A lot has happened in the past week. For example, we’ve been treated to the image of a white woman who has pretended, successfully, to be black. We’ve also been treated to the image of a white man who didn’t just pretend to have a blackened heart, but took it upon himself to destroy nine lives in a house of worship for the “crime” of being black. I’d like to claim that I was shocked, shocked at these events, but that wouldn’t be true. Lies and killings have become commonplace. That is why so many of us love to escape from the “real world” and go to sporting events, theaters or museums. We get tired of thinking about bad people and the seemingly intractable societal institutions that enable them to do damage. We want to see great performers and artists and admire their genius. Stated differently, if we’re going to be powerless to change the world very much, we might as well lie back and enjoy it.
For years, Tiger Woods was one of those great performers who provided us glimpses of true genius. His accomplishments on the golf course had never been seen before. Yes, Jack Nicklaus was great, but not even the Bear in his prime won with the frequency of the Tiger. Nor did Jack have Tiger’s flair for the dramatic. The old Tiger would bomb his tee shots way further than his competitors. He could frequently hole out from off of the green. He would sink 30 foot, winding putts. He would win the U.S. Open while playing, essentially, on one leg. And whenever something good happened, he’d treat us to one hell of a portrait. There was the intense, fist-pumping Tiger. And then there was the understated, “I can’t believe how freaking good I am” smile. We’d often see those as well, especially when Tiger was way ahead of the field and a fist pump seemed inappropriate.
In his prime, Tiger redefined his craft. He turned golf from a game into a sport. You could still be overweight or undersized and compete on the PGA Tour. But if you wanted to be “the Man,” you had better be physically sculpted. What’s more, you no longer had to be lily white. Tiger was just the opposite. Mick Jagger might have described him as being “like a rainbow.” But Tiger referred to himself as a “Cablinasian” -- part Asian, part Black, part Indian, part Caucasian. In him, you could find so many of the races of humankind put together in the body of a world class athlete and with a mind that came to be associated with total concentration and resolve. My fellow alumni of Stanford University were proud to claim “El Tigre” as one of our own.
As we say in Passover, if that was all we could say in praise of the old Tiger Woods, that would have been “Dayenu” – meaning “enough.” But the legend of Tiger was far bigger than that. Tiger, you see, also came to be known for his eleemosynary pursuits. The Tiger Wood Foundation was created in 1996, one year before its namesake won the first of his major tournaments. It went on to establish numerous programs designed to enhance the living conditions of children throughout America. Tiger also went out of his way to honor our troops. I remember going to a Tiger-sponsored tournament in Bethesda, Maryland in which members of the armed forces were allowed in free of charge. Tiger’s father, you see, was once a member of the Green Beret, and Tiger seemed to be deeply respectful of his service, just as he seemed to be deeply respectful of all the golfing greats who came before him. The image of Tiger Woods, circa 2008, was one of a family man, a patriot, a lover of history, a student of his craft, and a legend in the making. He was Madison Avenue’s dream. And he was golf’s savior.
Then came the fire hydrant. It was November 27, 2009 at 2:25 in the morning. Tiger was trying to escape from his picture-perfect blonde wife, who recently had discovered some (but hardly all) of his infidelities. She chased him with a golf club. He got behind the wheel, drove the car into a fire hydrant in front of his Windermere, Florida home, and proceeded to hit a tree. After the accident, Tiger was physically injured, but from those injuries he would recover. What would never recover was the reputation damage that ensued from the newspaper reports about his lifestyle. This wasn’t just a man who played around, this was an animal who played around. Women came out of the woodwork to report on their episodes with the golfing great. Some of the stories were seedier than others, such as the report that he slept with his neighbor’s 21-year-old daughter and with another woman in a church parking lot. It wasn’t long before Tiger did a press conference where, instead of talking about golf, he was talking about rehab. And the jokes just kept on coming. There’s only about a million of them available on the Internet. Some of the jokes don’t even have the word “hole” in them. And others are attributed to celebrities, like this one from Chris Rock: “Tiger’s gonna win the Master’s and then rape Phil Mickelson.”
Once, it was time for Tiger Idolatry. Then, it was time for Tiger Ridicule. And now? We’re just left with Tiger Pathos.
The truth is that Tiger has won numerous PGA tournaments since the fire hydrant. As recently as a couple of years ago, he was arguably the best player on tour. But since the hydrant, not one of his victories has come at a major tournament. Golf is defined by four events – the Masters, the British Open, the PGA, and the U.S. Open – and when it comes to those tourneys, Tiger has remained stuck on the same number (14) since June 2008.
