When Tiger Woods held a press conference at the Masters on Monday, a reporter asked the golfer how he was going to “show more respect for the game.” Tiger responded:
I am actually going to try and obviously not get as hot when I play. But then again … I’m not going to be as exuberant, either. … I can’t play one without the other. And so I’ve made a conscious decision to try and tone down my negative outbursts. And consequently, I’m sure that my positive outbursts will be calmed down, as well.
In other words, no more fist pumps. No more high-fives with his caddy. No more tossing his hat to the ground, then leaning back and roaring while doing a two-handed fist pump. No more cocky two-step toward the hole when he knows the putt is going to fall. And, also, presumably, no more throwing his driver into the bushes or into the crowd. No more yelling “Goddamn, you fucking prick” after hitting a bad shot.
Suspiciously on cue, Nike released a new Tiger Woods ad yesterday:
It’s a somber affair, shot in black-and-white. Tiger stares without expression as camera flashes light up his face. The voice of his deceased father asks him: “Did you learn anything?” The ad nods toward a previous Nike ad starring Earl Woods, “Never,” in which the elder Woods explains how he trained Tiger to ignore distraction and be mentally disciplined. The new ad, “Earl and Tiger,” brilliantly reframes the Tiger scandal. Our hero has fallen but he’s returning to his roots. He’s the broken but still loyal prodigy who’s prepared to set all the records in golf. Tiger’s next great challenge will be to conquer himself.
This is canny marketing from Nike, but should we buy it? If Tiger sinks the winning putt on 18, will he really pause and keep silent, since modesty is the ultimate reward? And if he does, will we want to watch it?
Tiger brought theatricality to a top-button-buttoned game. To see how much he has changed things, just watch Tom Watson’s reaction to his chip-in on the 17th hole during the 1982 U.S. Open (what ESPN considers the finest shot in the history of golf). Watson takes off on a pleasant little jog, seemingly more out of relief than exhilaration. Traditionally, golfers celebrated warily. They tipped their hat, gave a polite wave to the gallery, or raised their putter in momentary triumph. After all, the game giveth, the game taketh away. Best not to insult the gods. Tiger’s crowd-stoking fist pumps and high-fives were of a different magnitude: I’ve beaten golf.
Based on what we’ve seen so far at Augusta, Tiger is humbler and more accessible. He has been acknowledging the fans during his practice rounds. Before, he tuned out the galleries while playing to the television cameras. Every green was a stage, and Tiger shined brighter than the robo-pros who followed him (with a few exceptions of course: Phil Mickelson, John Daly, others). The PGA would like more personalities. Jonathan Mahler’s recent New York Times Magazine cover story “The Tiger Bubble” has a chilling comment from the PGA Tour player Harrison Frazar: “The TV people come to talk to us every once in a while, and they say that’s what we need. We need more emotion. We need the guy out there pumping his fist in the air, jumping up and down when he makes a putt.”
Harrison Frazar and his colleagues, though, have not been trained to jump up and down. The wealthy golf tour that Tiger helped build rewards consistency. The guys who grind out good shots week after week are the ones who can make a living. They have a workmanlike relationship to the game. They’re not going to start hopping around like a wide receiver because a putt falls. They’ve seen too many lip out. Tiger, among the many gifts that make him an order of magnitude better than his peers, has the ability to get exuberant after an outstanding shot, then settle down and groove his next drive down the middle of the fairway.
He also, as he confessed on Monday, has a tendency to curse a blue streak when he misses the green. Tiger feels the need to cut the cursing to show us that he’s reformed, that he’s smaller than golf and no longer a connoisseur of bottle girls. But perhaps Tiger should not be so quick to rein himself in. A glaze of gentlemanliness has been slathered on golf, nowhere moreso than at the Masters. But the game that Tiger has wrought is different than the one Ben Hogan played. With the money to be earned on tour, golf has attracted stronger, fitter, and smarter athletes from a global pool of talent. They are competing against one another for fractional advantages on each shot. Some of them are nice guys. Some of them are competitive pricks. Why pretend that they would all make a great date for the Saturday dinner dance?
We’ve seen what the pressures of keeping up a corporate-gentleman facade did to Tiger, the King of Focus. Now, we watch as he tries to put his green jacket back on. The Masters is helping Tiger regain his respectability, one friendly smile and pleasant wave at a time. But golf could use a little Vegas, a five o’clock shadow—even a little pro wrestling. Tiger wasn’t just celebrating and cussing. He was showing golf as the hard, cruel game that it is, one where intimidation counts, and the back nine on Sunday afternoon is more like NASCAR than a nice day under the blooming azaleas.
Those of us who long for the old, cursing Tiger might not have to wait very long. After a bad drive on the 11th hole in Thursday’s first round, he swung his club angrily at his side and muttered to himself. By Sunday, that driver might tear up the azaleas.