What I Talk About When I Talk About Tiger

Tiger Woods is back at Augusta as a different man, but that doesnt mean the excitement around him has dampened over the years.
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“What you need to understand is this: Masters Week is Coachella for CEOs.” Kenny Dichter tells me this Tuesday night, at 30,000 feet, as we are about to begin our descent into Augusta Regional Airport. And if anyone knows, it’s Kenny, who’s not only a CEO himself, of Wheels Up, a private air travel service, but a man who also throws some of the most exclusive, high-end parties during the event.

Then today, as I was walking past the famous Tree outside the clubhouse, toward the one tee, I accidentally found myself in the super VIP area just off the dining area outside. I surveyed the scene and instantly understood Dichter’s sobriquet for this week at Augusta National. There were green-jacketed members—in both Godfather and actual life terms “men with a belly”— talking loudly and real close to one another, almost bodying each other, with wide smiles, clear, unblinking eyes and that particular sense of fellowship that comes from knowing you are the king of all you can see.

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As I got closer to them, and to the aspirants to their caste, that is, the titans of industry, agents, Chairmen of boards, billionaires, who are ThisClose but not yet members, I heard one name repeated more frequently than any other. Tiger. But the way they were using the name was as a particular form of currency. “I ate with Tiger a month ago and he said….” “Well, no, I was talking to Steiny (his agent), who felt like the key was….” “The thing you need to understand about this course, and this guy, and I’ve known him since he was a boy is….”

And they went on whispering about him as if their words could influence not only his round tomorrow, but his entire tournament, and maybe the rest of his career.

At another time in my life, in America’s life, I might have regarded these conversations a little differently. But now, listening to these men speculate about how Tiger would perform, with all the certainty another powerful man uses to speculate about China, the beautiful Azaleas wilt just a little bit in my eyes.

In fairness to the CEOs, they’re not the only ones talking about Tiger in a way that’s slightly troubling to me. Some of the sportswriters I have walked past in the media center spit his name out of the sides of their mouths like a chewed-up Skoal Bandit. As if it’s something they put in there by accident, or that was forced on them, but somehow tastes kind of off. But then, they pop another one in. Because they know they need the powerful feeling they get from its effects.

They don’t want to talk about Tiger, but they can’t help themselves. They need to talk about him. In an industry that’s almost extinct, they know that Tiger just might be the one thing that can extend their professional life spans. These writers aren’t bad people. They are smart and wise. But they are also mostly distant and cynical by choice. They don’t root. They don’t give a sh-t who wins or who loses. And they are proud of these things. In their world, it means they are grown ups. Pros. But here, with Tiger, they are being forced to care. And it’s clear they resent it. 

But when it comes to Tiger Woods, I am not at all objective. I am what the professional wrestlers would call a “mark.” I am the opposite of distant and detached. I am a giant f---ing fan. 

I have this thing I say sometimes. And I like how it sounds. So it’s possible I say it more than I need to. And that thing is this: “Tiger Woods is my second favorite sports team.”  The Knicks, in that construction, are number one. Although, in truth, they have been so bad for so long, and so poorly run, they barely even exist in my mind anymore. But Tiger: even at his lowest moment, after the crash, after the injuries, after all of it, has never been far from my brain.

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My son, Sam, was born in 1995. He was 2 when Tiger holed out and hugged his father on the eighteenth hole. And my own father is a golf nut. So the beginning of Tiger’s career had a great and warm effect on all of us. As Sam grew up, we would gather together on a Tiger Sundays the way a 1940s family gathered once a week to hear an Orson Welles radio play. And we would talk to one another about not only how great he was, but how important. It’s hard to remember now, but twenty-one years ago, Tiger Woods was, by his very existence, rebellion. Yes, he was a Nike salesman. And yes, his words were calculated and careful and often scripted. But he was a multiracial man in a world and sport that not only saw race, but actively discriminated against it. And, almost by himself, he changed that. Watching golf, rooting for this almost-superhuman marvel, not only felt fun, it felt good. In all senses of the word.

And here’s where the cynicism my sportswriting pals deploy makes sense, right? Because Tiger turned out to be a lot more complicated than it seemed back then. And maybe even a lot less good.

I’m here, now, today, standing a three iron from where those members stand, whispering. Yes, some of them black now, thankfully. Yes, some of them women, finally. The fact of Tiger, the changes he wrought—even that he showed us that he wasn’t superhuman, but only a man, flawed, but still somehow great—makes me less cynical, more hopeful, and more excited about the idea that he will play and might even win.

As Scott Van Pelt said to me this morning, smiling at the prospect, as we talked on different sides of the ropes, “One thing is clear now: Tiger isn’t Superman. So we all want to see him fly.”

Brian Koppelman (@briankoppelman) is co-creator and showrunner of the hit Showtime series Billions.