Page 2 columnist
Every Father's Day, I head over to my Dad's house to watch the U.S. Open. We throw ourselves into the final round of the tournament, each picking a favorite golfer, making sarcastic comments, poking fun of the announcers, saying golf-like things like, "That's a golf shot!" and so on. Even my stepmother gets into the act, joining us for the final few holes, pressuring us about what we're doing for dinner, wondering things like, "How come there's no such thing as a nine-wood?", and waiting for important putts before springing questions on Dad like, "Do you think we should extend the lease on our jeep?" and "Do we have plans for the last Saturday in August?"It's a little family tradition. Only this year, we went through the motions ... and it was all Tiger's fault. When Tiger Woods leads a major going into the final day, you monitor the tournament and inevitably go on auto-pilot. It's a different sport now. You're not watching the tournament thinking, "Who's going to win?" but rather, "Could Tiger possibly self-implode?" And he never does. Kinda ruins the fun. So Dad and I were flicking channels, talking about random things, reading magazines ... basically, we zoned out for much of the fourth round. Somewhere on the back nine, Tiger slammed one of his patented video-game drives -- landing in a cul-de-sac at the absolute furthest portion of the fairway, an impossible drive -- and Dad and I were pulling the "Good Lord, he's unbelievable" routine. "Have you ever written a column about him?" Dad wondered. "Nope. Never. Not in my entire life." "How come?" "I don't know. What can you say?" And that has been the strangest part of the Tiger Phenomenon: What can you say? Watch him play golf, watch him dominate, watch the way he carries himself, watch the way the other golfers self-destruct around him ... what can you say? Is there anything writers can possibly add? Think about it. Have you ever read a memorable piece on Tiger, other than the infamous GQ magazine feature during his first season (when he made the dirty jokes), or the Sports Illustrated piece in which Earl Woods lost his marbles and started babbling that Tiger's brilliance could transcend sports and help heal the world's problems. If Muhammad Ali brought out the best from writers in his generation, Tiger has accomplished the opposite, inspiring nothing beyond gushing admiration and hackneyed cliches. Here's somebody on the verge of becoming the most dominant athlete in recent memory ... and nobody can properly capture the moment.
But here's the weird thing: You can't blame the writers. What can you possibly say about Tiger that hasn't already been said? Where's the hook? Every time Tiger Woods wins another major, I always check sportspages.com's "Daily Links" the following morning, just to read some of the industry's most notable columnists struggling to breath new life into the same themes:We may never see another golfer like him ... he may surpass MJ and Ali before it's over ... we have never seen anything like this in any sport ... he's an inspiration to us all ... You have to feel for them, don't you? Since their editors covered their travel expenses, they have to write something about Tiger for Monday's paper. What would your angle be? What brainstorm would you unveil if you were on Long Island last weekend, and your editors told you, "Yeah, we want you to write 950 words on Tiger" and you had to make it interesting? What could you possibly say? And even if you said it well, would anyone even care enough to read it? Since that's the reason I never wrote about Tiger before, I'm writing a column about writing a column about Tiger, if that makes sense. Why doesn't Tiger -- potentially the most dominant athlete of our lifetime -- make for interesting copy? Let's break it down ... Reason No. 1: Overkill
How many "Superman" or "How good is Tiger?" columns can we read? How much butt-kissing is enough? How many times can we rehash the story about a kid who was raised to succeed at one thing -- golf -- and ended up doing just that? What else can be said about someone who works harder than everyone else, hits the ball further than anyone else, approaches every major like it's his last, consistently raises his game under pressure, possesses an insatiable drive to keep winning, seems to keep getting better with age, always handles himself with class and dignity, values his family and his parents, and plays the sport so well that he genuinely discourages his opponents? Did I leave anything out? Reason No. 2: His interviews aren't exactly electric
As you know, before any aspiring pro golfer receives their PGA Tour card, they endure four mandatory electroshock treatments and a partial frontal lobotomy, so we can't blame Tiger for being a little bland. And any chance of seeing Tiger "shoot from the hip" was destroyed by that aforementioned GQ magazine feature (these days, Tiger is more closely guarded than the Olson Twins during sophomore prom). So when he breaks into the "I thought I struck the ball well" routine, flashes those giant teeth and says absolutely nothing worth repeating, you can't really be surprised.Looking back, the only commotion Tiger ever caused was by A) telling dirty jokes, B) failing to throw Fuzzy Zoeller a life raft during the "collard greens" debacle, C) firing Fluff The Caddy, and D) digging hot blondes who apparently fell off the Fembot assembly line. Everything else written and said about Tiger is overwhelmingly generic and positive ... just like his interviews. There's a method to his madness. Reason No. 3: His "competition" hasn't shown up yet
Maybe the most staggering aspect of the Tiger Era. Have you ever seen an athlete destroy more opponents? Poor Phil Mickelson has been so flustered over the events of recent years, he finally responded by apparently growing a set of breasts. It's unreal. Every alleged "contender" has fallen by the wayside over the past five years (we thought maybe Montgomerie, Faldo, Norman, Couples and some of the noted PGA Tour veterans would battle him ... never really happened). We waited for his younger contemporaries to raise their games accordingly (Mickelson, Garcia, Els, etc.); if anything, those guys shrank from the challenge.
