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Wednesday, August 29, 2001
Updated: September 13, 6:56 PM ET
Rising Tiger lifts all boats

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

In my line of work, you can make a good living, if not an entire career, off Tiger Woods alone. But you can make even more off Tiger Woods vs. Next ... and Who Else is Next? ... and Who's Got Next After That?

Tiger Woods1
No matter who the opponent, we're accustomed to seeing Tiger celebrate in the end.
Stay tuned for "Ultimate Survivor." This is sure to be a cultural fee-nomenon, a ratings bonanza. Golf and "Roots" at the same time. What's the hook? A golfer, multiethnic -- black, let's call him, for dramatic and clarification purposes (it is us we want to clarify for, not him) -- with an elastic spine, sonar on the greens, no nerves at all, a toothy grin, an imaginative game and all the shots in his bag. He's the Given, the House, the Vig.

To play this game of Ultimate Survivor, you have to survive 72 holes against the rest of the guys; if your number and golf game come up, then you get to go one-on-one with El Tigre. On TV. For all the marbles and a boatload of money. With that winning formula, you can test your nerve and make a mint at the same time. And a whole lotta ordinary people will watch to see how you hold up. It'll be that way for a while, too. Eldrick the Given is only 25. The rest of us -- dunno how to tell you this exactly, pilgrim -- well, we're all replaceable. So we gotta make hay while the sun shines.

Take CBS. Cunning move, last weekend, at the NEC, to tape delay the latest Fight of the Century -- the seven-hole, two-hour playoff between Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk. The boys at CBS didn't sleepwalk through. The cutaways to Mrs. Furyk didn't hurt the storyline. Furyk had his chances.

One of these days, somebody -- a Darren Clarke, a Thomas Bjorn, maybe even a Phil Mickelson, if he can stop talking about it and Just Do It -- will beat El Tigre in a playoff, and that will be Very Big Stuff, and a lot of people will walk around with their chests stuck out like they did it, and they haven't so much as hit a golf ball in their lives. That's the power of drama and the lure of this particular Given to the world's sporting consciousness.

Are we hooked here, or what? Hooked and cleaned and gutted, pilgrim. We're all caught up.

  The way we are struck by New Golf, for some dramatic reason, you want to see Tiger win, or you want to see Tiger get beat. This formula worked for Ali, Jordan, Ruth, Pele, Gretzky, Montana, McGwire for a year. Never has it worked for anybody for as long or as well as it's going to work for us, mostly, and for Tiger Woods. 
   

It's All Comers vs. Tiger, golf, at 15 paces -- "Duel in the Sun," "Death in the Afternoon," "On the Waterfront" and "Body and Soul" rolled into one. It's Sudden-Death Golf, Shootout Golf, Playoff Golf. The Golf We Never Knew Existed, Man. A network's dream. The contract the PGA just signed with the networks was a 100 percent improvement over their last one. Didn't happen because Retief Goosen won the Open.

The formula is so simple, it's beautiful. Tiger vs. Bob May. Tiger vs. Jim Furyk. Doesn't matter who the opponent is. The beauty is, Anybody can be the opponent; eventually, Everyone is the opponent. The way we are struck by New Golf, for some dramatic reason, you want to see Tiger win, or you want to see Tiger get beat. This formula worked for Ali, Jordan, Ruth, Pele, Gretzky, Montana, McGwire for a year. Never has it worked for anybody for as long or as well as it's going to work for us, mostly, and for Tiger Woods.

With us as beneficiaries ("us" being the viewing sporting public, the PGA Tour, the touring pros, the networks, the tournaments Tiger plays, the sponsors, the advertisers, the great wheel of commerce as we know it), Tiger Woods has right before our disbelieving eyes re-made golf into not just a spectator sport but a great spectator sport that absolutely buries everything but football and basketball as spectacle.

In concert with this, he has also driven up the level of play in the game at the same time. He has made it competitive, while destroying the competition, by making the competition compete. Get better. This is a sea change. The real competitors in golf, what I've seen, were the Hogans, Players, Trevinos, Nicklauses. Some PGA Tour golfers play golf as if they know their level and plan on sticking to it. It's a nice living either way. First, fifth. Who care? One of my former colleagues pointed out long ago that it really wasn't getting Greg Norman's thong too tight to know that he hasn't winning the Masters. He's rich.

Tiger Woods changed the idea of levels. New Golf. Next Level. The People want to see a Next Level in just about anything, let alone anything athletic. Bring us the Next New Thing. We are usually voracious. We make sharks look like kissing fish. We will tear a thing up, and a person limb from limb. Yet Tiger Woods brought Us the People to golf, and made it worth watching at the same time. Made it competitive.

