Thursday, May 20, 2010
It’s like Dr. Frankenstein not cheering for his own giant green creature. Rooting against Tiger just ain’t right. We created this monster.
For we are the society that cares so deeply about what he does with a dimpled ball that we leveraged millions of attentive eyeballs, which in turn brought him 10-figure endorsements at age 20. We are the culture whose major obsession (and export) is pro sports. We are a corporate climate that handed him the keys to the country’s Cadillac before he left college, and we are a nation of groupies that will park its morals if it means banging the most famous athlete in the world in the back of an Escalade.
But there are other reasons to root for Tiger – maybe as many as there are lovers that came out of the Woodswork.
He was already the best player of his era. His talent was what originally drew us to him, long before we assigned mythic moral heroism, so such support carries a refreshing throwback sensibility.
Rooting for Tiger is also rooting for more genuineness. His legend may be less lustrous, but it’s far more real, and much more multi-faceted. He can no longer exist as a construct of B.S. and P.R. His story is more than golf shots and photo ops: It’s a morality play and a redemption song and a sad stanza on how things will never be the same. It’s also the inspiration for the best South Park in recent memory.
He is more of an underdog than ever, taking on not just the field – one he dusted at the last U.S. Open here in record-smashing fashion – but the field’s fatigue for the type of attention he brings. It is him against his legacy and his authenticity. It is him against Jack Nicklaus’ accomplishments on the course, and, now, how a Tiger compares to a Golden Bear off of it. It is him facing a Pebble course whose greens he has maligned, and schizophrenic galleries surrounding them. It is him against his sins of the flesh and a bulging disc in his back that at press time threatened to scuttle his appearance here altogether.
And as unseemly as it may be, some might root for him because it’s hypocritical to do otherwise.
“Any man in his situation, with billions of dollars at age 30? There’s only a handful of people who could resist that temptation,” says Derek Martin, Weekly golf contributor and longtime Spyglass caddy. “I may be going out on limb, but before [people] go and crucify him, they have to acknowledge they never had anyone throwing that much a** in their face.”
The more redemptive rooter, meanwhile, will yearn for Tiger to seize the singular opportunity before him to convert his misdeeds into motivation: To really take on sexism and racism rampant in his sport, to aim for atonement far more aggressive than his attempts to smile more at Augusta, to shake things up in a way a native Californian like him can appreciate.
“To be quite honest, he needs a 7.0 change on the Richter scale to gain what he had in the past,” says senior Golf Week writer and Golf Channel contributor Alex Micelli, “and so far it’s been a 3.0.”
There are others to root for. They appear below, the green (Rickie Fowler) and gray (Tom Watson), the comebackers (David Duval) and the up-and-comers (Ryo Ishikawa), the never-better Phil Mickelson, and perpetual bad boy John Daly. Last but not least among them, a golfer-to-root-for affectionately known as ABETW, or Anybody but Eldrick Tiger Woods.
The syrupy sweet lefty swing, easy smile and gunslinger gumption won the world over early, then chokes that merited historic Heimlichs summoned a heartsick loyalty that that lives on: As he dragged the Nicest-Most-Talented-Phenomenon-to-Never-Reach-His-Potential burden from course to course, giant galleries followed, aching for him to overcome.
“No one’s been as highly ranked as him, for as long,” Micelli says, “without winning more.”
But now the ache is almost evicted. Two months ago Mickelson secured the greatest victory of his career at the Masters – and not because he learned to gear back on his aggressiveness, but because he stuck with it.
Shaking off his caddy’s appeals to lay up at Augusta’s 13th, he rifled a shiver-inducing six iron from the pine straw, through the trees and over a creek to within 5 feet, stunning onlookers and furthering an eagle-eagle-birdie surge that ultimately saw him slip into his third green jacket. The difference between a great shot and a smart one, he said later: “A great shot is when you pull it off. A smart shot is when you don’t have the guts to try it.”
He secured something else along with that jacket. As Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck observed, the win elevated him “from a mere superstar into one of golf’s all-time greats… only the big three of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods have won more green jackets.
“Mickelson is the only player to have won four major championships since Woods turned pro in late 1996, ending any lingering debate as to who is the era’s second-best player.”
And now the one-two battle now goes deeper than before. Already the smiling foil to a growling Tiger on the course of public opinion, the fact that Phil is buoying both his wife and his mother through bouts with cancer while Woods ducks lurid tales from a harem of hoochies has only widened the back-ability gap between them.
That starkly contrasting appeal, and his thrice-over success at the AT&T, combined with the abiding hope he can vanquish the only real remaining ache left – Mickelson has had five gruesome meltdowns at the U.S. Open, which he has yet to claim – will catalyze an enthusiasm for his Pebble effort unseen even in his wildly popular (and increasingly inspiring) career.
