Friends in High Places

Aug. 17, 2009
Aug. 17, 2009

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Aug. 17, 2009


Friends in High Places

Why have Woods and Federer become pals? Why wouldn't they?

The first hintthat it might be more than just some marketing masterstroke—a Nike-inspired,Gillette-fostered, IMG-brokered pairing with about as much authenticity as areality-show engagement—came in June. It's hard to say which of Tiger Woods'srevelations in a press conference was more startling: The fact that he andRoger Federer text each other "every day" or that Woods actually callshim Fed. Daily communication is one thing, but for Woods the bestowing of aclunky nickname is the supreme sign of acceptance. If the guy ever tees it upwith the President, he'll be calling him B.O. by the fourth green.

This is an article from the Aug. 17, 2009 issue

The second hintcame five days later. While on the practice range at the AT&T National,Woods got wind that Federer had just won Wimbledon to break their tie of 14majors apiece; sent Fed his now-famous "Great job. Now it's my turn"text; and then shot a 67 to win the tournament. By the time Woods next poppedup in public, calling Federer "great" and "phenomenal" at theBritish Open, their symbiosis had sparked an Internet-fueled bedazzlement notseen since ultrahumans Brad and Angelina joined forces. Woods declared that"our texts back and forth have always been jabby—but also extremelysupportive of one another—and that's what friends do," and what we had onour hands became clear.

Dude, it's abromance. And though there's no precedent for the most dominant golfer andtennis player in history to engage in a mutual man crush, you can't say wehaven't been asking for it. In the 40 years since Butch Cassidy and theSundance Kid gave hunks permission to hang out on-screen and Brian's Song gavejocks permission to cry, male bonding has become a cultural staple played outnightly in SportsCenter pairings, banter-crusted TV shows and dopey beer ads.It's no coincidence, of course, that such ads cluster around sporting events orthat every studio panel (Charles! Ernie! Kenny!) strives for a locker room'scrap-giving tone. Sports is the ultimate buddy flick.

Still, it tookWoods a while to warm up. When the two first met, before Federer's 2006 U.S.Open win, there was a definite older-brother vibe in the air: Woods was 30 with12 majors in hand—compared with the 25-year-old Federer's eight—and Fed brokeprematch protocol by eagerly chatting up Woods minutes before taking the court,then played the final conscious of having "someone you really look upto" watching. When Woods asked, in the locker room afterward, about havinga higher gear on-call, Federer felt an instant connection. "For me it'shard to describe to people how it really feels out there," Federer said."With Tiger, I knew he knows exactly what I'm talking about."

But if not yet ameeting of equals, the uniting of Woods and Federer still seemed, well,profound. Their talent left so-called peers breathless; greatness had onlyfurther isolated both men atop their lonely games. Other players competed fortournament titles, but in Jack Nicklaus's alltime record of 18 major titles andPete Sampras's 14, Woods and Federer battled history. Who else in the worldcould understand?

Sports has hadcrossover friendships before: Babe Ruth encouraged football star Red Grange;NFL great Jim Brown was in Cassius Clay's hotel room the night Clay resolved tobecome Muhammad Ali. But when Federer won the 2007 Australian Open and receivedhis first scorekeeping taunt from Woods—a text reading, "12 to 10"—awholly postmodern, public referendum took flight. "Keep up, buddy,"Woods taunted in a Nike ad, and as each subsequent title fueled theunanswerable debate over who was the greater athlete, they appeared in oneshaving-cream ad after another, cutting up like childhood chums.

The rub is thatthe aired ads have been, well, fake: None so far were filmed with the two menon the same continent; in the best exchange, when Federer strokes a startledTiger's cheek and giggles, he's actually touching a stand-in. Which is perfect,when you realize how little time the two have actually spent together. Yes,Federer has walked the course a few times when Tiger played, and they've eatendinner together at least once; word is Woods helped rebuild Federer'sconfidence during his darkest moments over the past year. But ..."friends?"

"A man musteat a peck of salt with his friend before he knows him," Cervantes wrote,and Federer and Woods have shared none of the usual male glue—never worked orschooled together, never survived poverty or pain together, never achievedtogether, never shared a bad bus ride—and haven't played any sport with oragainst each other. These arch-competitors have literally nothing to lose bybeing friendly, so their bond can never be as poetic as that between, say, theWilliams sisters, who stalk each other with brutal intent while remainingferociously loyal.

Yet, the idea ofFederer and Woods forming a two-headed League of Extraordinary Gentlemenremains compelling, all the more so if Woods can equal Federer's mark of 15majors this weekend at the PGA Championship. "Success, I guess,"Federer said when asked at Wimbledon what they have in common. "When youtalk about golf, you talk about Tiger; when you talk about tennis, you talkabout me. We have something similar there: our mind-set, our approach. We'revery driven. We try to dominate." The two made their career climbs solo,and when the clouds cleared, one was atop Everest and the other on K2. What manwouldn't shout and wave?

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Only Tiger and Fed understand how greatness isolatesthem ATOP THEIR LONELY GAMES.