I just got done watching a terrific golf tournament, the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus’ tournament, in Dublin, Ohio. Turns out that Tiger Woods won the tournament, his 73rd PGA title, tying none other than Jack Nicklaus himself for second all-time. At Jack’s own tournament no less. Tiger Woods tied Jack Nicklaus for the second-most number of wins ever on the PGA tour. Wow.
The way Tiger won was terrific, bordering on other-worldly. He birdied the last 3 of 4 holes. He made, what Jack claimed on live TV, was one of the best shots ever played under the circumstances; a chip-in from off the green on the 16th hole, with water looming behind the hole and more gnarly rough short of the hole. Tiger hit the shot within about a 3-inch window that he had to, the ball rolled on the green’s contours, and went in. Shot for the ages. That shot, though it came on 16, won the tournament as we would find out in the next 40 minutes.
What I will remember most, though, is what happened after Tiger birdied the 18th hole, solidifying the win. As is customary, when golfers finish their round at Muirfield, the host of the tournament, Jack Nicklaus, meets every golfer, shakes their hand, and says a few nice things to them before they go sign their scorecard.
Tiger climbed the hill beyond the green, and the TV camera’s caught the exchange between Tiger and Jack at that moment. Jack congratulated Tiger and said something about his chip-in on the 16th. To which Tiger replied, and I quote (watching & listening), “that was something, wasn’t it?”
Tiger, have you learned nothing from the last 3 years? Sure, you just won a golf tournament, a big golf tournament. But have you learned nothing of humility in the face of a legend, and I might add, the best golfer ever and even more the best golf humanitarian ever? You may be the best golfer ever when all is said and done, but you will never get the latter of that previous question. Your comment at that moment, walking off the 18th green after tying Jack’s number of wins, symbolized the crux of your downfall in 2009 and will symbolize your ultimate reckoning, though perhaps not on the golf course. Rather than say “wow, I”m something, huh?” (even if true), you couldn’t say, “wow, Jack, it is such an honor to tie your record here.” In that moment, which after seeing reactions I got from Facebook from posting a similar commentary means I’m in the minority, you sealed NOT your golfing fate, but your human fate. Maybe those will intersect (again, as in 2009), maybe they won’t.
Tiger gets compared to Phil Mickelson a lot, with good reason. Phil has been the only one to (remotely) hold a candle to Tiger in the last 10 years consistently, and certainly the only American to do so. We see video, and see articles, about Phil staying hours after his round to sign autographs. Being nice to fans, engaging people, slapping hands with them, fist-bumping them. Some people say its fake. There was an email going around passed to me from a friend of mine years ago talking about Phil’s supposed nickname on tour whether true or not – “FIGJAM” (Fuck I’m Great, Just Ask Me).
I say its not fake. I’m not on tour, I don’t know for sure. All I can speak about is perception. If Phil is FIGJAM, actually signing autographs for kids and helping his family through Cancer, he’s doing a great job of acting, right? – as well as winning, I might add. Anyone remember the purposeful reference on-air from Jim Nantz on CBS after Phil’s Masters win in 2010…”a win for the Family”? Look it up and Google it, and listen to what Nantz said in 1997 after Tiger’s win at the Masters.
This past April, at the Masters, I didn’t see any other Hall of Famer’s besides Phil sitting front row at 7AM on the opening day of the tournament when the legends teed off to start the tournament ceremonially. Phil was there. Where was Tiger? I do know, for an absolute fact, that Phil has made his share of “unbelievable” shots. And if what happened at Memorial today with Tiger had happened in the exact same scenario with Phil, rather than Tiger, I know for sure Phil would have walked off, gave Jack a hug, thanked him for his example, graciousness and hospitality, and signed his scorecard. Then gave a ridiculously awesome press conference.
The first words out of his mouth would not have been “that was something, wasn’t it?” Any golf fan, or sports fan, knows there is no way this would have happened.
Tiger will end up with something more or less than double the wins that Phil Mickelson gets in his career, and more than triple or quadruple of most any other golfer in the 90′s, 00′s and 10′s era’s. Good for him. The talent is undeniable. The competitive force is undeniable. The sheer aura is undeniable.
My issue is that golf, at least as I know it from reading about it, watching it, playing it and consulting my elders about it, is actually about a little bit of class and a little bit of humility. My issue is that, while we can all think Tiger had his “comeuppance” 3 years ago, he has not. Some people are wired to simply not give a shit about what others say. Most are not wired this way. The people who are not will never, ever, understand this dynamic. And maybe that’s why not everyone wins 73 PGA tournaments and 14 majors. But still. And this is my blog, like the golf course is Tiger’s space, so I can say it: and I believe he is a major AH that I hope will not overtake Jack. Every time Tiger walks by a 10 year-old kid and looks down rather than smiling at him or her, it will add to my feelings about him. Golf is different than any other major sport because of its proximity, and golfer’s are expected to be different; even the golfer’s who ARE truly different.
