Not the same without Tiger
For better or worse, golf is dependent on Tiger Woods' playing
My jaw dropped and my temperature rose as I watched Tuesday's 6 p.m. "SportsCenter." One after another, commentators and analysts delivered solemn eulogies. Tiger Woods was out with back surgery. Golf was dead.
At least, that's how it sounded to a guy who has loved, watched and played golf for 48 years -- me. No Tiger, no interest. It almost felt as if they should just cancel next week's Masters or at least postpone it until Tiger says he's ready to go again.
Here's what I almost yelled at my TV:
DOES ANYONE BUT ME REMEMBER TIGER WOODS HASN'T WON A MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIP IN ALMOST SIX YEARS AND THAT HE HASN'T WON THE MASTERS IN NINE?
Instead I folded my arms and thought: Masters Sunday has long been my favorite day in sports -- no event provides more consistently astonishing closing drama. I will miss Tiger, but I will still sit in my pew as always, watching my Masters and my U.S. Open and my British Open and my PGA with or without Tiger.
I was so steamed I thought about calling my best friend from childhood in Oklahoma City to commiserate -- but quickly remembered he loves Tiger almost as much as he does his wife and son. So I settled for calling my mom. She loves Tiger, too, but she loves golf more. She used to be quite a player.
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"You looking forward to watching the Masters?" I asked.
"Oh, I guess," she said.
"You guess? You are going to watch, aren't you?"
"Well, it's just not the same without Tiger."
Mother knows best. Those words pierced my pride like one of Tiger's stingers. I realized I'm going to miss him far more than I was admitting to myself.
OK, I'll give you this: Since he won his last major -- on a broken leg at the 2008 U.S. Open -- golf hasn't come close to replacing Tiger Woods. No Next Tiger has stepped into the vacuum, in consistent dominance or force-field aura.
So no matter how Tiger deceived us into thinking he was a model husband and father, no matter how the resulting scandal and rehab and shame wrecked his confidence, no matter how much he threatened his Nicklaus-catching health with vanity-fueled power-lifting, distance-running, wind-sprinting and even "I am invincible" maneuvers with the Navy Seals, no matter his four knee operations and multiple Achilles/neck/shoulder/elbow injuries and now microdiscectomy surgery -- Tiger Woods STILL owns golf at a broken-down 38.
How lucky is he?
How spoiled are we?
For 11 years he took us places we'd never been. His 12-shot, hello-world breakthrough in his first Masters as a pro in 1997 remains the single most stunning sports performance I've ever witnessed. I covered many of his greatest triumphs -- the terminal crushing of Sergio Garcia's confidence at the '99 PGA, the 15-shot win that closed the 2000 Open, the trick-shot shootout win over Bob May in the 2000 PGA. I never much cared for Tiger off the course -- pompous brat -- but never tired of writing and debating his human thunderstorm of cursing, club-throwing, fist-pumping and field-slaying.
Beginning in '97, Tiger was the only golfer in the world who played with Jordan-esque fury. His "rivals" bowed to him -- even rooted for him -- because he magnetized so many new fans and helped make even average competitors rich with new endorsement millions.
Yet for me, this was the shocker: I thought in '97 that Tiger Woods had thrown open the Augusta National gates for a parade of young African-American golfers to come charging up PGA Tour leader boards. Remember the Nike ads featuring kids of all colors saying, "I am Tiger Woods"?
Did not happen. I envisioned that by now, the PGA Tour would be on fire with eight or 10 young African-American stars -- maybe more -- who'd be taking some of the spotlight off Tiger. Instead, today's Tour has zero African-American players.
Not zero African-American stars. Zero African-American players.
Maybe the game is too expensive for underprivileged kids. Maybe course proximity is a problem. Maybe minority kids just haven't been made to feel welcome enough at advanced levels of competition. Or maybe what has happened to baseball has happened to golf: Maybe kids of color just find football and basketball more fun to play.
Golf is just so damned hard.
So despite First Tee programs providing instruction, encouragement, equipment and course privileges in cities across America: zero. I've done my small part for the First Tee site in Oklahoma City. First-class facility. I've seen lots of black kids hitting lots of balls on its practice range.
Tiger wins again.
After 17 years on Tour, part of Tiger's appeal remains the perception that he, and he alone, is beating White Country-Club America at its own game. This subplot has drawn in Tiger supporters of all colors who wouldn't know a five iron from a branding iron. The only reason they watch what to them is a slow, silly game is to root for Tiger. If he's out, they tune out.
Stephen A. Smith, my "First Take" debate partner, readily acknowledges he isn't much of a golf fan, but he sure is a Tiger fan.
This occasionally offends the lifelong golf fan in me.
I did not grow up around a country club. I paid some dues. My first clubs were bought at a pawn shop. I played a lot at a public course called Lincoln Park, off what's now Martin Luther King Blvd. in a predominantly black neighborhood. I often saw black people playing golf at Lincoln in the 1960s, and I see them there every summer when I play what remains my favorite course in the world.
Yet what still baffles me is that through my childhood and early sports-writing days, more black golfers were having more impact on pro golf than they are now. Lee Elder. Charlie Sifford. Jim Thorpe. Calvin Peete. Look 'em up.
What frustrates me now is that through my childhood and early sports-writing days, golf was far more week-to-week captivating because Jack Nicklaus had far more hungry challengers who could sometimes match him in talent, desire and backbone and who sometimes surpassed him in popularity and leading-man charisma. Arnold Palmer. Gary Player. Julius Boros. Johnny Miller. Tom Watson. Ben Crenshaw. Seve Ballesteros. Look 'em up.
That era also had its gate-crashing, establishment-rocking outsider, Lee Trevino, known as the "Merry Mex," who was so offended by the way Augusta National members ran their Masters that he refused to dress in the club's locker room, instead lacing up his spikes in the parking lot like any public-course hacker.
How I miss those days. Now it's Tiger or bust.
Sure, there's Phil, as in Mickelson. He'll do when Tiger can't. But Phil's 43 now, still trails Tiger by nine majors and too often has left his fans dumbfounded just when they thought they could trust him. Ireland's Rory McIlroy is a nice, curly-haired kid with rare talent but no Eye of the Tiger -- no killer will, drive to dominate. Bubba Watson is a delightfully uncomplicated lefty who looks like he might just be content with his one major, the 2012 Masters.
So Tiger has kept us hanging on the past six years by, incredibly, winning eight times in his last tournament before a major. Now he's ready! April fools: He has become a bigger tease than the annually 8-8 Dallas Cowboys.
Tiger Woods keeps showing up at majors with the slump-shouldered, long-faced confidence of an imposter. Now he's gone again, and it almost feels like he's becoming a sympathetic figure again. I just feel sorry for golf.