|These are the days of the Tiger Dynasty|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Whose world is it? Need you ask? Maybe you do. If so, consider this. Last week, all roads led to Strong Island. Consider this as well. Last week, Shaq and his Lakers were crowned NBA kingpins for the third consecutive year, triggering dynasty talk and it's-unfair innuendo. Dominator Hasek and the Detroit Red Wings gave a best-coach-ever argument to retiring hockey genius Scotty Bowman. Lennox Lewis handed Iron Mike Tyson his hat and various body parts to become undisputed heavyweight champion.
You know who. El Tigre.
We're not talking the front page of the sports section of The New York Times. We're talking the front page of The Times, period. On Wednesday, June 12, 2002, above Afganis, Poles, terrorists, the scandalous priests, Gaza conflict and greedy CEOs. On that day, before the opening round of the U.S. Open, Tiger played a practice round -- a round where 40 large showed up to watch. Him.
What is it like, to live in the Tiger -- as opposed to the Ming -- Dynasty? You oughta know. You're doing it. But why is it the Tiger Dynasty, with all that's going on? What about him captures us?
First, some samples of life within the dynasty:
As if the asphalt was the green and the golf ball was a white KIA, I am hurtling toward Manhattan. The world's communication is a stream of babble in the tongue of Tiger Woods:
"... it says, 'The Black Course is an extremely difficult course recommended for highly skilled golfers only.' Ha! It should say the Black Course is an extremely difficult course recommended for Tiger Woods only ...' "
Can't remember if that was a radio call-in voice, a letter on the editorial page of a big newspaper, or what. Probably both. Sure, the U.S. Open was being called "the People's Open," because it was played on this public monster of a Long Island course, and since it was local-angle, maybe that was the only reason why Tiger was in the left picture well above the fold on the front page of The New York Times the day before.
But I don't think so.
First round, Thursday, he was wearing a black sweater-vest over a white Polo shirt and a pair of black -- maybe charcoal grey -- slacks that always fall just so; I know why -- I've met the guy who tailors them for him. He calls on the cellie just now, says he'll be in Orlando next week for the Tiger foundation clinic, the Tuesday after the Open. Kind of a tight fit, for a guy who wins the Open, to be committed to a clinic 48 hours later, we agree. We just assume he will win the golf tournament, an eighth major win in 12 tries.
Once in town, you know Manhattan, there's a buzz to it, a sound of traffic, talk and undertalk that makes up this buzzsaw of noise -- only today, you can pick out two words everywhere, "Tiger ... Woods ... Tiger Woods ... Tiger ..."
"Heard what's up with Tiger?" he asks. "Here, you need to meet Lennox first ..." LL shakes with his left, because his right is busted up, deep bone bruises on the knuckle, maybe a hairline fracture, from bouncing it off Tyson's dome.
"My pleasure," says the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. "My distinct pleasure, champion," I reply. Lewis gives good interview, while Steward, only the world's finest boxing trainer, wonders about Tiger's tee time.
"He's in the afternoon group," I speculate. "And wherever you are, you'll hear what he shot. Mass communications is a %!, and will see to it."
Later on, toward early evening, I pull into a bistro at 50th and Lex called Oscar's to meet some CBS talent and grace them with some off-the-wall comments they usually seem to tolerate, if not enjoy; this time they barely notice that I've pulled up; they are distracted, watching the TV over the bar, the grey light dancing across their faces. Highlights of Tiger's round of 67.
"He has never won a par-70-course major."
"Anytime you say, 'He has never ...,' you're just unlocking the floodgates. He's a lock now."
"That's what the players believe."
"You too. You believe it too."
"He's got them all shazamed."
"He's got us all shazamed."
Still late, I hit Magno, the video editing facility over on Seventh Avenue, where the world-famous director is screening dailies featuring Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, Rosario Dawson and Barry Pepper; the latter is power-smoking a big fat Havana in one nightclub scene, to the point where it makes him sick.
