Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 20, 2014

Big Reputations, Little Men

A NOTE TO READERS: This is the 500th post at On Sports and Life. Thank you all for reading, and for your continuing support.

Dan Jenkins is one of the most celebrated sportswriters and authors of our time. He was a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated for two decades. His early novels Semi-Tough and Dead Solid Perfect, comedic looks at professional football and golf respectively, won high praise and were made into movies. Jenkins still writes for Golf Digest, and among the numerous awards bestowed upon him over the years was induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2012.

Tiger Woods is the preeminent golfer of his era, one who in the perpetually entertaining if ultimately meaningless debate about the best ever has as many adherents as Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan, Harry Vardon or Bobby Jones. His 14 major championships rank second only to Nicklaus, and his 79 PGA Tour victories are just three shy of the record long held by Sam Snead. Woods brought uncountable new fans to his sport and all but singlehandedly remade the economics of the men’s game, for which his fellow pros are no doubt eternally grateful.

But Jenkins will celebrate his 85th birthday early next month, and to use a sporting metaphor has lost a little something off his fastball. As for Woods, his last major championship was at the 2008 U.S. Open. A total of 26 majors have been played since that dramatic triumph in a playoff over Rocco Mediate, and what once seemed preordained, namely that Woods would supplant Nicklaus as the record holder for major titles, now appears somewhere between uncertain and improbable.

Jenkins and Woods, two men who have been giants of sport, one by chronicling it and the other by playing, squared off this week in a bizarre public dustup over a lame piece of satire. From the writer’s initial Golf Digest column to the golfer’s over the top response on The Players’ Tribune website, both proved that even giants are capable of acting small.

The column by Jenkins, which appears in this month’s print edition of the magazine and can be found online here, is entitled “My (Fake) Interview With Tiger.” The piece is accompanied by two photographs of an actor portraying Woods. Although he is wearing a red shirt, the stand-in is so obviously not Woods that anyone thinking otherwise should schedule an immediate appointment with an eye doctor. Between the second word in the article’s title and the abundantly fake Woods in the photographs, it’s hard to imagine any reader confusing Jenkins’s column with an actual interview of the real Tiger.

In the fake interview itself the pretend superstar comes across as supremely self-absorbed and not particularly bright. Jenkins dwells at length on Woods’s purported penchant for firing underlings and supposed tight-fistedness when it comes to tipping. He also returns time and again to the extramarital affairs which wrecked the golfer’s marriage and marred his carefully choreographed reputation.

But this is not the Jenkins of Semi-Tough. The column largely falls flat, because the author is wielding a blunt instrument instead of a rapier. Jenkins is also too absorbed by what amounts to insider knowledge. His fellow touring pros or the members of the media that follow the PGA Tour week in and week out may know whether or not Woods stiffs waiters at restaurants or is quick to dismiss members of his entourage; but that’s not something that the average golf fan ever sees.

It’s highly unlikely that the tedious fake interview was going to sell any extra copies of Golf Digest. Instead it was destined to pass mostly unnoticed. But then Woods shone a spotlight on the piece by posting an intense rebuttal on The Players’ Tribune, the website that is one of Derek Jeter’s first post-retirement endeavors. In the first post on his site the former Yankees’ shortstop described it as “a place where athletes have the tools they need to share what they really think and feel. We want to have a way to connect directly with our fans, with no filter.”

What the filterless Woods thinks and feels is that Jenkins set new lows for journalism and ethics. In his post Woods repeatedly makes the point that the “interview” was fake, apparently forgetting the second word in the title of Jenkins’s column. He excoriates the magazine for hiring an actor for the accompanying photos, as if he fears that readers might somehow think it was really him.

Woods is absolutely entitled to express his point of view. Being a superstar athlete or a megawatt celebrity, or in his case both, should never deprive one of their first amendment rights. But if the original column by Jenkins was ultimately a failed attempt at humor, far more pedantic than witty, Woods’s rebuttal to words that were destined to be largely ignored and quickly forgotten comes across as crazed. Reading it one can’t help but think back to the accusations made by Jenkins and wonder if some of them didn’t strike Woods a little too close to home. In the end, both the Hall of Fame journalist and the golfer who defined his era were sadly diminished.

Years ago, before the Tour played worldwide and the schedule was shifted to ignore the calendar, this was a sleepy time of year for professional golf. The majors had been played, money winners had been crowned, and most players were taking time off. To fill in the gap a handful of made-for-television events came along, offering a few pros a chance at some easy money every late autumn. For years the Skins Game was a Thanksgiving weekend favorite of golf fans. This time of year was called the Silly Season back then.

The Skins Game is long gone, and the 2014-15 PGA Tour season has already had seven stops, including one of the four World Golf Championships events. But this week Dan Jenkins and Tiger Woods collaborated to make certain that the term Silly Season still applies.

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