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Friday, September 27, 2002
Tiger a comedian? Now, that's funny

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

What we have here is a failure to translate.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods' delivery was much better on the course at the American Express NEC World Championships.
And we'll probably continue having this failure with Tiger Woods.

Ever desperate to find and expose some intrigue, flaw, controversy or pimple on the most newsworthy and popular golfer in the world, much was media-made a week ago of Tiger saying he could "think of a million reasons" why winning the American Express NEC World Championships in Ireland was more important than playing in the Ryder Cup. This was supposedly knitted-brow material from Tiger. It was an unpatriotic statement. He was all about money.

Put aside the fact that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Put aside the fact that one could deduce that Tony Soprano is all about money as well, and nobody ever complains about him.

Put aside the fact that, at the time of the quote, Tiger actually was playing at the American Express NEC championships -- every pro golfer knows you play the shot in front of you first, that's the most important thing in the world, that and nothing else, unless your hair is on fire, or your wife has arms akimbo and is tapping her foot because you forgot to pick up her mother at the airport.

Put aside that Tiger is actually playing in the Ryder Cup right now, as we speak -- it's not like he said, "Pass. I can't be bothered with a glorified exhibition, so I'm gonna rank this particular event in the same way, say, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi ranked the recent Davis Cup -- 'patriotic responsibility.' I say again, people, 'pass.' "

Tiger didn't do that. He showed at the Belfry, therefore bringing his own heat and light to a less-than-incandescent event, a nice event in what used to be a niche spectator sport until Tiger came along, making it more newsworthy, make no mistake about that, making it the cool place to be for all the media bats blowing saxes, those who have to try to come up with something controversial and myth-debunking in what he says. You don't have to do this if you write golf for the New York Times, like Uncle Cliffy Brown, or the Illy, or Golf Digest. But if you write for a tabloid, thorough reports won't do. You must reveal, or assassinate, character. So you need Tiger Woods to be un-something-or-other. Maybe we all need for him to be un-something-or-other. Tiger Woods is the most newsworthy and the most popular golfer on Earth. But the popular part ain't unanimous. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

You have to stretch your imagination a bit to keep up with what is Tiger's version of a great sense of humor. He admires and has tried to emulate the overall professionalism of Jack Nicklaus. We know this. There are still problems with it. Not for Jack, somehow, but for Tiger, Just like Jack, El Tigre has this kind of snarky laugh, this "are-you-kidding-me?" way of cracking these cutting, wink-wink, almost-insult jokes that either fly majestically right over the heads of most of the people who hear them, or are taken the wrong way. But when the King's punchline falls flat, what do you do? Well, if it's Jack, and you're on his course, in his arena, you laugh anyway, sort of nervously, in some confusion. If it's Tiger, you wonder if he's exhibiting some "ism," or some "tic," as in "unpatriotic."

Tiger Woods
Woods' humor doesn't quite translate to everyone.
The only conclusion to me is not whether Tiger is "unpatriotic," or greedy, or flippant. Tiger is a better golfer than a humorist. Period.

Humor is hard to do, period, hard to deliver, that's why stand-up comedy is one of the toughest hustles. Satire is even more edgy. Technically, satire is "the use of sarcasm (saying the opposite of what one means) in order to ridicule folly or vice, sometimes with the intent to bring about improvement." You can tell Tiger is a fledgling satirist. When he got to the Belfry and attempted to say he was only joking about the "I can think of a million reasons why," comment, he turned to one of the golf writers and said, "I was hoping people would get it -- even you, you're a real beauty." He smiled when he said it. So, in a way, he meant it as a term of endearment, this dig. Now, did Tiger mean the writer was actually beautiful? Hardly. If there's one thing we know about Tiger, it's that he's not blind. The next beautiful writer you see will probably be the first. It's like if you had a ridiculous, pointy, tri-colored felt chapeau on your head, and one of your friends tried to point out the absurdity of it by saying, "Nice hat." Obviously, they don't really mean it's a nice hat. They mean it's an absurd hat, and they like you enough, are intimate enough with you, to point it out.

Remembering this principle in the future will keep you from uttering, "What the hell did he mean by that?!" after hearing some of Tiger Woods' utterances. Myself, I don't mind at all. I'm a bit of a satirist myself. Some things that happen to you in this life -- well, I don't know about you, but apparently I can speak for me, and for Tiger -- leave you with nothing else to do but to laugh at them. Laughter is a great weapon. Against the power of humor, nothing can stand. It is the great leveler of life. You may not have power, but you can laugh and point out the discrepancies of those who do. But that sense of humor combined with a snarky laugh does not always go over so well. Either people don't always get it, because it was delivered improperly, or flat don't like you. The best laugh to get is from somebody who doesn't want to laugh, who thinks they don't like you, but then have to laugh anyway.

That requires one of the few talents Tiger is still working on.

Tiger may have what we might call an individual sense of humor to begin with. At the NEC, after he won the oft-mentioned million-dollar purse by a shot, after making his only bogey of the event at the last hole, he was asked whether U.S. Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange was getting intense already. "Oh man, you have no idea," Tiger said with a touch of eye-rolling exasperation, and with that, you could just see Strange, calling in the middle of the night, saying, "Are you sure you want to play those new Nike irons in this event? ... are you sure you'd rather be paired with Calc, rather than with Phil? ... can we count on you to play golf like Tiger Woods? ... hey, me again ... what time is it? Midnight. Why? So, listen, did I mention how much this means ... have you tried on the new sports jacket? Does it fit? What do you think of it? Better than those postage-stamp collections we wore at Brookline ..."

All Tiger had to say was, "Oh man, you have no idea," and let the imagination do the rest. Keep it simple, people may get it. You stand a better chance of them getting it anyway. This simplicity is a hard rule for a fledgling satirist/humorist such as Tiger to learn (I'd bet one of his 25 Things I Want To Do In My Lifetime is a stand-up comedy act, Tiger Woods Live On the Sunset Strip). Don't make your attempt at humor or satire too fine, or people will take you literally, get the wrong idea, you end up making the problem you are attempting to "send up" and improve much worse instead.

After he said, "You have no idea," about Curtis' intensity,Tiger had this notion to add a kicker, a punchline. Here's some advice for him, or you, for that matter; a joke is a mechanical thing, it requires a punchline. Any plumber can tell, and very often blow, a joke. But a humorous line doesn't require a punchline. Just an artful way, a sense of timing and the moment. All the things Tiger is so good at in golf.

Tiger Woods
Tiger just hopes he can get the last laugh at the Ryder Cup.
"It must be (Curtis Strange's) time of month," Tiger added.

This was a twist he probably could have done without.

I know we could have done without it. It muddied the humor.

However, there was much muffled sputtering laughter in the ABC broadcast booth, but not much follow-up on Tiger's latest Rag.

Now Tiger and the U.S. team of individuals are at the Belfry for the weekend, along with the bats blowing saxophones (that would be us, the media) and the European golfing side. The comments that could have been read (by somebody blind, deaf and dumb to the subtleties of satire) as "unpatriotic" have blown over. Knowing Tiger, or at least his snarky laugh and sense of humor, there will be other controversial and misunderstood comments. The sooner, the better, far as I'm concerned. I can serve as official satire translator, if his IMG agent and his dad don't mind. Hell, even if they do ...

What's more interesting, Tiger's Rag, or the Ryder Cup?

Hmm. That's like asking what's more interesting, the Davis Cup, or Serena's game and cat suit. The only thing about this particular golfing "competition," if you really want to call it that, is not what Tiger will shoot there, but what he might say there. Stayed tuned.

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."