Golf is seen by many as a sport for entitled Caucasians, older folks, or simply people with too much time on their hands. But what golf has historically been is a game for gentlefolk, where one self-polices rules violations and generally behaves in a civilized manner, and expects his or her playing partners to do the same. To me, this upholding of old-fashioned behavior and standards is the important part of golf.
I live in Augusta, home of the Masters, where you pretty much can't get a driver's license if you don't play golf. Last Sunday, I took my kids to the Masters tournament. It was one of the most glorious days I've seen there, and I've been attending for 40 years.
My six year old son is a fan of Tiger Woods, and badly wanted to see him in person. We were standing at the practice putting green by the ropes when Tiger Woods strolled up next to us to start his putting prep. His caddy and coach were with him. Needless to say, my son was awestruck. Tiger then proceeded, out of nowhere, to start cussing like a sailor, for no visible reason. There he is, one of the most privileged people on the planet, playing in the greatest sports event in the world on a resplendent day, and all he can do is bitch. As Yoda would say "Over yourself, get."
Happily, my son doesn't (yet) know the words Tiger was bleating. But Tiger had to know that there were dozens of people, many of them kids, standing within 20 feet of him getting an earful of his invective. He clearly didn't care. It's Tiger's World (tm), we just live in it. We promptly went somewhere else.
As I watched the tournament later on TV, Tiger would openly mouth obscenities when he hit a bad shot. You might chalk it up to a bad day, but he has made a habit of this during his career, as well as tossing clubs around on occasion. It's expected behavior for him now. If the FCC fined Tiger for every time he blathered the F-word on national TV he'd probably have $25 million in penalties racked up by now.
Many people, including most fawning TV commentators, celebrate this as "passion" or "competitive drive," as if the rest of the PGA tour do not possess these qualities. The reality is that it that Tiger's "intensity" is simply the d-bag behavior of a coddled bully. This narcissism first evidenced itself a decade ago when he imperiously hung Fuzzy Zoeller out to dry for misinterpreted comments that offended Tiger's sensibilities. If you google "Fuzzy Zoeller," 10% of the responses reference this incident. All Tiger had to do was shrug it off. He chose not to, nearly destroying Zoeller's career.
The fun continued a few years later when Tiger had his caddy throw a spectator's camera in the water. You know, because it might click. Tiger belittled the sport of hockey recently, where you have to deal with a bit more than a shutter click. Infer away.
I talked this morning to a crossing guard at my kids' school who worked the tournament at the clubhouse. He said he had never seen anyone so pissed as Tiger was as he was leaving on Sunday, having been bested by his arch-rival, Phil Mickelson. Tiger bolted his way past most reporters and petulantly stared down anyone who tried to talk with him. Mickelson, on the other hand, greeted fans and took time to talk with people after his round, as almost all professional golfers will do.
When I grew up going to the Masters, if you wanted to talk to Nicklaus or Palmer, you simply talked to them. They didn't act better than you or put on an air like playing golf is a mission from God. It's not. Nothing Tiger Woods does approaches the relevance of a neonatal nurse, a fireman, or the crossing guard I talked to this morning. Who matters more, Tiger or Sully?
But it's a game with standards of civilized behavior, which is in short supply these days. If Tiger Woods was a company, he'd be AIG. Talented, egomaniacal, oblivious and dragging the system of standards down around him. Winning is not everything. Tiger Woods is good commercially for golf and TV ratings, but in the ways that matter, such as responsible behavior and representing the core values of golf, he is bad for the game.
Tiger's goal is to beat Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major tournament victories. If he stays healthy he probably will, but he will lag in the area that really matters. Jack Nicklaus always conducted himself as a gentleman. My Dad and I used to follow Nicklaus around the tournament when I was a boy. Happily, Dad never had hesitate or think twice when he took me up to the ropes to watch Jack practice putting. Tiger, not so much.
Tiger spent a few years retooling his swing, and in person it is flabbergasting to watch. It might be optimal for him to now consider retooling the really important part of the game.
Updated 12/2/09 : I removed this post last summer because of the flack I caught online about it. I'm republishing it because Tiger through his recent behavior has proven beyond a doubt he will never be the equal of Jack Nicklaus.
THE spot for your favorite fan theories and the best Netflix recs. Learn more