Take Mickelson, for example. If you watch the Mickelson feature on HBO's "Real Sports" last month, his career finally makes sense. He doesn't want it badly enough. During that piece, in the same breath where Mickelson says things like Nobody wants to win a major more than me and I don't think I've peaked as a golfer, he was telling the interviewer how his family was more important than anything, how spending time with his daughters and his wife would always take precedence over spending that extra two or three hours a day on his game (weight training programs, putting, studying tape and so on), how winning wasn't everything ... it was almost like he had been brainwashed by his sports psychologist.Watching the piece, you got the sense that he was family man first, golfer second ... and if Tiger watched it, he probably rubbed his hands together, smiled and thought to himself, "I got this guy." Along those same lines, here's one of the most impressive subplots of the Tiger Era: When Tiger matches up against his closest competitor during the final day of a major, that competitor always seems to fall apart over the course of those final 18 holes. How many 74s, 75s and 76s have we seen from players playing alongside Tiger during final rounds? Does he just psyche these guys out? Do they watch him slap a 330-yard drive, followed by a breathtaking iron, and say to themselves, "Good God, what am I up against?" When's the last time somebody went head-to-head against Tiger and tossed up a 65 or a 66? Does it ever happen? It's like someone tossing up 50 on MJ in his prime. You just don't see it. Reason No. 4: He's a little too slick
And this isn't entirely his fault. Tiger wasn't the first golfer to shamelessly take advantage of his own success, he won't be the last, and he isn't trying anything any of us wouldn't have done. But from the moment he turned pro and signed that enormous, $40 million contract with Nike, then pulled everything short of tattoo-ing "N-I-K-E" on his forehead and growing a mustache shaped like the swoosh ... it just felt a little calculating, that's all.Part of Michael Jordan's magic was that he played the business side of sports better than anyone, yet still managed to remain likable. Not Tiger. His latest Nike commercial was a perfect example -- I switched to Nike's golf ball and won three majors. ... I switched to Nike's driver and won The Masters (or whatever he says) -- with the implication being, "If it wasn't for Nike, I wouldn't be where I am today. Here's a guy who could probably win two majors a year using range balls, Ian Woosnam's clubs and Abe Vigoda as a caddy, and he's telling us that Nike was responsible for much of his recent success? Please. There's something Zabka-esque about his association with Nike. It's creepy. Reason No. 5: There isn't anything commanding about him
One of my editors watched Tiger play in person a few years ago, claiming that the experience of seeing Tiger stride onto the course -- the way he carried himself, the sounds the crowd made when he emerged, the strange sensation that everyone's attention in a large group was fixated on one man -- was one of his most memorable experiences as a sports fan. Fair enough. But you could have said the same thing about seeing any golfer in their primes, whether it was Nicklaus, Hogan, Palmer, Ty Webb or whomever. That doesn't transfer to the television screen, it doesn't transfer to all walks of life, and it certainly doesn't make Tiger more or less memorable than anyone else. For instance, one of my favorite Dick Schaap stories was the one about Schaap, Ali and Tom Seaver eating dinner in New York City together, then heading back to Schaap's hotel to shoot the breeze. During this time, Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight title (for his Vietnam War protest) and prevented from fighting in the United States, so his frustration was simmering. During an animated discussion in the hotel room, Ali removed his shirt and shadow-boxed for Schaap and Seaver, throwing combinations, gliding around the room, telling stories, working himself into a lather. The way Schaap described the night, it sounded like one of those handful of nights you would never forget if you were there -- a wonderful, charismatic athlete simply letting loose. I just can't imagine anyone telling stories like that about Tiger. He doesn't come off as exceptionally cool. He doesn't command a room. He doesn't exude that "There's someone I would love to hang out with" vibe. Unlike MJ or Ali, he isn't strikingly handsome, just an average-looking guy. His voice makes him sounds like the "Banana in a tailpipe" guy from "Beverly Hills Cop." Maybe these things don't matter as much on a golf course, but for the overall package -- the mystique, the charisma -- something seems to be missing (like with Pete Sampras and Tim Duncan, only on a much larger scale).
Quick story: During a Vegas bachelor party at Mandalay Bay in May of 2001, my buddies and I noticed Tiger playing craps at a $25 table, surrounded by a group of gawkers that went three deep, flanked by one of his generic blondes, three security guards and two cops. At the exact same time, a goofy redneck with a mullet was playing roulette about 40 feet away -- with trays and trays of $1,000 chips in front of him, betting $35,000-40,000 on every hand -- and holding court with an equally sizable crowd. And within about 20 minutes, most of the crowd around Tiger's table moved over to watch Mullet Man. Tiger seemed nice enough, but there wasn't anything remotely cool about him -- he was just dorky enough that there was something inherently disappointing about watching him gamble. One of my friends summed it up best by hissing, "Tiger's a dork," and storming off to watch Mullet Man.I remember thinking that night, If MJ or Ali were playing at this craps table in their respective primes, there's no way in hell that some guy with a mullet would draw a bigger crowd than them. It just wouldn't happen. And I still feel that way. For his considerable athletic achievements, it still feels like something is missing with Tiger Woods. He isn't larger than life. At least not yet. So Tiger The Celebrity hasn't caught up to Tiger The Golfer ... and you know what? It just isn't that interesting to read about golf. We will suffer through many more majors like the one last weekend -- Tiger holding off the field, Tiger raising his game, competitors falling by the wayside, Tiger holding the trophy at the end, and no, this is not a recording -- and writers across the globe will struggle valiantly to capture the proceedings. What can you say? Tiger Woods has become the first superstar who literally speaks for himself. Some day, we might even appreciate him for it. Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.
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