Sunday, July 23, 2006

Tiger Must Have a Mute Button

There are many reasons Tiger Woods is the best golfer of our time, working on of all time. After his British Open triumph, the 11th major tournament victory of Woods' career, it's apparent what one of them must be.

When Woods is out there on the golf course, he can't hear the world's TV broadcasters rhapsodizing about Tiger Woods' magnificence. If Woods could hear how he's covered, he might hate himself.

There's respect for an all-time champion, and then there's fawning sycophancy. Golf commentary, which leans towards the latter anyway, has crossed the line by light years in Woods' case. Magnify Tim McCarver's comments on Derek Jeter by a factor of 100, and you have the sound of any network broadcaster describing Woods' play. On the Golf Channel, it's more like North Korean TV discussing Kim Jong Il. Dear Tiger is human perfection-only better.

There are times Woods deserves every over the top accolade he gets. Yours truly had the privilege of covering Woods' 2000 US Open win at Pebble Beach, the most dominant golf performance in history (that's a stat, not an opinion) and of course my prose ran a shade or two towards the purple end of the spectrum. What separates the sycophants is their insistence on luading Woods when he doesn't deserve it. They even make excuses for Woods, as if ever needed any.

In the third round at Royal Liverpool, Woods had three separate three-putts on the back nine, missing putts of under 6 feet on all of them. That's the stuff 20-handicaps are made of, not an Open champion. Woods was the only person to say so. It's a cliche to say great athletes are their own harshest critics, but in Woods' case, he's his ONLY critic, or at least the only one you see on TV.

Hero worship is bad for the hero. He either starts believing his press clippings, which is fatal, or develops contempt for the worshippers, a slower but equally fatal disease. Either way, life gets one-dimensional. It's not just lonely at the top, it's dull to boot. Ennui drove Michael Jordan, Woods' role model, all the way to Double A baseball.

There's scant danger of Woods having a similiar mid-jocklife crisis. Hi ego won't get a bellyache from the constant overdose of butter and sugar it gets from the golf world. Woods won't let it take a taste. This is not meant as a pejorative, but isn't it obvious that the secret of Woods' success is his supernatural powers as a control freak? Compared to Woods, Bill Belichick could play the lead in Clerks II.

Consider the Open. Woods has struggled with driving accuracy all year. So in this tournament, he used the driver once in 72 holes. Simple, no?

No. A million pros have given 10 million hackers the same game plan. Put the driver in the bag, ace. A 200-yard shot from the fairway is a better fate than a 150-yard shot from parts unknown. Get a grip.

Nobody follows this advice, at least not for long. Hitting the driver is fun-the most enjoyable shot in the game. That's for duffers. Think how much fun it is for Woods, one of the longest hitters ever. Think how Phil Mickelson lost the US Open because he couldn't let go of the driver on the 72nd tee. The ability to hit the ball further than most other folks is what separates pros from amateurs in the first place.

Woods put his ego in the bag alongside of his driver and hit irons off the tee. The logic involved was not complex. Woods doesn't just hit his driver longer than the other players, he hits all the other clubs proportionately further as well. Ergo, eschewing the driver is a smaller sacrifice for him than for his rivals. This analysis proved correct.

The triumph of intellect over ego is a rare thing in human affairs. Frankly, most of us can't empathize with it. Woods is idolized, but the all-too-flawed Mickelson, who'd rather live on the edge than win safely, is loved by the galleries in a way Woods won't be until he's older and more fallible.

That day appears to be at least 15 years in the future. Woods is deaf to the treacle his play inspires. Lucky him. Maybe he'll lend out his mute button when the PGA rolls around next month.


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