Still, until very recently, Tiger’s fans have held out hope. As one of those fans, I’ve long stopped thinking about Tiger breaking Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors, but at least I’ve been assuming that Tiger would return to some amount of greatness and win another major or two. In other words, I took for granted that he would at least be able to compete on the PGA Tour. Then, Thursday night happened. At prime time, on network TV, at the United States Open, Tiger simply imploded. He completely lost his game. At one point, he accidentally lost control of his club and launched it 40 or 50 feet down the course. His final tee shot was a ground ball – the kind that I hit on one of my bad holes. And at the end of the round, he was ten over par – worse even than the 15 year old who was allowed to compete at the Open, not to mention all but one of the 150+ other golfers who teed it up that day. Tiger didn’t look like a professional golfer. Hell, he didn’t even look like a rank amateur.
Tiger has had bad rounds before, but this one was different because it was no longer an anomaly. In his prime, he went over one thousand rounds of golf before he’d shoot a round in the 80s. Now, he’s shot in the 80s in three of his last 16 rounds. Worse yet, his problems can’t be attributed to any one or two causes. His drives fly in all sorts of directions, and he can’t even trust his formerly devastating three wood. He has the yips when he puts. He plays much better in practice than when it counts. In short, his game is a total train wreck.
During Thursday night’s telecast, the announcers were commenting about how the fans at the tournament were literally laughing out loud at Tiger’s travails. And I’m sure that those laughs were nothing compared to the reactions in homes all over America. Just as Tiger has had legions of fans, he also has had legions of haters. People hate him for all sorts of reasons. The infidelities are the most obvious cause. Golf purists hate him for cursing and otherwise looking ornery on the golf course, rather than showing the kind of gentle spirit in which the sport prides itself. And even his fans, let alone his haters, don’t appreciate his reluctance to speak candidly at press conferences. In the past few years, whenever a major tournament has come and gone and Tiger has remained four wins away from tying Jack’s record, millions of Americans have smiled at his frustrations.
I just wonder how these haters felt about Thursday night. What we have now is no longer a Rembrandt, no longer an over-dog. He’s not even a typical PGA tour professional. Tiger is 39 years old, which means that he ought to be within his prime as a golfer, but what he resembles instead is a 39-year-old heavyweight prize fighter -- a washed-up, punch-drunk guy who never learned when to quit. Sports fans have vivid recollections of Larry Holmes extending his arm so that his fist was practically touching Muhammad Ali’s puffed up face, all the while pleading poignantly with the referee to stop the fight before he kills his old idol in the ring. You’d have to be a sick person to take joy at what had become of Muhammad Ali that night. Clearly, his career was finished and he had nothing left in the tank. But did he retire from boxing? Of course not -- he went on to fight Trevor Berbick a year later and looked even worse against Berbick than he did against Holmes. Perhaps the same indomitable spirit that made Ali great in the first place made him incapable of knowing when to quit. Willie Mays was another example of a man who didn’t know when to say when, but at least the Say Hey Kid fell apart playing a team sport, where a fan only had to spend a few seconds at a time watching his demise. At least he wasn’t out there alone, on an island, like Ali. Or Tiger.
Am I suggesting that it’s time for Tiger to put away his golf clubs for good? Not at all. Golf isn’t boxing. You can be old and relatively obese and still enjoy a day on the course. But what I am suggesting is that it’s time for Tiger to stop drinking his Kool Aid and start facing reality. Perhaps, he might even try something really revolutionary – giving a truly candid press conference in which he lets everyone in on what’s going on with his golf game. After all, we fans have directly or indirectly paid him half a billion dollars or more to hit around a golf ball and smile at a camera. The least he can do is tell the truth to us … and to himself.
Right now, Tiger flat out stinks as a professional golfer. The only thing keeping him in the top 200 is golf’s arcane system of counting tournaments from 23 months ago as much as tournaments from one month ago. In actuality, he’s probably not one of the best 300 or 400 players in the world. That’s how bad he looks. Tiger needs to make a renewed commitment to the sport if he wants to return to greatness. At a minimum, that will require playing as many tournaments as his other competitors, something he hasn’t done for years. And he needs to seek out advice from different corners, because his current brain trust surely isn’t getting the job done.
Mostly, though, Tiger needs to get his head straight from whatever has plagued him since the fire hydrant. I have watched this guy from the time of his college days at Stanford, and I have no doubt that with all his knee problems, back problems and wrist problems, his biggest problems are between the ears. That’s why he’s done better in the minor tournaments than the major ones and why, allegedly, he does better in practice than when it counts.
Perhaps it’s hard to shut all your demons out when you know that there are so many haters pulling for you to lose the grip of your club, or miss a short putt, or hit a ground ball from the tee. But that’s what Tiger will have to do if he wants to be a great golfer again. It might help for him to remember that, at this point, those who enjoy watching him struggle have issues of their own.
After all, no matter what you think of Tiger’s sex habits or his press conferences, there’s no denying his former genius. If Rembrandt, in the prime of his life, had started to make god-awful paintings, that wouldn’t be funny to watch. So why is it funny to watch a 39-year-old Tiger Woods lose to 15-year-olds at golf? Maybe for one tournament, we can laugh at the shock and slapstick of it all. But if it keeps happening, and Tiger keeps denying what it signifies, we’ll all be witnessing a Greek tragedy. Only morons laugh at those.