August 6, 2014
Illustration by Ryan Case
Ziegler returns to bury Tiger, not to praise him
Back when I was a radio talk show host at WHAS (has it really been over a decade now?!), one of the things I was somewhat known for was my fanatical admiration for Tiger Woods. I then ran a mostly satirical (and now defunct) website www.TigerWoodsIsGod.com, which was written about by major publications all over the Western World.
I never dreamed then that, as Tiger and I return to Louisville this week for the PGA (me as just a spectator, Tiger, as of this writing, a player), I would neither care very much about how he will do, nor think he has any chance of seriously contending, assuming he even makes it to the first tee.
Back in the day, Tiger was a huge part of my life. In the book “Chasing Tiger” there is even a (somewhat overstated) story from me suggesting that Tiger emerging as an amateur star just after the death of my mother in a car accident helped keep me from committing suicide.
It is, however, absolutely true that the 80 or so days a year in which Tiger used to play tournament golf were what I looked forward to most during the other 285 on the calendar. As strange as it may sound, I considered Tiger’s epic life-long quest to eclipse the “unbreakable” Jack Nicklaus record of 18 professional major championships to be a literal mile-marker for my own journey through this often mundane existence.
As a tournament golfer, I marveled at the pure geometric and athletic beauty of his nearly perfect swing and overall game. As someone with a dim view of humanity, his ability to nearly perfect an endeavor previously thought to be utterly un-perfectible gave me hope for our species. As a libertarian conservative, I even dared to dream that he would eventually become a President of the United States of whom I could be proud.
In short, watching Tiger Woods at his best was, just as Kevin Costner’s character in the movie “Tin Cup” famously said, like a tuning fork going off in your loins. I considered myself truly lucky to be living in the era in which he was blessing us with his talents. And while I was more vocal about it than most, I was hardly alone in feeling this way.
However, I always had an ominous suspicion that, like almost everything in life which is too good to be true, we would be robbed of Tiger’s greatness prematurely. Bizarrely, on Thanksgiving night of 2009 I told my brother-in-law that I thought that Tiger’s career/life would end in a car accident before his prime was through.
So imagine my shock when the next morning it was learned that Tiger had driven his car into a fire hydrant the previous night while apparently being chased by his wife with a golf club!
While I was profoundly disappointed to learn that Tiger was serial philanderer, I was actually even more enraged with the pathetic and dishonest manner in which he handled the scandal (for instance, he still has never admitted that the car accident was caused by his former wife attacking him, which is obviously what actually happened). Even worse than that may have been that he let the whole affair (sex addiction therapy?!) destroy a huge part of the persona and psyche which had made him such an amazing golfer.
More than any other sport, golf is a game of confidence and mental strength. I believe the scandal and sex addiction therapy basically rebooted Tiger’s brain, while leaving scar tissue where before there was only a virgin consciousness. In the process, several of the most important files (like the one labeled “magic”) got lost, or were infected with a virus called mortality.
It is my view that Tiger made an unspoken but very real deal with his public which he clearly broke before, during, and after the scandal became public.
It has often been said that to whom much is given, much is expected. Tiger’s agreement was basically this: his fans gave him the most fervent devotion in all of sports and all the money he could ever dream of making, and in return he was to give us the first 45 years (or so) of his life zealously fixated on becoming the greatest golfer the world has ever seen.
When Tiger let the scandal get out of hand, he violated this contract. Consequently, much like a Greek God who had defied Zeus, he has essentially been striped of his supernatural powers because of his shattering of this scared trust.
Tiger has famously never won major number 15 after that fateful Thanksgiving night (and, in retrospect, his blowing of the 2009 PGA just before the “accident” now appears to have been at least somewhat related to the emerging scandal he could no longer control). While he has shown some tantalizing flashes of brilliance, he has never been the same player and clearly (to everyone not in a golf media whose economic existence depends on his return to glory) never will be again. The magic is gone forever and, with it, so are any legitimate hopes of ever breaking the revered Nicklaus record.
Like with any significant loss in life, I have gone through all the various stages of grieving over the loss of Tiger Woods.
At first, I was extremely angry. So livid in fact that I attended the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, alone, just so that I could heckle him because it personally offended me that no one had previously done so properly (the full story is astonishing and far too long for this medium, but the incident ended up being written about on the back page of “Sports Illustrated”, thankfully without my name being attached it).
At this point, I am just sad and resigned to the heartbreaking reality that we have all been cheated out of an extremely precious commodity. Tiger and the golf media (some of whom are just starting to accept that their golden goose may indeed be terminally ill) don’t fully realize it yet, but he is now, even when his back isn’t acting up, just a normal, mortal, professional golfer.
I fully realize that it may seem premature to write off a player of Tiger’s talent so soon after having back surgery. Tiger may still win one more major title on guts, luck and memories (much like Jack Nicklaus did at the Masters in 1986), and it would be a fantastic story that even I would enjoy if he does, but there is simply absolutely no chance he breaks the career record or ever dominates the game again.
At 38 his body is breaking down like a man in his late 40s and, thanks to modern technology, golf has clearly become a young man’s game with far better athletes since Nicklaus won his last major at the age of 46 (though none of this will stop the pathetic golf media from laughably fanaticizing ten years from now that a fading but finally healthy 48-year old Tiger Woods could finally regain his old form and win several majors in a row).
Most remarkably, Tiger Woods who once forced the Lords of Augusta National to dramatically alter their hallowed course to deal with his prodigious length, is now (largely because he fears hitting a wayward driver and the back surgery has shortened his swing) is effectively, at best, an averaged-length hitter of the ball among elite tour players.
Watching him putt now is almost as jarring as seeing him become impotent off the tee. When he forced a playoff with that dramatic putt on the 72nd hole of the 2008 U.S. Open, NBC announcer Dan Hicks excitedly asked, “Expect anything different?!!” Today, if he somehow faced the same putt and missed it, the exact same call would be perfectly appropriate.
So instead of witnessing the ultimate human drama of Tiger’s life-long mission to break an “unbreakable” record, the most compelling element remaining in the story of Tiger Woods golf career is just how smoothly (or not) his abdication of the game’s throne to a new generation of golfers, most of whom he essentially birthed, will be.
Considering the profound economic incentive that Tiger, the media, and the sport itself all have to pretend that Tiger is going to emerge from a phone booth with a red cape and an “S” on his chest at any moment, this should be interesting (the first test will likely be whether Captain Tom Watson even picks him for this year’s Ryder Cup team). I think there is even a chance that playing the game he once perfected gets so humiliating for Tiger that he ends up retiring early, surely by claiming that physical injury has made it impossible for him continue to play at the highest level (and no, I don’t think it is a “coincidence” that his back just happen to act up most after he has been playing his worst).
When it was first announced that Louisville would host the 2014 PGA championship at Valhalla (the site of one of Tiger’s most memorable and dramatic wins), it was considered a prime date for Tiger to make history. Instead, it seems far more likely that it will mark the event when it became crystal clear to all but his most blinded fans that the Tiger Woods era is officially over.
For me, the PGA Championship will be, assuming Tiger even plays, a chance to say goodbye to what was once, for better or worse, an extremely important element of my existence (something which, since becoming a father, I now see as pretty silly). Sadly, the only real drama I foresee is whether that farewell takes place on Friday (should Tiger miss the cut) or early Sunday or whenever he decides to quit. While disappointing, it is somehow fitting that the end of his era, much like a funeral, will be forever marked by event where he may not even be in attendance.
A small part of me still hopes that I am somehow wrong about Tiger, but the rest of me is quite certain that I am unquestionably right..