Jim Furyk
Last week, it was Jim Furyk who stood toe-to-toe with Tiger. Next week ... who knows?
Greg Norman didn't do it. Tiger Woods is rich, too. But he not only plays well -- as the stakes goes up, he plays more intensely, just for the sake of the competition of it, just for the pure hell of it. He's rich, but put him in a playoff and he plays like a man three months behind on his mortgage. Wait until he gets a wife who keeps repeating, "half a million dollars," on the way home, talking not about the half-mil he just won, but the half-mil he didn't win because he finished second.

Tiger plays like it is him who can't afford to lose. In this way, he plays a game with which we are by now familiar. Your Cobb, your Sugar Ray Robinson, yes, but Jackie Robinson played that way, too. On a mission. We know we can afford to lose, and will lose, mostly.

Can't you remember back, five years ago, when Curtis Strange interviewed the rookie Tiger Woods and Tiger said, "All I want to do is win every time out"? Strange smiled and said, "You'll learn," as if to imply, "You'll learn that you can't master this game, and you'll lose, and it will become part of life, losing more than you win at golf, and you'll learn to accept it." No, Mr. Strange. It is us who learned.

Tiger mastered golf. Not the game of golf. Not quite. Not yet. If ever. It is not a game to be mastered.

Tiger Woods mastered the sport of golf.

Interested? Can we talk about this? Then let's.

***** ***** *****

Since I myself personally wouldn't know a chili dip from a chili dog, one of my own particular favorite things about Tiger Woods has nothing to do with his swing. One of my favorite things about Tiger Woods is the way he kicks your natural butt and then takes off his Nike ballcap to you and shakes your hand and tells you how well you played and maybe adds, "Better luck next time," as you kind of crinkle him back a pained looked that resembles a smile if you turn it upside down. It is the best smile you can muster under the circumstances of trying to be competitive with something you're in awe of at the same time.

Tiger Woods and David Duval
Woods will compete hard, but he also shows respect for opponents like David Duval.
Tiger Woods has a kind of snarky laugh, kind of a goofball sense of humor sometimes, a different way of seeing things than you and me --especially in the way of what might be funny around and about a golf course. He has sort of defensive Nicklausian deprecating (not self-deprecating) sense about golf, which to them is the same thing as life, or just about.

What could derail this 25-year run of Survivor Golf Starring Tiger Woods? Women? Well, women, yes. As we all know (and try not to let them find out) women can do anything they choose. One particular woman? Well, everybody has his own opinion. Nicklaus, since he has such a good thing going with his wife, Barbara, thinks Tiger would benefit from getting himself one of those. Problem is, they don't grow them on trees and might not even make that particular model anymore.

Tiger's father, Earl Woods, Mr. Home Training, the Rasputin genius behind all this great new action, says Tiger shouldn't bother to look seriously for wife material for at least five years or so. Says it might distract him from what he's got to do just being Tiger Woods. By then, age 30, Tiger Woods should have, oh, four more majors, let's say, giving him one a year, making him merely great, like Nicklaus, and not Great, like that other deity.

That would give Tiger Woods 10 majors won in all, and he'd be little more than halfway along on his quest to get 18 majors, like Nicklaus. By then, we should be being treated to one of those every-shot-makes-your-sphincter-pucker-up playoff shootouts per year, and since we never know When It Will Come, we'll all tune in same time next week, or the next, one after another. Wherever Tiger's playing becomes a major, then, in terms of its public draw, especially if they end up playing Survivor Golf Starring Tiger Woods, this week featuring (Fill In The Blank)

Every time that happens, any golf tournament, like the NEC, becomes a major.

This year there has been fretting that Tiger was slumping, off his game -- and the worry was not about Tiger but about golf, the future of golf, because without him, golf has a history of being boring as a TV studio game. Want to catch some Zs? Turn on golf when Tiger's not in there.

  Can't you remember back, five years ago, when Curtis Strange interviewed the rookie Tiger Woods and Tiger said, "All I want to do is win every time out"? Strange smiled and said, "You'll learn," as if to imply, "You'll learn that you can't master this game, and you'll lose, and it will become part of life, losing more than you win at golf, and you'll learn to accept it." No, Mr. Strange. It is us who learned. 
   

The year 2001 was supposed to have been an off-year for Tiger, until he won the NEC. So what had he done before that -- besides go five tournaments without finishing in the top 10 in any of them leading up to the NEC? That is news of a sort. In 106 PGA Tour starts, Tiger has finished out of the Top 10 a total of 37 times.

But still, just in 2001, mind you, he had won The Players Championship, the "fifth major." He also won the Masters. And that's not all. He won Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament, and for the third straight year at that.

