Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 25, 2012

Tiger Wins! World Peace To Follow!

At a moment as important as this, one can’t help but recall the hopeful words of former President Gerald Ford, spoken after taking the oath of office in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation. “Our long national nightmare is over,” said the new President. So indeed it is again, for this Sunday after a 924 day interregnum Tiger Woods finally won another PGA Tour golf tournament. As the mainstream sports media rushes to exult in the return of Tiger, one can only presume that if an event as truly momentous and life-altering as this can happen, then a cure for cancer and peace in the Middle East both must be but mere days away.

The above is written intending no disrespect to Woods. He was without question the preeminent player of the game almost from the moment he turned professional in 1996 (he won twice in his rookie season), until Thanksgiving weekend in 2009 when his Cadillac SUV had its now infamous encounter with a fire hydrant near his home and his scandalous private life became all too public. Like millions of other fans of the game I spent more than a decade being awed by his superb shot-making ability, his single-minded focus on winning, and his uncanny knack for making seemingly impossible shots look routine. For the first time since Arnold Palmer rose to prominence just as television was expanding its live coverage of golf, a single player was manifestly responsible for a huge increase in the popularity of the game. Every player holding a PGA Tour card owes a figurative portion of every check they earn to Woods, for his popularity fueled the growth in tournament purses, sponsors’ endorsement fees, and television contracts that have collectively propelled the Tour’s economic expansion.

At the same time, my enormous respect and admiration for Tiger’s ability has always been coupled with relative indifference towards him personally. I have never identified myself as a fan of Woods per se, because he in turn never seemed to be much of a fan of his fans. To be sure, his Tiger Woods Foundation has done admirable work promoting the game to inner-city and underserved youth. But with nearly $100 million in career winnings and many, many times that in endorsements, giving something back should be expected. Meanwhile he was often the most heavily fined player on Tour for his angry outbursts and churlish behavior on the course; and when forced to interact with either the public or the media he often did so with all of the spontaneity and joy of someone on their way to an appointment for a root canal. Of course for most fans his talent has always easily outweighed all of that and he was and is by far the most popular player in the game; even after his dramatic fall from the pedestal golf fans, the media, and his handlers together built for him.

In the wake of the train wreck that his personal life became 28 months ago he pledged to return to his Buddhist roots and become a better person on and off the course; including in his dealings with the press and with those of us who buy the tickets to watch and the red Nike shirts to wear. Unfortunately, the evidence that he has kept that pledge is limited; though in the wake of Sunday’s victory he did manage to express appreciation for the support of the thousands who lined Bay Hill’s fairways and cheered his every shot.

The game is unquestionably well served when one of its still great players performs at a high level. I have written repeatedly that Tiger would win again, and likely win often; and I continue to believe he has a shot at his most significant career goal, eclipsing the 18 professional majors won by Jack Nicklaus. If there was ever a tournament at which Tiger was likely to end his long winless drought, it was the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Clearly Woods loves the King’s tournament and clearly the Bay Hill course fits his game and his eye. Six times prior to this Sunday he walked off the 18th green as the tournament champion. In the nearly forty years that the tournament has been played, no one else has won it more than twice. So when he took a one-stroke lead into the final round, the likely outcome seemed clear. Of course there have been multiple Sundays this year when Woods has played like an old Tiger rather than the Tiger of old. But in this final round with the wind blowing and many of the pins tucked near the edges of the greens, he was manifestly the best player on the course, firing a 2-under par 70 as his final margin ballooned to five shots over Graeme McDowell.

With his 72nd PGA Tour win Woods moves from 18th all the way up to 6th in the world rankings. He remains one of the best players in the game; and like anyone on that list he will be hard to beat in any week when all aspects of his game are working, as they were this week. But the key words in that last sentence are “one of” and “like anyone.” Once Woods was so dominant that he retained his #1 world ranking for the entire second half of 2008 despite not playing at all following knee surgery. Similarly, despite either not playing at all or mostly playing poorly in 2010, it took until October of that year for Lee Westwood to finally supplant Woods atop the rankings. But times have changed. Woods is 36 years old, hardly ancient for a pro golfer; but his legs may be ten years older. He’s had four knee surgeries and withdrew from his last event two weeks ago with a strained Achilles tendon. Meanwhile the other players on anyone’s list of the best are increasingly a group of young guns who respect all of their peers but are awed by none of them, including Woods.

When Tiger wins he of course deserves all the praise and attention that he is going to continue to get. But one can bet that at next week’s Shell Houston Open the NBC announcing crew will spend time speculating on whether Woods is the favorite for the upcoming Masters. They will do this despite the fact that he isn’t playing in Houston. They will do it while others on the list of best players in the game like Westwood or Steve Stricker, or the winners of three of the last four majors, Keegan Bradley, Darren Clarke, and Charl Schwartzel, are all out on the golf course. When television commentators, golf pundits and professional sportswriters start acting as if professional golf is only about Tiger Woods, they do the game, its fans, and a number of other extremely talented players a disservice. As Woods made his way down the 18th fairway on Sunday, NBC’s Dan Hicks twice spoke of Tiger’s resurrection. One almost expected Woods to take a shortcut to the green by just walking across the lake fronting it.

Well done Tiger. Welcome back to the winner’s circle, and congratulations on a fine tournament. As for the media members following the PGA Tour, try taking a few deep breaths, and let’s save terms like “resurrection” for matters a bit more transcendent than the game of golf.

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