It’s a pretty complex relationship, the one between sports fans and Tiger Woods. For a while, it was pretty easy to not like Tiger. A young phenom, who hit it long, Woods was kind of surly, kind of brash, and easy to dislike as he made the transition from amateur to professional.
His father said outrageous things and was the epitome of a stage parent. We were bombarded with video of Tiger when he was on the Mike Douglas show. Tiger was the youngest this and youngest that and his father was everywhere, reminding us about it at every turn. Woods talked about his “A” game, his “C” game, his penchant for fast food and video games.
People who didn’t know anything about sports, and had never even watched golf on television, let alone seen a golf course in person, knew Tiger liked to wear red on Sundays. His lucky color we were told.
Then there was the money. Millions thrown at him by corporations trying to jump on the Tiger train, grabbing a bit of this star.
Different ethic groups tried to claim him, but Tiger demurred, calling himself a “cablinasian.”
All of that was easy to distance yourself from as a sports fan, with one problem: he kept winning. A streak at the end of his rookie year showed him to be a force and a regular on tour. His Masters win in 1997 rewrote the record book.
Still a sports fan could call it a one time thing. The newest John Daly. Okay, we think he’s a player, but let him prove it over time.
Then came the well documented “finding” of the new swing, and the call to his swing coach from the back of the range.
“I got it,” we heard Tiger said.
“So what,” many sports fans groaned.
The streak of wins followed, the comeback at Pebble Beach, the challenge to Byron Nelson’s record.
“Now Nelson, he was a real player,” the old-timers said in the nineteenth hole. Even his victory at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the most dominating performance seen in modern golf, didn’t convince some.
“Perfect weather,” was the cry from the peanut gallery.
Although it did turn a few heads.
When David Duval shot 32 on the outward nine at St. Andrews there were whispers. “Now we’ll see what he’s made of,” and we did. As Duval opened the door on the tenth hole leaving a birdie putt one roll short, Woods stepped through it, making his putt and the march to history was on. Duval melted down, Woods kept up the parade, like royalty, marching in front for all to see.
But it wasn’t until he walked off the 18th hole at St. Andrews did we see a bit of Tiger we didn’t know about before. A small hand on the shoulder, the comment, “walk off like a champion, because you are a champion” to Duval awakened echoes of sports heroes of the past.
Was it Tiger changing, or was it us?
Perhaps a bit of both.
Woods, at 24, was now a real part of history and he seemed to know what that is and all that goes with it. Before, all we saw was the exultation of victory, the fist pumping and the uncommon celebrations. Perhaps his graciousness in losing the match play championship to Darren Clarke was a bit of a hint of things to come. Maybe his position as the best in the world is so unchallenged, he can concentrate on the little things “old school” champions possessed. Maybe it’s none of that.
Maybe it’s just growing up.
Something has changed though, in Tiger, and in us.
Watching closely through the first two rounds of the PGA Championship, we wanted to see how Woods would treat his playing partner, Jack Nicklaus, the one with the title Tiger wants: greatest to have every played. Woods deftly went about his business, posting a first round leading 66, all the while showing deference to Nicklaus. Not an easy two-step to pull off.
Even Nicklaus, heretofore rather spare with his praise of Woods, said Tiger was the total package. In his post-round interview, Jack said he didn’t know if he could keep up with Woods in his prime. Woods was on the two-shot during the interview, and very respectfully stood and listened, watching Nicklaus, listening to what he had to say. No rolling of the eyes, no big smiles, no guffaw’s, no false modesty. Just, perhaps learning. When asked, Tiger said the right things and shut up. No scene stealing, no melting into the background.
When faced with a final round challenge at the PGA Championship by a virtual unknown outside of golf, Bob May, Woods dug deep and matched May shot for shot, finally winning in a playoff. If you tuned in only for the final round it was like watching a world class athlete play your club pro who just came out from the shop after folding shirts. May is nothing of the kind, an accomplished player from Southern California who has been a force in Europe for the past three years. How do we know that?
Tiger told us. He knew all about May growing up. He told us “May was the man!” in Jr. golf circles when Tiger was young(er).
This is the kind of stuff sports fans have been waiting for. A winner on the playing field, and somebody who understands the responsibility of his stature. It’s what the heavyweight champion of the world used to be. There was so much more to wearing the belt as the biggest and best. Perhaps that’s what the founders of golf at the Old Course had in mind when they gave a belt, instead of a trophy to the Open Champion. Young Tom Morris retired that belt, winning it three consecutive times and taking it home.
Maybe we should find it and fit it around Tiger’s waist.
Right now, he deserves it.