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Better Than Imagined In the history of sport, has any other athlete burdened by heavy expectations not just lived up to them but also exceeded our wildest projections? Only Tiger Woods, dream beater

Dec. 18, 2000
Dec. 18, 2000

Table of Contents
Dec. 18, 2000

Sportsman Of The Year

Better Than Imagined In the history of sport, has any other athlete burdened by heavy expectations not just lived up to them but also exceeded our wildest projections? Only Tiger Woods, dream beater

MUSICAL INTERLUDE:
Trumpets and flourishes

This is an article from the Dec. 18, 2000 issue

INTERVIEW LOCATION:
A franchise pro shop in Malltown, USA

Sure we love Tiger Woods. We adore him. He da man. But enough.
What about the fans who support the Game--us, the Worldwide
Gallery?

What are we going to do about him? Is there a certain point at
which he starts to ruin things for us, when he gets so good it's
boring? We have to think about this. Has anybody in any sport
been this much better than everyone else? Maybe the Babe when he
was hitting more home runs than whole teams. But that's the
point: He wasn't the whole damn team. He couldn't control the
game on his own. Maybe Joe Louis, when every month the best they
could do was dredge up a new palooka. Maybe the Great One, maybe
Michael. But, hell, even Michael wasn't that much better than
Magic or Bird. Tiger is alone. Before this year we thought he
might be "the next Jordan." No longer. The way we see it now, it
is Jordan who is "the previous Woods."

Tiger's old man said Tiger was going to be Gandhi. Wrong. Gandhi
was special, sure. But Buddha and St. Francis of Assisi, Martin
Luther King...all in the Gandhi mix. A better analogy: Tiger is
da Vinci. Nah, scratch that. Good as da Vinci was, he had
Michelangelo at his shoulder, No. 2 with a bullet. Robin Hood had
William Tell, Beethoven had Mozart, Oprah has Martha. But Tiger?
He's all alone; nobody else in his line of work has ever been on
the same fairway.

Maybe we bought into him too fast. After all, we made Nicklaus
earn our affection. We even resented him at first. Fat Jack.
Remember that? Tiger? He is the American Prince William. We
watched him grow up, waiting lovingly for him to take the throne.
Has an athlete ever been so ordained? Then he not only lives up
to our expectations but also tops our impossible dreams. Tiger
Woods, dream beater.

So what fun is that? How many times can we depend on somebody
named Bob May to catch lightning in Jack Fleck's bottle? We're
all rooting for Tiger to win every major by 17 strokes, to win
every tournament in the Northern Hemisphere. (Is Thailand in the
Southern Hemisphere? Whatever.) Yes, absolutely, we are into
excellence, but we have to admit that deep in our dark souls most
every one of us now longs for the day when the kid misses
a cut or shoots an 80 or even pulls a Van de Velde. Just once,
humbled. Do you know, in the London betting shops, he is 3-2 to
win the Masters next April and 16-1 to sweep the Grand Slam?
Excuse us: only 16-1 on what was inconceivable.

We are not mean-spirited, you understand. We love Tiger Woods. It
is only that we are human, and you need human stuff on the golf
course. Otherwise it all becomes one of those standard golf jokes
in which Moses and St. Peter and Mohammed are trading miracles in
a five-buck Nassau. Has Tiger made that a foursome?

MUSICAL INTERLUDE:
A sample of the sappiest of the Mantovani-type fluff played by
all networks on their golf telecasts

INTERVIEW LOCATION:
Media bar, Sunbelt.com Open

Oh, we're supposed to go on even more about Tiger for your
benefit? Give us a rest, us poor, put-upon Members of the
Golfing Fourth Estate who chronicle the Game. It is not our
problem that you star-kissers at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED are making
him Sportsman of the Year. Again. What are you going to do when
he wins the Grand Slam next year? Retire the trophy? Well, join
the party. We've got to genuflect in newsprint and on the air
most every week.

It's getting harder, too, to spin anything original. For a long
time we could dine out on what amounted to the Tiger nativity
story, with Papa Earl and Fluff, the magic caddie, to fill in the
blanks, which they were only too delighted to do. Ad nauseam. But
then the kid eased Dad into the Barcalounger and fired Fluff. It
was like shooting Lassie. That was when we understood that Tiger
didn't turn into a buccaneer only when he arrived at the 1st tee.
He can run up that Jolly Roger, grasp the cutlass in his teeth
and slit throats anywhere he has to. 'Course, you don't want to
put it quite like that when you're swooning over your ratings
meal ticket on CBS or writing the periodic 1-A testimonial in USA
Today.

