to be realigned. He’s living the popular nightmare of appearing in public in his Jockey shorts.
Tiger dropped from view for six months, receiving “treatment” for “sex addiction.” When he returned to the links the depth of the injury to his psyche was apparent in his two-year (2010 and 2011) failure to win on a Tour he once dominated. He’s become more accessible now, but in a stilted sort of way, as though he’s had to be schooled to handle normal conversations. On the course he presents a cranky, peevish mien that bespeaks dissatisfaction with his lot.
Tiger ought to read Andre Agassi’s biography, “Open.” Like Tiger, the tennis player was a wonderchild who wrapped himself in a profitable but stifling corporate mantle for much of his career. In his 30s, though, he found his own voice, which led to pleasure in his work and a post-sports existence that seems altogether worthwhile. If Andre can do it, maybe Tiger can, too.