During that week, Nicklaus asked him how many tournaments he'd entered so far in 2001. Tiger thought a second and answered, "Five."

"How many have you won?" asked Nicklaus.

"Four," said Tiger.

Nicklaus laughed the snarky laugh he and Tiger Woods have in common. He somehow found that funny. None of the rest of us would have found that funny. Awesome, maybe. Fascinating. Terrible. Threatening. But not amusing. Like Nicklaus, and the rich, Tiger Woods is not like you and me.

"Which one did you not win?" asked Nicklaus.

"... The Byron Nelson," Tiger finally said.

Nicklaus_Jack
Jack Nicklaus is one of the few people who can relate to Tiger's dominance.
Gotta also like that about Tiger Woods. He has good enough home training to know the history of what he's stepping to. Know where you're going. Know where it's been. He shows up at a Buick event because he's an official spokesman. If somebody in Dubai or New Zealand offers him 2 mil to come in, he'll go. Gotta keep that jet fueled, baby. But he comes to win at Nicklaus' Memorial (three times), or Arnold Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill (twice), or the Byron Nelson (once), the TPC, the NEC, and of course, the majors. If you had asked me what the TPC and the NEC were before Tiger Woods, I would have said they were R&B girl singing groups launched by Clive Davis and Jellybean Benitez.

Think of it. Won TPC. Won the Masters. Won Nicklaus' tournament for the third year in a row. Won two other tournaments, including the NEC World Championship, for the third year in a row, all in one calendar year, 2001. By August mind you. There are still four months worth of year left. Now this would qualify as a career for most golfers on the PGA Tour. Hell, man, that would be a career for Greg Norman! For Tiger Woods, that's an off year! Incredible.

Think of where he's set the bar. And that's why we tune in -- to see how high can he go, and if anybody can fly, too. Thus he changed the game. It is the highest level of what an athlete can do in his sport, and Woods has accomplished it by 25, in the most hidebound, strictest, most unwelcoming (to his ilk) sport on Earth.

Wait. There's more.

***** ***** *****

For a sport to be a major spectator sport, it must transcend, or, that is to say, be inclusive of regional and national boundaries, and boundaries of race, religion and class -- and it must have a great champion. The one person in the history of golf who can do this, who has done this, is Tiger Woods.

The perfect format is not any Ryder Cup. Who cares about the Ryder Cup, really? It is passe. Curtis Strange might not want to hear it, but it's true. The players play it so they won't be seen as unpatriotic.

  For a sport to be a major spectator sport, it must transcend, or, that is to say, be inclusive of regional and national boundaries, and boundaries of race, religion and class -- and it must have a great champion. The one person in the history of golf who can do this, who has done this, is Tiger Woods. 
   

The perfect format for golf has become Tiger vs. The Field. Then Tiger vs. The One This Week.

It's a big fat mammary-glanded hit, and it'll play forever, or until us and a billion Chinese are past caring. Yeah, you can throw that market in there, too. Tiger brings everybody into this once-exclusive tent.

So does his being Calabanasian (read black) have anything to do with this?

Yes. It does. And no, it doesn't.

We turn again to Nicklaus for a cryptic sort of clarification. During the 2000 PGA at Valhalla in Kentucky, Nicklaus was paired in the final group with Tiger, the defending U.S. Open and British Open champion then, and with Vijay Singh, who was then the defending Masters champion. Don't recall seeing a single shot of Vijay's being replayed or shown that day. It was all about Tiger and Jack, the dynamic between them.

Tiger shot 66 in the first round. Jack was impressed, and said so. He raved about Tiger in the press conference. Later somebody asked him about Vijay. Nicklaus snorted snarkily and said, "Oh, Vijay, well ... Vijay's not going to compete."

And I, for one, knew what he meant, even though Nicklaus was talking about the defending Masters champion, and one of the hardest-working practice players on the PGA Tour. Jack meant Vijay was still not of the generation who grew up on Tiger Woods. And Vijay, taken by skin color, is not only blacker, by much blacker than Tiger Woods. So competition itself knows no color. Miss Martina "Mouth Flappin' Like Its on Hinges" would do well to remember this. It is not the color that beats you. It is the application of the game that beats you. Or wins for you.

The observers of the competition, even the competitors themselves, are not unaware of color. But it is how one is aware of it that makes the difference in the observers and the competitors. For some of us, it reveals.

