The gift of Tiger Woods
My son watched a few holes of the Masters with me on Sunday. He's nearly 3 and a half and hasn't figured out how to crap in the toilet yet. He spends most of his time naked or partially naked, barking out orders like "Put on Wow Wow Wubbzy!" and "I want graham crackers!" Every night, he promises us that he won't climb into our bed in the middle of the night, and yet, I always wake up around 4 a.m. because some snoring wildebeest is kicking me in the kidneys. Last week, the stubborn bastard sat still for a haircut for the first time only because we allowed him to play "Angry Birds" on an iPad. He's a man of many quirks. I'm not gonna lie.
Before yesterday, only two sports captured his attention for more than a few minutes: boxing and professional wrestling. You can imagine my surprise when he curled up next to me during the final round, asked what I was watching, then proceeded to applaud with the gallery every time someone hit a good shot.
He thought the goal was to hit the pin with every shot -- and by the way, he wasn't totally wrong -- and never totally figured out the putting thing. When Tiger eagled the eighth hole, everything clicked. There was Tiger striking that putt as the gallery jumped up, everyone wanting it so badly -- and that's the one thing that stood out yesterday, how badly fans wanted Tiger to succeed -- then the putt going down as everyone exploded, and to cap it off, Tiger dusting off his old-school fist pump and yelping toward his fans. The past two years washed away, just like that. We spent the first few months picking the man apart, making all of our jokes, batting around conspiracy theories, beating him down, beating him down some more and when he folded from the weight, we switched gears and wondered if he would ever come back. Now he was destroying Augusta again.
"Again!" my son screamed.
In other words, "Rewind that, I'd like to watch that again."
That's what my kids scream when they like something and want it to happen again. My daughter started it a few years ago when we'd throw her into sofa pillows like a human grenade. She loved it. AGAIN! My son reveres her, so as soon as he could speak, he started yelling it, too. Now they yell it for everything. My son wanted to see Tiger make that putt again. So did I, actually. AGAIN! We watched it a second time. When Tiger pumped his fist, my son turned to me and laughed.
He lasted two more holes. Once the electricity faded and Tiger morphed into a human being again, my son had better things to do. You know, like play "Angry Birds." He never returned. And really, neither did Tiger. He made the fatal mistake of peaking too early at Augusta. We made the fatal mistake of thinking he was back. When he missed a seemingly easy eagle putt on 15, the gallery made a noise that you just never hear in sports anymore: the "Ahhhhhhhhhh-ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh" sound that happens with a missed 3, a warning-track fly ball or a bomb that misses a receiver's hands by two feet, only with a hint of "NOOOOOOOOOOO!" As in, "NOOOOOOOOOO! That was SUPPOSED TO GO IN!"
He never recovered. I love so many things about the Masters, but ultimately, what makes that tournament special is that we know the course so freaking well. There are laws with the Masters. You can't peak too early on Sunday. You can't miss momentum-swinging putts at Amen Corner. You can't lay up on 13; for whatever reason, it pisses off the Golf Gods. Your second shot on 18 has to land dead-even with the hole; it can't be too short or too long. It's the only course that feels like a living, breathing organism. When Jack brought it to life in 1986, something mystical happened: the course helped him out. It wiped out everyone trying to beat him, almost like a haunted house dropping chandeliers on people's heads.
The muff on 15 mortally wounded Woods. He staggered through the last three holes dripping blood all over the course, finally finishing at 10-under, knowing it wasn't good enough. He gritted his teeth, shook his head, snapped at the poor interviewer after his round, disappeared into the clubhouse and the tournament kept going without him. Some toothy South African ended up winning. The crowd pretended to be happy for him. Twenty years from now, we might not remember his name. But we'll remember Tiger's 31. And the eagle putt on the eighth. And the feeling that anything was possible.
Allow me to be the 10 millionth person to write that it didn't matter whether Tiger Woods won or lost, just that he mattered again. The Thanksgiving car crash seems like it happened 20 years ago. It ruined his family, destroyed his reputation and submarined his golf game. After he prevailed in the 2008 U.S. Open while playing on a bum knee, I remember thinking that he had the highest approval rate of any athlete in my lifetime. There wasn't a single person who liked sports and didn't like having Tiger Woods in his or her life. He was better at golf than we were at anything.
When Michael Jordan retired the first time, in 1993, Phil Jackson gently tried to change his mind by pointing out that Michael had been given a unique gift that transcended sports and veered into artistry -- no different than a singer, writer or painter -- and that, by walking away from that gift, he would deprive people of enjoying it. Jackson didn't even care about losing his best player as much as losing that gift. He wasn't thinking as a basketball coach, more as a fan. It remains the most brilliant thing Jackson ever did. Jordan still walked away, but his coach had connected to him on a different level. When he returned to the Bulls less than two years later, he did so partly because of the way Jackson approached that specific conversation. He knew Jackson cared about his gift, not the hole Jordan left behind.
Two decades later, Tiger left a similar crater that we haven't filled. We hated The Decision because we talked ourselves into LeBron maybe possessing that same gift; by choosing South Beach and Dwyane Wade, he was telling us, "You were wrong." That made us angry. That hurt our feelings. We looked around, searched for someone else, couldn't find him. We bided our time. And suddenly, there was Tiger on Sunday, making another run at Augusta, pulling us back in yet again. The moralizing is over. The jokes are done. (Most of them, anyway.) We chopped him down to size, made him human, made him bleed. He never caved.
I am supposed to think that he's a poor role model -- that he's an adulterer, that he's selfish, that he's a phony, that he behaves badly on golf courses, that he's someone I wouldn't want my son to emulate some day. That's horses---. I want my son to know that people screw up, that nobody is perfect, that you can learn from your foibles. I want my son to watch "The Natural" someday, hear Roy Hobbs say, "Some mistakes you never stop paying for," and know that it's not just words in a movie. I want my son to know that you haven't lived until you've fought back, that you haven't won until you've lost, that you can't understand what it's like to relish something until you've suffered, too. I want him to understand that it's the 21st century, that we sit around picking our heroes apart all day, that we expect them to be superhuman at all times, that we get pissed off when they aren't, that it's hypocritical if you really think about it.
I want my son to know that great athletes are meant to be appreciated, not emulated. He can steal Tiger's fist pump without wanting to become him. He can play Tiger's video game without feeling like Tiger is his best friend. He can imitate Tiger's swing without getting the urge to bed every cocktail waitress and model he meets. We should have learned by now that athletes aren't role models in the traditional sense -- they exist to entertain us and inspire us, and that's really it.
If my son needs a role model, and he will, that person should be me. I don't need Tiger to teach my child how to behave. I need him to teach my son that it's fun to watch golf. Yesterday was the first lesson. There was a putt, and a roar, and a fist pump, and then my son screaming "Again!" Only Tiger Woods could have made it happen. It's a gift.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller "The Book of Basketball," now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World or the BS Report page. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.