Unfortunately for us journalists, the piece Charlie Pierce did on
him in GQ in '97 spooked Tiger. Pierce described him as telling
sophomoric dirty jokes and doing Buckwheat accents, the way most
normal college kids do. That, however, didn't jibe with orthodox
Tiger Woods theology, so, after that, he pretty much took the
sports version of omerta. Now he presents himself as equal parts
cliche and politeness. The guy who always goes for the pin keeps
the world an arm's length from his heart. He is handsome
(demonstrably) and bright (he attended Stanford, didn't he?), and
his game does the rest. Besides, the consensus is that he really
is a nice guy, and given the plethora of dim-witted knaves in
sports, we treat nice, bright guys who are on top like the rare
gems they are.

In fact, it's almost as if we feel a compulsion to protect him.
Tiger made only two public mistakes in 2000. Number 1: He was
heard cursing on television after he hit a bad drive at the U.S.
Open. Number 2: He filmed a commercial for Buick even though the
Screen Actors Guild, of which he is a member, was on strike
against commercial producers. The vulgarity was a trifling
gaffe--and spontaneous and natural--while his defiance of his
union was a calculated decision that was constructed of hubris
and greed.

Yet most of us Tiger correspondents made a terrible fuss about
the silly boo-boo--ohhh, Jack would never utter a profanity on a
hallowed golf course; my, my, Michael was always above such
coarseness--while little was made of the disregard for his union
and its members, many of whom were suffering harsh financial
consequences for forgoing work they needed. Then again, golf is
not exactly hearth and home to the labor movement, and we who
cover the game do it more gently than do our brethren who lurk
about sweatier athletic venues, where azaleas never bloom.

Tiger is such an extraordinary champion and so widely admired
that we have granted him a sort of spiritual amnesty. His persona
is still insulated by his deeds, his misjudgments immunized by
his youth. Sometime soon, though, we will weary of the tedium of
his persistent success and start peering more deeply into that
heavenly smile and beyond those steely eyes. Won't we? Because
that's the nature of the beast--us. This, right now, may be the
best Tiger will ever have it. Until, that is, he becomes a Grand
Old Man, and we fall in love with him again.

MUSICAL INTERLUDE:
Broadway medley of Bosom Buddies from Mame; [You Gotta Have]
Heart from Damn Yankees; A Hymn to Him from My Fair Lady; March
of the Siamese Children from The King and I; and I'm Only
Thinking of Him from Man of La Mancha

INTERVIEW LOCATION:
Practice tee, Tiger Woods commercial shoot

Don't even talk to us about him. Please, think about our
feelings, have a heart for us other guys on the PGA Tour--we,
the Members of the Professional Golfers Anonymous Tour, who make
the Game.

People used to talk about how poor Colin Montgomerie hadn't won
a major. The way things are going, we're all going to be
Colin-ized. Tiger, though, has made it worth our while to be
spear carriers. Since it became the Tiger Tour, our prize money
has tripled and our TV contracts have doubled. That means more
exposure (at least for the lucky donkeys among us who get to
play a round with him), which means more money for our
endorsement contracts, too. Everybody can't be Buddy Holly.
Somebody has to be the Crickets.

Are we envious? Sure, we are human. The skinny kid comes on the
Tour, he's already famous--as an amateur. But he's good. He can
hit it a continental mile. Then he gets to be No. 1, and he
redoes his game and his body. On the Everest summit, sans oxygen,
he performs a makeover. This is not fair. From 140 or 145 pounds,
now he's packing 190, all muscle. Cut us a break.

Plus he's only 24. What happens when he hits his peak? Everybody
says, What's the matter with you wimps? Why can't you challenge
him? Hey, tell it to the Marines. Maybe the golfer who'll finally
take out Tiger hasn't been born yet.

Listen to this: "When he plays well, he wins. When he plays
badly, he finishes second. When he plays terrible, he finishes
third." Guess who? Wrong. That's Johnny Miller talking about
Nicklaus in 1973. Miller is a whiner. He didn't know how lucky he
and his bunch were. Tiger only plays great, greater, greatest.
The sonuvabitch is relentless, too. The same jackasses we have to
put up with every week who scream "you da man" say he can only
beat himself. As if it were the truth of the ages. Yeah, O.K.,
occasionally some young hotshot comes along who wins a lot and
then acquires the entourage and the bimbos and the big head. Our
problem is that the more Tiger wins, the less he lets up on
himself.

His mother, Tida, said, "Tiger has Thai, African, Chinese,
American Indian and European blood. He is the Universal Child."
We've all talked about this racial bouillabaisse that he is, but
usually only as a matter of curiosity. How interesting! (Which
also means: especially compared to all of us cookie-cutter white
guys who make the Republican electors look like Heinz 57.) Maybe
he got the best of all those bloodlines. That's what it seems
like when he's playing against you. He is not merely Universal.
He is Universally Best. How can we expect him to beat himself
when the sum of the parts seems to be larger than the whole?