Tiger Woods
When the stakes are elevated, Tiger elevates his game -- and everyone else's.
Miss Hinges' comments in Time magazine about the Williams sisters proves this. As did Fuzzy Zoeller's comments in telling Tiger Woods not to have fried chicken and collard greens served at the next champion's dinner after Tiger won his first Masters title by a record-shattering and foreshadowing total in '97. Ironically, being from southern Indiana, Fuzzy Zoeller would have had much more of those foods in his system, organs and diet than Tiger Woods, a lifelong Californian, would've had in his. It was just a petty little snipe by a bitter former headliner who was being shown the door by superior athletic talent.

Ring a bell, Miss Hinges? Better bite down on that mouthpiece. Fight back with game. Play, or blow.

Hinges is closer in ability to the Williamses than Zoeller was to Woods, but it is she who is distracted by "race." She proved it by commenting in that way about the sisters' race, and what impact it has, in such a selfish and positive manner for them, according to Miss Hinges' perceptions. It is funny how people from Switzerland or India or wherever feel they have a handle on America. Since it's such an advantage, being black, since it's such a party, is Miss Hinges volunteering to be Black Like She? No? I didn't think so.

But Tiger Woods being Calabanasian (read black) does have an effect. On us. It helps lure us in the tent.

Monochromatic competitors might charm us, but they do not compel us to march.

It is the contrast, you see. We want to see ourselves in the arena somehow. If we are represented, good. If all are represented, better. Beyond that, it's the skill, stupid, the home training Tiger Woods received, the tools he got from Mother Nature, including youth. It was the demands of having to be twice as good to even gain access that fueled him not to be satisfied with ordinary life on an ordinary PGA Tour. Ordinary, with ordinary skills, hard-won, late-won, hard-scrabble -- he would've been Cal Peete.

Earl Woods
Earl Woods helped prepare for his son to deal with any any ramification of racism.
And we wouldn't have cared but so much. Maybe a couple of tenths of a ratings point for Silent Cal.

But talent will win out. Talent and good home training will seal the great deal every time. Earl Woods wanted to make his son a respectful, mindful young man. Not only does Tiger have this "racial" stock running through him, he has this military stock, exertion of discipline at the oddest hours, in him as well. His father was career military. When the match is over, when he goes indoors, the cap is coming off. It's automatic.

A demanding father or a wise mother isn't going to turn Fred Funk into Arnold Palmer, or a Miss Hinges into Hillary Clinton. But you get the drift. For Tiger Woods, his father being black did help him, but not with getting any sponsors. Far from it, at first. Not by being able to cry racism, but by being prepared for any ramification of racism, or any competitive adjustment that might have to be made on the fly; this is part of being black, of being subject to be called out at any time, of seeing the rules changed at any time to make them more obtuse, just to stop you.

Knowing you would have to be good enough, great enough, to overcome all of that, all of the booing, the bad feelings, the snide comments, the cold stares, the bitter sniping, and still have the concentration and the game necessary to become a dominant champion. Oh, it's more than a notion, being this kind of champion. You need it all to do it. It will break you otherwise. Ask Straw. Ask Doc.

For Tiger Woods, it's all in there -- the home training, the Otherness, the skill, the abilities far beyond those of mortal men, the timing. And whose the lucky beneficiary? Tiger Woods? Well, $25,989,199.00 won on five years on the PGA tour alone means Tiger has earned his.

But the beneficiaries are us. It's to our advantage, Miss Hinges, not his; ours as viewers, competitors, as network execs, as sponsors, as advertisers, as tournament directors, as PGA Tour employees, that Tiger Woods is Who He Is, and who he is, in toto, includes the contrast of him being Calaba-- oh, hell. Black.

  Remember class, and Miss Hinges, over there in the corner with the dunce cap on -- without "black," there could be no "white." Understand that the take-life-and-privilege-for-granted reality of one is not possible without the strident reality of The Other. Without the blackness, things get more confused for us. 
   

Remember class, and Miss Hinges, over there in the corner with the dunce cap on -- without "black," there could be no "white." Understand that the take-life-and-privilege-for-granted reality of one is not possible without the strident reality of The Other. Without the blackness, things get more confused for us.

So Tiger Woods makes it easier not for himself so much as for us.

He takes away all our differences. He make us One.

Tiger Woods is not merely the man who Changed Golf. He might be the most important athlete in the history of American spectator sports. Little Tigre. Who'da thunk it? His history, skills and home training provide the platform for the drama, majesty, mystery and the contrast to what, without him, would be a virtually meaningless exhibition of mundane skills that the PGA Tour golf had become since Nicklaus aged.

Tiger Woods' presence, persona and supernatural skills -- and our society -- have turned golf into sporting spectacle of the first rank. He has made us care about golf as if it were a violent, contact sport. That might be his most amazing feat. That might be part of the reason we are so fascinated. We can't take our eyes off him.

Good thing, too. Otherwise we'd be stuck with Miss Hinges.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."