I started writing a post about Tiger Woods a number of times back when the scandal first broke but it kept getting bigger and bigger so fast that I had to keep scrapping my initial conjecturing and finally just said to hell with it. Probably should have said that to begin with and just let it go. But the media couldn’t, and I couldn’t either.
It was clear from the second day after the crash—and I said as much in a Twitter tweet–that no matter what really happened, we would never look at Tiger the same way again. Something smelled bad from the get-go, though the extent of the spreading stink was then unimaginable—even for those relatively few of us who never bought into his squeaky clean TV commercial role model corporate sponsor image.
But I’m a Jack Nicklaus fan. And Tiger may yet achieve his magnificent obsession of breaking Jack’s record of 18 major championships (he’s stalled at 14 now), but I’ll always argue that Jack was the greater player—and now no one can argue who was the greater sportsman.
This part’s easy—though easily overlooked in Tiger’s media-built role model façade. I’ll never forget the end of the 1980 U.S. Open, which Jack won with a record 272, beating his playing parter for an astonishing all four rounds, the relatively unheralded Isao Aoki from Japan by two shots. Now 40, he had few big victories left in his bag (he’d continue playing sporadically until 2005), and when he cinched his fourth and final U.S. Open win by draining his final putt for birdie the crowd erupted with joy.
But since, Aoki, too, could break the previous record by making his birdie putt—thereby earning big bonus money—the ever-alert, ever-sporting Jack (whether in victory or defeat), waved off the throngs and hushed them to allow Aoki to make his birdie in respectful silence. Contrast this with Tiger’s typically sullen demeanor as he was clearly about to lose to the relatively unheralded Korean golfer E.Y. Yang at last year’s PGA Championship, the year’s fourth and last major: It’s customary for the apparent losing member of the final twosome to putt out on the 18th green of the final day and let the champion-to-be have the last, winning putt—and the cheers that go with it. But Tiger not only forced Yang to putt first—which was technically within the rules, since Yang was further away from the hole—but then even more unceremoniously bogied the whole after Yang birdied for the win.
But Yang’s win, one of the biggest upsets in golf history, was more noteworthy in that it was the first time Tiger lost a major after holding the lead going into the final round. And it ended a year that was amazing for Tiger in one respect, but perhaps the beginning of the end in another.
Coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, he won six times on the PGA tour last year and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year for the 10th time. But in his all-important major championship quest he went winless for the first time since 2004. He missed the cut at the British Open, and the way he lost to Yang in the PGA was most telling: For the first time maybe ever, a golfer refused to back down against Tiger; indeed, relaxed and enjoying himself, Yang took the fight right to him. He said afterwards that he had observed how others always seemed to choke when paired with Tiger or when Tiger invariably topped the leader board.
“I’ve visualized playing against the best player quite a few times and always sort of dreamed about this,” he said. “So when I was at home watching Tiger, I’d try to visualize and bring up a mock strategy on how to win if I ever played against Tiger. When the chance came, I sort of [felt] that, Hey, I could play a good round and Tiger could always have a bad day. I guess today was one of those days.”
The fact is, Tiger has had scant competition throughout his career. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh—there were very few golfers remotely of his caliber to challenge him, and they did so rarely. Yes, this shows that he has been far and away the best player of his time, and it also testifies to the intimidating nature of his game and his presence. Jack Nicklaus, meanwhile, regularly had to overcome the historic likes of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman. To quote blogger Tank Jones, “Nicklaus’ competition would not be hyperventilating when Woods teed off.”
Yang may have actually exposed Tiger as the Mike Tyson of his era of golf. Tyson was considered to be the greatest boxer ever by those too young to know better, who were understandably awed by his fearsome power. But after a second-rate fighter like Buster Douglas refused to buckle under Tyson’s baleful glare, the truly exceptional champions Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis put him away for good.
But there’s another performer who comes to my mind when I reconsider Tiger Woods: Michael Jackson. Tiger apologists, like Michael’s, like to excuse his “irresponsible and selfish behavior”—to use Tiger’s own words from the first paragraph of Friday’s manufactured “press event,” for lack of a better term for it—by blaming it on a domineering father who deprived his boy of a normal childhood as a price for forcing him on the demanding path to superstardom in his field. Hence, neither Tiger nor Michael had the opportunity to grow up.
Sure enough, the New York Post’s enlisted “crisis-control expert” Robert Zimmerman rightly observed that Tiger “looked like an adolescent who was forced to wear a jacket” at the rigidly staged and controlled event. “He was clearly not comfortable in his clothes, and the set looked like a youtube video.” Body-language expert Mary Dawne Arden added, “He had an awful deer-in-the-headlights look.”
Sincerity issues aside, the speech (“the greatest bar-mitzvah speech of all time,” said Howard Stern) was too long, poorly written (likely not by him) and delivered. But there were revealing moments.
Like “I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply”: How did he “convince” himself—and why, oh why can’t I? And his sense of entitlement, i.e., “I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.” True, no doubt, but sounds too much like someone else wrote it to score points with the corporate sponsors.