Tiger gets his time on national TV every week. I get mine here.
I’m not proud to type all this. I mean, I think every one of us has been a jerk, done things wrong, or made mistakes; so I’m not calling the moral high ground on anything. And I’m a former (fairly) high-level athlete, so I respect to the utmost degree, the talent and sheer awesomeness of Tiger. Yet, about Tiger, I saw this prickly side of him as early as 1997. Ask my friends, I said way before he was a champion that he would never be a true champion in the golf sense. A golf champion, maybe. A golfer’s champion, no way.
In 2009, I thought it again not because he made a mistake(s), but because he made many of them seemingly out of hubris and nothing more. He didn’t simply give in to temptation from being the most celebrated athlete on the planet; he celebrated it and worked it. Facts are facts.
I will say that as recently as early 2012, I started to come around to him. I figured he paid his penance and there was a big part of me that liked to see his success at that very point. We’re Americans, we love comeback stories right? I mean, I’m a huge dog lover and thought Mike Vick was despicable, yet, the guy actually seemed to understand he was acting as an idiot and paid his due at some level. He’s not a great human being, but he at least “got it”. You didn’t see Vick celebrating his celebrity a whole lot after his sentence, right? I’m not comparing the magnitude of the crimes here, but arguably Vick was on a similar public stage as Tiger – as popular and as celebrated – and went through quite a bit to rehabilitate his name with good reason and, I think most would say, with good results relatively speaking for him.
Tiger won at Bay Hill this past March. Played brilliantly. Got a new caddie, the old caddie from one of the golfers I have grown to really love – Fred Couples. I was starting to get back to being “in” for Tiger. His life is publicized more than any other person in the world, and I simply thought he was really feeling a burden that no one else could have imagined the last 3 years. I still think that. I think no one can possibly understand what it’s like to be Tiger Woods. Good for him for succeeding professionally in this arena.
Yet, I will go back to something I learned a long time ago.
You learn more about a person when they win than when they lose. Everyone hates to lose. They’ll be pissed off. They’ll be angry. They might cry. They might throw things. People say Tiger is a terrible loser. Well, they’ve never talked to any other athletes with any salt to them. Tiger’s the worst loser? No chance. He’s a bad loser on the most public stage. But not the worst loser. Anyone who has played sports HATES, HATES to lose. Tiger just hates it with camera’s on him which somehow makes it more poignant. When you win, though, the emotional response defines you. You’re happy. You’re on top of the world. Yet, you (should) know it is fleeting. 15 years from now, there will be someone way better than you were. Heck, a week from now, someone may be better than you were especially in golf.
What I took from Tiger’s win this weekend, and his completely unabashed lack of humility, or deference to a REAL legend (Jack), is that somehow he has not learned this lesson. We see his fits on the course. Throwing clubs. Swearing. Bitching about camera’s (somehow when he speaks about this, people listen). Having fans reach out to him to slap his hand and him just ignoring them, while getting defended by network TV saying “he’s focused” and not questioning it more than that. Golf is a game that is played inside the ropes, yet resides in close proximity to the commoner. And by close proximity, it means about 10-15 feet away at any given point for the commoner. Golf, at least as I understand it, is a gentleman’s and gentlewoman’s game. Have you seen the “First Tee” commercials???
I called my Dad after the tournament, who had not seen the tournament in real-time, and asked him about the champions of the past because I knew he was a golf fan. I asked whether Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson or Arnie Palmer ever came across as an ass. He said “no, absolutely not.” I remembered seeing video from when Tom Watson beat Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry fair and square. Jack put his arm around Tom on the 18th green. Could you ever, possibly, see Tiger doing this to Phil or another competitor? No chance!!!
Tiger, you have a long, long way to go, and it’s not just four Major championships. Stop being such a freaking jerk. You’re not “untouchable”, you’re actually just like everyone else except you know how to wield a golf club a lot better than 99.99% of the people on the planet with the exception of the person whose golf tournament you just won. Somehow, there were a few people before you who won a bunch of tournaments (and a few still are, while beating you I might add) who still realize they could actually keep carrying the game forward and give our kids and younger generation something to look up to and strive for.
If I had kids today, I would tell them to root for Phil. Sure, he has 40-something less wins than Tiger. But he wouldn’t walk by people blindly and then be such a pompous jerk in victory.