"They're playing for you the way Mays played for Durocher." I whisper this sotto-voce to the director, using a simile to which he can relate. He grins and cackles ferally: "Or like Tiger."
The next day is no different, except that we are living in the Tiger Dynasty in Washington, D.C., getting the feed from the Golf Channel, from ESPN SportsCenter, or from network affiliates galore, all of them in monitors that turn ours into compound eyes -- we can see 100 monitors at once ... "A 67, followed by by a 68 ... one other golfer under par ... Padraig Harrington."
"I hate Tiger," says Jim Carter. He is smiling.
Rocco Mediate, quipster and quote machine: "Tiger ... is built to do this ... and he does it ... and he likes to do it ... every time ..."
Chris DeMarco says, "I can't play with him on this (Bethpage Black) course, and I'm man enough to admit it ..." DeMarco then talks about "expletitives," giving extra oomph and syllable to what the crowds out on Long Island must be thinking. They are like wet dogs out there in a driving Friday rain. The wet dogs include one of my editors. Been looking for him. I should have known where to look. "Sorry," he e-mailed. "I've been out here for the last three, four days."
Understandable. Tiger is where the action is.
Sergio Garcia pipes in after the rain round; he must have been taking Hingis' little bitter pills. He says if Tiger was out there in the afternoon downpour, the USGA would have halted play. Saying without saying that if it was Tiger out there, then the crowds wouldn't be heckling Tiger like they heckled him. "Maybe they're scared," said Sergio, confusing fear with awe.
As Tiger strides by, the crowds lining the greens and the switchover paths between holes, you think, "Nowhere else, in no other sport, can the crowd get this close without some kind of buffer or barrier between them and the player." These people look at him like he's some kind of long-lost lord and monarch, like fish might look at Neptune. In their eyes, if not his own, he is the master of all he surveys, the real undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
As he walks along, ESPN runs a poll: Who is the the World's Most Dominant Athlete? Tiger gets nearly 55 percent of the vote, Shaq some 30-odd percent. The undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, Lennox Lewis, gets something like 3 percent. Imagine this in the time of, say, Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali. It would not happen. But we're all living in the Tiger Dynasty, riding the Tiger Wave, caught up in the Tiger Vortex now. Can you dig it?
They can. He doesn't return the eye contact of the people lining the greens and the switchover paths, and they don't care; they can look at the eye of the Tiger, if not into it -- looking into it might be too much to bear, or to ask, anyway. Just to see him whiz by, hear his clothes rustle as he strides past them on his way into history, feel his breathing, or maybe say a word, not to them, but to anybody, is enough for the dispensation of their happiness. We've all been shazamed, just as well as the pro golfers on tour. Great PR can shazam you. But if you back up great PR and marketing with transcendent ability and an epic mission, if you mix in high drama -- watch out.
So it is Tiger, not Shaq, not Lennox Lewis, not the Dominator, who is the true athletic royalty. The Mets beat the Yanks 8-0; Shawn Estes throws at Clemens, but misses him. Who cares?
What did Tiger shoot on Saturday in the Open? 70? That all? He had four consecutive rounds in the 60s at the Open, counting last year at Southern Hills and this year at Bethpage Black, tying a record. That all he did? Tie a record? One of the best golf beat writers in America calls an even-par 70 in the U.S. Open "sloppy." Now, by the end of play on Saturday, Tiger, at 5-under, and Sergio, at 1-under, are the only two players in the Open field who are under par. But Tiger's 70 is "sloppy." He plays a different game in more ways than one.
We're all dialed and wired in. We're Living in the Tiger Dynasty, just as surely as it is James Brown singing "Livin' in America" in "Rocky IV." It's like somebody fused the DNA of Bruce Lee, Rocky Balboa, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Tutankhamen into one young frame.
The operative word is "young." The thing about living in the Tiger Dynasty-Vortex is, as the Carpenters once sang, and so very sappily ...
"We've only just begun ..."
I asked Seer and Oracle -- OK, it was just Road Dog -- why Tiger had his own Dynasty. What made him, what he did, and how he reacted to it, so different from any player in any other sport?