His therapy, he said, has taught him “the importance of looking at my spiritual life and keeping in balance with my professional life.” Say what? Spiritual life? Like in Madonna and kabbalah? Tom Cruise and Scientology? Sounds like rich man’s Buddhism to me.
“So I can say the things that are most important to me: My marriage and my children.” Well, congratulations! Except you know what? Too much information. Yes, it is personal stuff that’s none of my business. You’re not the president–even if the stop-everything-else attention of the event seemed like a presidential press conference. Not my spiritual leader. You haven’t killed anyone. It’s not Afghanistan. It’s not health care.
Then again, as my favorite writer, the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick says, “I suppose that if a fellow accepts millions of dollars in endorsements, payments predicated on an image that turns up fraudulent, that has to be at least some of our business, no?”
Mushnick pointed out yesterday, too, that since he admitted taking controlled substance Ambien, he was driving under the influence when he crashed his Escalade and therefore should have been arrested.
“I don’t get to play by different rules,” Tiger said, but he’s always been allowed different rules, not just by Florida law enforcement but by the golf authorities and media ever since he first came on the scene.
“We can never allow it to be only what it is,” Mushnick wrote a few days after Tiger’s November 27 mishap. “Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer in the history of the game. We can’t stop there. No, he’s also the world’s greatest human. And to suggest anything less means you’re the one with the problem. Hmmm, perhaps you even have a problem with the color of Tiger’s skin. Team Tiger, you may recall, dropped that hint, early. So if you know what’s good for you, stick with the story, especially you TV guys: Greatest golfer, greatest human. Got it? Now don’t forget it.”
Mushnick has long documented how the sports media has bent over backwards in hyping Tiger, even going so far as to artificially move his name up to the front page of the leader board rather than following tradition by listing players with the same score alphabetically. He’s written how Tiger was taught to beat the rules from the time he was 15, when his amateur career was funded underhandedly by his IMG rep firm. How he beat the PGA Tour rules disallowing appearance fees.
“Even his first TV ad, in 1996 for Nike, days after he turned pro, was disturbingly dishonest,” wrote Mushnick. “Golf’s most privileged amateur–he’d previously claimed that he didn’t want to be thought of as a minority golfer–spoke of himself as a victim of racial discrimination, unable to play certain courses. While no such fact existed–not for him–black pros who’d suffered genuine racism–Jim Thorpe among them–scorned that ad for what it was: insulting.”
Sportswriter/author Dave Zirin rightly compared the nature of Tiger’s private imbroglios with Bill Clinton’s, then documents a number of truly impeachable offenses in Tiger’s financial entanglements with truly offensive entities like Chevron (“if Woods had a shred of social conscience, this partnership would never have existed”) and Dubai (“a city that has been built over the last thirty years by slave labor”)—“business as usual for Tiger who would sooner swallow a five-iron than take anything resembling a political stand.”
But none of this, of course, jibes with the carefully created and maintained Tiger Woods corporate image. Wrote Mushnick: “What soon became obvious on TV–Woods threw foul-mouthed tantrums on the course–was ignored, excused or admired as evidence of his great desire. Such misconduct from others was condemned as inexcusable.”
None other than Tom Watson said pretty much the same thing in a recent CNN report.
“I feel that he has not carried the same stature that other great players that have come along like Jack, Arnold, Byron Nelson, the Hogans, in the sense that there was language and club throwing on the golf course,” said Watson. “I think he needs to clean up his act and show the respect for the game that other people before him have shown.”
Which brings me to the most important thing, really, that Tiger said Friday.
“When I do return, I need to make my behavior more respectful of the game,” he said.
If you don’t watch or play golf, you might not know that it’s a game where respect is built in—along with responsibility and honor. The player is responsible for his own score, and is expected to be honest at all times (if you cause a ball to move and no one sees it, you’re still expected to count it as a stroke). You repair your ball mark on the green, you replace your divot on the course, you rake the sand in the bunker. You don’t walk through a playing partner’s putting line or let your shadow cross it.
It’s a gentleman’s game, and Tiger, despite his extraordinary talent and ratings draw, has been no gentleman to it.
Only time will tell whether he will beat Jack’s record, though even with what was shaping up to be the perfect 2010 for him in the majors department—half of his majors wins have occurred at the 2010 majors courses—the cracks in his armor that appeared at last year’s majors are more likely than not only going to widen as the 34 year-old ages, as younger players come up, and as he deals with all the new pressures brought on by the disintegration of his personal life.
Jack, who, incidentally, showed his usual class in declining comment on Tiger’s personal life other than to note that “time usually heals all wounds,” only won six majors after turning 34. But even then, he was well into his oft-stated mission of “giving back to the game what the game has given me.”
In his statement Tiger referenced his Tiger Woods Foundation and its developmental programs for kids.
“Parents used to point to me as a role model for their kids,” he noted. “I owe all those families a special apology. I want to say to them that I am truly sorry.”
He concluded: “Finally, there are many people in this room, and there are many people at home who believed in me. Today, I want to ask for your help. I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again.”
I would suggest that he first needs to go back to the basics of the game itself. Not the mechanics—which he has mastered—but the ethics.