At the latest AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Goydos (and his two Tour wins in two long decades) went from last-round leader to out of contention in the fleeting space of an ogre-ugly quadruple bogey at the 14th. One Pebble caddy called it hideous – particularly because Goydos had just watched Bryce Molder flop his way to a similar 9. Plenty called it devastating. Goydos called it how he saw it: No big deal. “It wasn’t like I didn’t try on all nine shots,” he said. “Well, the ninth one I wasn’t real excited about.”
That resilient humor would be enough to earn ample rooting allegiance here. But it’s the perspective he plays with – having survived telling his daughters their mother was dead just over a year prior – that earns admiration, and further differentiates his easy disposition on an overly uptight PGA Tour. He even had the vision to see the bright side at the AT&T: He pointed out his team still won the pro-am part, and the 5-year exemption that comes with it.
Fowler is fearless. Which makes sense: He’s young, can hit it a metric ton and grew up scraping on the Southern California motocross circuit, where timidness doesn’t gain much traction. But the all-bubble-gum-blue outfit he wore at Monterey Peninsula Country Club for the AT&T? That was real huevos. The look matches his fast, loose and charismatic attack – and what experts detect might make him, as Golf Digest puts it, the blond answer to young “potential stars [who] remain more potential than stars.”
He did collect a half million in just four events his rookie year. Moreover, he retains an old driving range pro as the only coach he’s ever had. Sextegenarian Barry McDonnell’s best advice, according to Fowler: “Beat Old Man Par.” (Runner up in the young SoCal gun category: L.A.-born Anthony Kim, who torched Augusta for with a closing 65 and finished third.)
Watson was a singular specimen long before he took the nation’s breath away at last year’s British Open: He owned eight majors, sixth best all time, and was the only one with the guts and the fairway cred to call out Tiger on his prima-donna pouting, first by private letter, then in public. It was last year in Scotland, though, when he did something never remotely approached in this game, coming one putt from a historic major win at almost 60 years old. And that was no fluke; at the Masters in April he cracked the top 20. Another epic element of uniqueness: He’ll be the only man to have played in each of the five U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
There are quite a few reasons fans – and not just the legion Japanese media that herd after him at every event – love Ryo. To wit: He weighs just a buck 50 but can clobber the ball. He sports Day-glo colors that break themselves into memory banks without permission. He’s only 18, the youngest ever to reach the Official World Golf Rankings’ top 50. And perhaps best of all, he uses driver covers designed in his likeness, wild colors included. Hello Kitty just went bye-bye as Japan’s most stylish export.
Daly looked lost. He stood in the woods, during AT&T’s second round, well off the 17th fairway at Spyglass and a good 175 from the green. His ball rested in a tangle of pine needles. A crowd gathered, murmuring. He had few options – maybe that small window in the oak branches. Most would safely dump onto the fairway. A sudden swing later, he had punched through the meager opening like it was just another hotel wall, running his ball to the fringe and saving par with a clutch two-putt. He makes this list for that reason: Often seemingly lost, whether doing his train-wreck reality show or wearing ugly Loud Mouth Pants, he finds a way to entertain. It’s not always pretty, but it’s his way. (The Lion’s been toothless of late, having failed to qualify as of press time. Here’s hoping he still shows to party in the Pebble parking lot.)
Local restaurateurs frostbitten by the icy economy are awfully happy the U.S. Open is back by the Monterey Bay. But given the fact that two of D.J.’s three career wins came with the last two Pebble Pro-Ams, the tall and lean youngster from South Carolina might be even happier.
“As soon as he won the [AT&T] again,” Micelli says, “he’s thinking, ‘Wow this is good, I can’t wait to get back.’”
The 25-year-old Coastal Carolina alum’s return will be bolstered by an accurate driver, and enough length to club down and set up approaches precisely.
“He won’t have to hit driver every place if he doesn’t want to,” Micelli continues. “At eight, he doesn’t have to hit driver to set himself up – same at holes like 11 and 13. That’s a huge benefit.”
Anybody But Tiger Woods
It’s not so much that he had everything and it wasn’t enough (aka “greed,” for those keeping deadly-sin score). It’s that he thought he could control the media and his fans (pride) even after he had laid dynamite to the foundation of trust he had so carefully and fraudulently cemented – with a cardinal amount of lust.
“Why root for him?” Golf Week’s Micelli asks. “He doesn’t seem like a good guy, doesn’t seem to care about you as a fan.” Not much love for his lovers, either, apparently. Vanity Fair reports he only bought waitress squeeze Mindy Lawton one Subway sandwich over the course of their extended affair (and tipped only 15 percent on his black American Express card at Ellie’s 50’s Diner where she worked).
Once busted, he could at least have come out of hiding, maybe take the approach his friend Charles Barkley did when he went bad-boy “I’m not a role model” on us. Instead Woods said he’d be more open and engaging, but from his fast-evaporating amiability at the Masters to his continued closed-off stance with the media it seems that effort’s been shanked. Tiger’s struggling to change his stripes.
“Nothing he’s done recently,” Micelli says, “changes anyone’s minds.”