Monday, April 19, 2010

Still My #1

Tiger Woods is still my favorite golfer.

I can see why people give me funny looks (and sometimes disgusted looks) when I say this. A lot of people, my roommate included, think there must be something wrong with me. "Really? After all that he's done?" people say. Really, and here's why.

First of all, let me make one thing clear: In no way am I defending Tiger for cheating on his wife. It's something that rightly made a lot of people mad and it's something that he's going to have to deal with in private (and in public) for a long time. Simply put, he screwed up. But here's my question: does he really deserve all that he's had to put up with since the truth came out?

Up to Tiger's crash in late November last year, he had been in the tabloids about as much as I have. After all, he's a golfer, how exciting could his personal life be? After the crash, we got our answer: very exciting. Soon, he was being bombarded by paparazzi and media and his life got a whole lot crazier.

Question: Can you remember any non-politician getting this much media attention for cheating on his wife?

The last athlete I can remember getting attention like this was Kobe Bryant during his rape case. But Kobe was being accused of a crime. There was nothing criminal about what Tiger was doing. Morally wrong? Yes. Criminally? No. So why would Tiger get so much attention when he didn't break any laws? Two reasons.

Reason 1: He's Tiger Woods. Tiger is probably the most famous athlete in the world. He's sport's first $1 billion dollar man and he's a notoriously private person. If you're a member of the paparazzi and you're looking to go after someone big, there's no one bigger than Tiger. Once the paparazzi smelled blood, it was all over.

Reason 2: He plays golf. Golfers are the pretty boys of the sports world. Think of every sports scandal you can before Tiger's. Did any of them happen in golf? Football has people like Brandon Marshall,Terrell Owens, and (fill in the blank) of the Cincinnati Bengals. Baseball has Milton Bradley and Roger Clemens. Cycling has Floyd Landis. Skiing has Bode Miller. Basketball has Ron Artest and Kenyon Martin. Sports are supposed to have their bad boys. Can you think of one golfer (besides John Daly) who has made a headline for anything besides winning a golf tournament? Golfers are supposed to be boring. They're not supposed to have wild secret lives. But Tiger did and he's getting shelled for it. What's strange about this is that athletes in every sport cheat on their wives. And yet how many athletes have been forced to hold news conferences to confess to cheating?

I know what you're thinking, So he's still your favorite golfer...why? Glad you asked.

I started playing golf in 1996. Coincidentally, this was the same year that a young golfer named Tiger Woods turned pro. A year later, he won his first major championship: The Masters. I remember hearing a lot about Tiger and once I started watching him, I knew there was something different about him. For one thing, he didn't seem like a golfer. Tiger had an intensity to him that I had never seen in anyone else. I was just getting into golf, and I had always thought (like so many other people) that golf was a boring sport to watch on TV. However, I found myself glued to the TV whenever Tiger was playing. It didn't matter if it was The Masters or the Byron Nelson, I was watching if Tiger was playing. Maybe he didn't always win, but you knew that at some point during the round, he was going to do something special. It was like watching a hockey game because you wanted to see a fight. Maybe the rest wasn't nail-biting, but you knew at some point, it was coming. And when it did, you could always count on Tiger react in the perfect way. You never knew exactly how it was going to go down. Was he going to unleash his trademarked fist pump? Was he going to scream and hug his caddy? Was he going to grab a t-shirt gun out of his bag and start shooting red nike shirts into the crowd? You never knew. During the 2000 PGA Championship, Tiger was being challenged by a player named Bob May. Everyone knew that Tiger just had to win, but May kept playing good golf. Eventually, it went into a three hole playoff, and that's where the real magic happened. On the first playoff hole, Tiger had a long birdie putt to go one shot up on May. When the putt was about halfway to the hole, Tiger started running after it, finger pointed at the hole. The putt dropped, the crowd went nuts, Tiger picked the ball out of the hole, gave a fist pump and let out a scream and just like that, you knew it was over. There were two holes left in the playoff and May was only down by one shot, but everyone knew it. No one was coming back from a shot like that. Most players are lucky to have a career defining shot. For David Toms, it was the hole-in-one during the PGA Championship which he later went on to win for his first and only major. For Shaun Micheel, it was the shot he nearly holed from the fairway to win the PGA Championship a few years later. For Tiger, there isn't one. For anyone else, that putt would have been the shot. It was incredible. For Tiger, it's just another to add to an ever-growing list.

There's something different about a tournament when Tiger Woods is a part of it. Everyone knows it, even if the players won't admit it sometimes. There's an electricity in the air that just doesn't seem to be there if he's not playing. Go to a tournament that Tiger's playing and you're bound to know where he is on the course at any given time, no matter where on the course you are. They're called Tiger Roars, and you can hear them from miles away. They happen when Tiger does something special. When he does, every bit of energy in the crowd is released and they go nuts. Maybe it's a birdie, maybe it's a long par putt, maybe it's a chip in. Whatever it is, everyone on the course is going to know it just happened from the roar the crowd makes when the ball goes in the hole.

I was lucky enough to be on the 18th hole at the US Open at Torrey Pines when Tiger made his putt to send the tournament into an 18 hole playoff the next day. That day, things weren't looking good for Tiger. He was limping around the course like someone had Tonya Harding-ed him and he seemed unable to really get anything going (probably because of his leg, which was later found to have a broken bone in it). Despite these things, he wasn't throwing away strokes. He was staying within reach of the leader, Rocco Mediate. He came to the 18th hole, a par 5 over water, needing birdie to tie Mediate. I was waiting under a huge scoreboard near the fairway with one of my best friends and his girlfriend and we had been trying to get updates on Tiger's standing for a long time before he got there. Finally, when he reached the 18th hole, we learned that he needed birdie. When Tiger hit his third shot safely on the green, the crowd went nuts and everyone waited in nervous anticipation as he walked to the green. We were all jostling in my section, trying to stand on little hills, roots, legs of bleachers, each other...anything to see what was going to happen when Tiger putted. He took a few minutes reading the putt and right before he hit the ball, I stood on my tip toes and was able to see everything. The second the putter touched the ball, everyone started yelling for it to drop. A few seconds later, it did and there was absolute pandemonium. Never in my life have I heard anything so loud in my life. Tiger was screaming and missing high fives with his caddy. We were screaming and missing high fives with each other and strangers. It was something I doubt I will ever come close to experiencing again at any other sporting event. Shaking his head in the scorer's tent, Mediate turned away from the TV he was watching and said the words the all of us there were thinking the minute Tiger hit the putt: "I knew he was gonna make it."

Maybe Tiger Woods isn't a fantastic human being. Maybe he swears a lot on the course and throws clubs and cheats on his wife. Maybe he doesn't give autographs and high fives to kids and kiss babies like everyone wants him to. But what he does give us just may be better. Tiger gives us moments unlike any we have seen or experienced before. Standing behind the scoreboard on 18, I didn't need him to sign my hat or take a picture with me or kiss my dog. I needed that putt to drop because every bone in my body was telling me that it was going to. Something inside me that loves this crazy game called golf and grew up idolizing a man named Tiger felt like it needed that birdie to survive. Something would have felt so wrong inside me watching someone other than Tiger hold the trophy after all that Tiger had been through for this tournament. Could I still have faith in a game in which someone who deserved to win as much as Tiger did that week lost? I didn't know and I didn't want to find out. I needed that putt to drop.

And it did.

And that is why Tiger Woods is still my favorite golfer.

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