Why was Shaq resented, and Tiger wasn't?
"Hmmm. Well, see, most people, most dudes, I'll say, they never had a prayer about playing hoop anyway. Never could really play. But see, the white boys, for one, they know how hard golf is. They know it, they play it, it's theirs, and Tiger made it legit and universal for them. In a strange-ass way, he legitimized it for them. He made it a spectator sport. He made everybody care about it. So he made everybody care about what they care about it. So he's, like, a deity to 'em."
"Hey, man, I don't tell nobody this stuff. This stuff is for me, and something I might tell you. I like to know, because I like to know how to bet.
"See, Dub, most really great athletes, like, say, Shaq, or Kobe, or the Williams sisters, they go along, doing their thing, and then they get but so big, and then the competition and the media begin to eat them up. They're almost too good, and then they get resented and torn down, said to be bad for the game, and basically PR wrecked, because underneath that admiration is a quiet resentment of what they are doing. And what they are doing is temporary, compared to Tiger.
"Shaq and Kobe win three NBAs in a row (and by the way, if Portland three years ago and Sac-town this year had been about their business, it could've been only one title for the Lakers, but all the more credit to them, for getting three out of it) and that seems dynastic, if not dramatic. It definitely don't seem dramatic, yo. But what Tiger Woods is doing, bro-ski, that not only puts the Lakers or the Williams sisters in their place, it puts the Celtics of Russell and Auerbach in check, too, with their poor 11 NBA titles; or UCLA under John Wooden in place, with their yeah-so-what 10 NCAA titles ... nuttin', I mean in comparison to ... Tiger's 'bout to bounce, I mean, bounce so high he might never come down.
"Only ones you can compare to what Tiger is doing in terms of winning and long-levity ..."
"Whatever ... is the New York Yankees. Das it. That's the only real comparison can be made."
"But the Yankees won 25 World Series in the 20th century, had Babe Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, the Mick, Regga-la, Bernie, Jeet ... they're epic."
"Exactamundo, big boy ..."
"Ohhh ... I see ... I get it, Dog!"
"Huh!? Huh! You feel me, Dub?"
"What draws people into the Tiger Vortex is the great, surpassing skill, yes, the relatability of his size, which is normal, and, yep, the sheer epic proportions of what he's doing! It's not just the fact that he wins these majors, but we know his goal. And the goal is crazy difficult. Nicklaus' 18 pro major titles. Tiger has won eight major titles now. He's not even halfway there! So even if he won every other major title, a hellacious clip that not even he can keep up, it'd take five more years just to tie that record! And along the way, mini-dramas, like can he get the Grand Slam in the calendar year 2002! It's like ... I don't know, 'The Sopranos,' or something ...
"Things always come along in life, injuries, life just happening to you, life just walking up to you and saying, 'Uh, 'ullo, I'll be screwing around with you now, big-time,' then knocking you down a peg or two, or young Turks coming up who aren't shazamed. Tiger won his first major in 1997. He might win his last in 2020. He could go on and out like that, dude! He's going to play 25 more years! He's going to bury some of us who'll die having lived in interesting times; then our children and then their children will follow him. Deep down inside, we know this. He's scoring our lives better than ... Frank Sinatra! Or Stevie Wonder! Tiger is a force of nature! And we are being pulled along in his wake, floating on his contrail, living in the Tiger Dynasty! Oh, the epic scope of it! The sweep of it! The range! It's like ... a David Lean movie! Like 'Lawrence of Arabia' become 'Tiger of California.' Like 'El Cid' become 'El Tigre.' Michael Corleone become Eldrick T. Woods!"
"Calm down, R-Dub. Calm down. You're hyperventrick-a-lating."
"That's 'hyperventilating,' Dog. Who are you, anyway, Mike Tyson? Chris DeMarco?"
"No, Dub. I'm Tiger Woods. We all are."
"Guess Nike is definitely onto something here, huh, Dog?"
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."