A blog by Barry Edelson

A Good Sport Spoiled

Who Needs All of Those Other Players
When You Have a Superstar?

First, an admission: I am not now nor have I ever been a fan of Tiger Woods. Unlike the legions of casual golf viewers who tune in to a golf tournament only when Woods is playing (I will not deign to call them "fans"), I was an avid follower of the game for more than a decade before he came on the scene. And unlike the millions who are thrilled that Woods has single-handedly elevated the formerly staid and refined game of golf to the level of an international super-sport, I can barely bring myself to watch it at all anymore.

Over these last few years, I have pondered long and hard (all right, not all that long or hard) about why I feel this antipathy towards Woods. There are any number of possible explanations, none of them satisfactory. It can't be merely that Woods isn't exactly humble about his talents or his accomplishments. Neither are the vast majority of the other sports champions, rock musicians, movie stars and politicians upon whom people regularly bestow their ardent admiration. It also can't be his dominance of the sport that puts me out of sorts, as I never had such feelings about Jack Nicklaus in his prime. Lately, I have quite enjoyed watching Annika Sorenstam and Roger Federer greedily gobble up titles in their respective games.

I have finally realized that my inability to cheer for Woods has nothing to do with him. As legends go, he seems a rather amiable fellow: gracious in defeat, complimentary of (most of) his competitors, charitable and friendly. Like most sports fans, I have no doubt rooted for my share of louses, deadbeats and blowhards in a lifetime of watching. (We have also all blindly voted for more than a few candidates who fall into this category, but that's another story.) By comparison, Woods would seem an easy champion to love. What irks me so much about Woods, I have come to understand, is not the man or the golfer, but the way in which he has been packaged and hyped as though he were the second coming of Christ.

Why Golf?

When I was growing up, the idea of watching golf on television was about as appealing as watching paint dry. It was just about the only sport that would send me outside, unprompted, to mow the lawn or clean the garage. Unlike the team sports that dominated my childhood world, both as a fan and a player, golf was an alien invader. I didn't know a single person who actually played golf, and it wasn't until I took up the game as an adult that I began to appreciate the exceptional skill of professionals who were clearly playing a different game entirely from the one I attempted on the weekends.

My first conscious memory of watching golf, and of being interested, was the 1970 Open Championship at St. Andrews. All I actually remember is one shot: Nicklaus' tremendous drive over the green on the final hole, which led to his victory. This happened, of course, long before the day when many a weekend duffer, with modern equipment and the wind behind him, could occasionally smack a 300-yard drive (and occasionally even land it in the fairway). At that time, Nicklaus' colossal drive of 350-plus yards would have been considered a superhuman effort under any circumstances, let alone on the final hole of the final round of the game's biggest event. And in foul weather, to boot. The announcers, at a loss to describe the enormity of Nicklaus' feat, fell into seizures of astonishment. It was one of the few occasions in sports when the use of the word "unbelievable" was not hyperbole.

Compare this to last Sunday's final round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. When Woods sank a 15-foot putt for a birdie to send the championship into a playoff against Rocco Mediate, the first reaction of the TV announcer was, "Did you expect anything else?" And that, I'm afraid, is the nub of the problem. When Nicklaus won the 1970 British Open in dramatic fashion, it didn't shock anyone, given his already well-established standing as the leading player of his day. But it wasn't expected, either. If we could find a videotape of the telecast, I would bet that the announcers didn't spend the entire afternoon obsessing about Nicklaus and building up the tension towards an inevitable showdown on the final hole. The pleasure and glory of his come-from-behind victory derived precisely from the fact that it was unlikely. When he sank the final putt, Nicklaus threw his putter up into the air, the only time in his entire career that he made such a gesture. Even he evidently found the outcome remarkable.

In the mid-1980s, when I became a golf fan in earnest, the PGA tour had many talented players, any one of the whom could break from the pack on a given weekend and take the trophy. (Nicklaus was still something a force, winning the Masters in 1986 at the improbable age of 46.) It was like a steady, well-balanced machine, with veterans only gradually giving way to newcomers, who had to pay their proverbial dues in disappointment before finally making it to the winner's circle. A documentary broadcast the other night about the 1960 U.S. Open showed how this played out with uncanny similarity in an earlier generation: how a seasoned Arnold Palmer won his only U.S. Open title by capitalizing on the mistakes of the aging veteran Ben Hogan, playing in his final Open, and the 20-year-old rookie Jack Nicklaus, playing in his first. To be sure, not every tournament had a storyline so symmetrically satisfying. There were certainly surprise endings and surprise winners, but more often than not the game seemed to follow a stately trajectory that matched its leisurely pace and history.

And then came Tiger. There is no denying his superior physical and mental ability. He is without doubt better than anyone else playing today, and has shattered records the way Wayne Gretzky once did in the National Hockey League, so thoroughly as to throw the fans' sense of balance out of whack. The problem is not that Woods is some kind of interloper, but that the tour, the media, the sponsors and even the fans have conspired to crown him the champion of every tournament even before he wins. The risk for them, of course, is that when he goes through a dry spell, as even he does from time to time, interest wanes and the ratings plummet. (As a famous psychologist once said, when you put all of your eggs in one basket, you had better cling to that basket for dear life.) Of course, so far the risks have been more than outweighed by the benefits — and profits. The other players on the tour have reaped substantial financial rewards from the larger purses that have followed from Woods' success. Barely half way through the 2008 season, more than 50 players have already won more than $1 million. And many of them do enjoy their own cheering sections. But some of them must surely feel at times as though the PGA tour is now the Tiger Woods Show, and that they are merely props in the Woods juggernaut. Richard Sandomir, writing in The New York Times about last week's final round of the Open which fell on Father's Day as it often does, said that television viewers would have thought that Woods was the only player who ever had a father, so often did the announcers gush over him to the exclusion of almost every other player.

And the Winner Isn't…

Perhaps I would enjoy watching golf more if Woods were treated as first among equals, rather than as a species apart. Even if he is more likely to win than anyone else on the course, the air of inevitability that surrounds him makes every tournament feel like an exhibition instead of a competition. This is partly the fault of the modern style of sports coverage, when even the Tiddlywinks championship of central Ohio would be hyped as an event of historic import (call it the Brent Musburger school of broadcasting). From the dreamy, insipid music that introduces every TV segment at the Masters to the brassy fanfares of the Olympics, sports fans have come to expect every contest to be wrapped in sentimentality.

Broadcasters, advertisers and the PGA tour are no doubt feeding what they perceive to be the fans' insatiable desire to see greatness fulfilled week after week. Woods' consistently excellent play may also satisfy a craving for certainty in our altogether too human world of frailty and failure. But this fan, for one, would rather not know the outcome in advance. With Woods nursing a bad knee for the rest of this season, maybe I'll actually watch some golf again. Maybe I'll experience again the satisfaction of watching somebody different win every week. Competition: what a concept.

June 21, 2008

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