MUSICAL INTERLUDE:
Handel's Hallelujah Chorus

INTERVIEW LOCATION:
The heavens above St. Andrews

I've been waiting here, laddie. It's about time you heard me out,
because all these other chaps are just so many blowhards, and
they've all got an ax to grind, haven't they? But you're here at
the sacred place, and, Shhh! Let me speak, for I am the Game.

Nobody is bigger than the Game. Oh they do love to trot out that
bromide, don't they? Especially the tired old blue blazers who
have a vested interest in the proceedings. But I am the Game,
remember, so I don't have to be literal. I can be lyrical. Right
now your Mr. Woods is bigger than I am. Do not be shocked.
Sometimes--and ever so happily--our institutions are, for a
moment in time, overwhelmed by an extraordinary human talent.
'Twas always so. Was not Joan of Arc bigger than War,
Shakespeare bigger than the Stage, the Beatles bigger than Music?

No, I am not troubled to be subsidiary for a while. In good time
I will wrest back primacy. For now, though, I appreciate the
respite. I speak occasionally to Atlas, poor devil, who's had to
hold up the sky through the ages, and he understands how
wearisome it must be, supporting Golf 24/7/365, what with all
those pompous asses speechifying about how nobody is bigger than
the Game.

At times, to be perfectly honest, I would rather be Wrestling
than Golf. I find that endeavor curiously refreshing and so
ingenious. Tradition can be so overbearing. As I was telling
Atlas only last summer: One more hallowed reference to Old Tom
Morris or the claret jug or Amen Corner and I think I'll scream.
Here are those self-appointed sentinels of Golf complaining that
young Mr. Woods is bringing in the wrong sort to our courses.
Please: A bit of noise and joy will surely do us no real harm.
And how grand it is that so many ladies and gentlemen of color
are teeing up. Heavens, I understand that now there are a third
again more African-Americans playing in the U.S.

Oh, gracious me, I was so sympathetic toward the young bloke
last month when he ventured the most modest grievances about how
the PGA Tour exploits him. Certainly he should be accorded
special consideration--with hosannas! But there were those
supercilious critics who cried out, Ah, where would Tiger be
without the PGA Tour? I reported that to Atlas, and he
screeched. (It would surprise you, but Atlas--not unlike your
Nicklaus and that brutish Mike Tyson--has an uncommonly high
voice for such a strong fellow.) He positively shrieked to me,
"That is like saying, Where would Alexander be without Persia?"

Let me tell you, if I were not the Game, if I were the
commissioner of the PGA Tour, I would begin each morning
inquiring about Mr. Woods's well-being and close every evening
in a prayer of thanksgiving that he came to Golf. But I am
merely the Game and not the commissioner of the PGA Tour.

I do look forward to a siesta of especially long duration. Before
my envious friend Atlas was saddled with holding up the sky, he
had what you would now call a p.r. man, a Greek named Hesiod. To
be sure, Hesiod was no Tiger Woods of poetry, no Homer, but still
a man of considerable gifts--a Jones, a Hogan, I would say. Atlas
told me that Hesiod wrote this: "Badness you can get easily, in
quantity: the road is smooth, and it lies close by. But in front
of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and
steep is the way to it, and rough at first. But when you come to
the top, then it is easy, even though it is hard."

I believe that wisdom applies perfectly to young Tiger Woods. He
will continue to overcome what is hard, so that he might, with
ease--and with my benediction--long carry the burden of being
bigger than the Game. Now, if you will excuse me, since at last I
find myself at leisure, I should rather like to play a round.
Would you please thank Tiger for affording me that splendid
opportunity?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Woods is a 3-to-2 favorite to win the Masters next April and is 16 to 1 to do the inconceivable: sweep the Grand Slam.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK At St. Andrews, Woods failed to hit the green in regulation only six times, a record for any major.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK During the U.S. Open at Pebble, Woods shot the low score of the day in three of the four rounds.COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN Which event has Tiger played the most (six times) without a win? The one in L.A., his hometown.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER His great escape at the PGA gave Woods an unprecedented four wins in the last five majors.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Woods took wing on Week 1, finishing eagle, birdie, birdie to win the season opener in Hawaii.
"Deep in our dark souls every one of us longs for the day when
the kid misses a cut, shoots 80 or pulls a Van de Velde."
"Woods took the sports version of omerta. He presents himself as
equal parts cliche and politeness. The guy who always goes for
the pin keeps the world an arm's length from his heart."
"He's only 24. Maybe the golfer who'll finally take out Tiger
hasn't been born yet."
"Woods is bigger than the Game. Was not Joan of Arc bigger than
War, Shakespeare bigger than the Stage, the Beatles bigger than
Music?"
"How can we expect him to beat himself when the sum of the parts
seems to be larger than the whole?"