Let me put forward this seemingly simple question: Has the time come for the golf world to realize that its onetime savior has paid the ultimate price for his sins?
Turns out, it is not so simple a question.
For the first ten years of Tiger Wood’s professional career, his charisma propelled the sport of golf to a level of popularity exceeded in the sporting world only by the National Football League.
America gave its heart to Tiger, and his popularity made it such that he was a foolproof marketing risk. His power to please went well beyond golf, so that he became the voice of everything from fashion to foodstuffs.
Then came Tiger’s November 2009 dark night of the soul, which manifested not only in his own fall from grace, but also in America turning its back on an entire sports nation. Golf itself was dragged into a chasm of oblivion alongside Tiger – with him, it rose, and with him, it fell.
Who could have guessed that people whose livelihoods depend on the game of golf would find themselves in the shadow of Tiger’s night? How could anyone imagine the game would plummet so far into unpopularity that the jobs of ordinary people were in jeopardy?
Who in his or her right mind could foresee that the future welfare of Americans would literally be endangered by the insecurity felt by golf’s advertisers, sponsors, and promoters because of the foibles of just one man.
But common Americans have in fact been the unintentional victims of the scorn heaped upon Tiger.
Don’t believe me? Ask my friend Don who lost his business selling tractors and golf equipment to the courses who’ve been forced to maintain rather than replace ailing equipment.
Ask the vendors whose income relied on the 60,000 patrons that Tiger would attract every time he teed up. Attendance at golf tournaments is now at half that amount, and as ticket and merchandise sales drop, so, too, do incomes.
All of us prospered from Tiger’s success, whether or not we realize it.
Tiger gave us an opportunity to blast off from our reality to that magical place where we watched him perform on the golf course. Many of us became golf lovers because Tiger showed us that golf could be exciting and reinforced the belief that cultural stereotypes are worthless. He captivated us with his talent, charmed us with his sincerity. His apparent perfection made us want to be better. Like the tightrope walker the audience wills to fall, we wondered when Tiger would return to earth even as he made his ascent.
Until that night.
Golf emerged from relative obscurity some 50 years ago when Arnold Palmer brought his attractive smile and crooked swing to the world through television, and a love affair with the sport was born. Arnie’s army consisted of common folk who rooted for “The King,” and Arnold’s love of his fans brought energy to the game. But without a rival, there’s no drama to keep people’s interest piqued.
Luckily, a young attractive prodigy named Jack Nicklaus hit the spotlight after winning back-to-back U.S. Amateur titles, and golf’s highest profile rivalry was born. But Nicklaus came out on top with a win at the Masters at the age of 46, as well as his 18 major titles, and thus he solidified himself as the greatest golfer of all time.
With unwavering tenacity and an undying will to win, Nicklaus re-energized the game of golf and kept the sport in the public consciousness through the 1970s and 80s.
But just as Arnie had faded, Nicklaus would eventually succumb to Father Time. Golf needed a new poster child to carry on its marketing legacy and help it reach a new generation of Americans. That poster child was Greg Norman, who would become America’s new favorite golf star. But it wasn’t Norman’s ability to win major tournaments or his skills on the course that gained him popularity. In what is now an all-too-familiar story, it was Norman’s good looks and charm that had fans, many of them women, watching “The Shark” play his game.
For almost a decade, everyone loved Norman, while also sharing in his pain. It hurt when the media called him a choker for his abysmal performances at Augusta on Sundays, and we mourned his snake-bitten streak of bad luck – especially during what seemed to be a stretch of major tournaments. We hoped that “The Shark’s” period on top of the world rankings – 331 weeks, to be exact – would never end.
It did, of course, but only years after Tiger initially hit the scene.
The most recent era of golf superstardom had its humble beginnings on the Mike Douglas Show, where America was introduced to a two-year-old golf prodigy named Tiger Woods. His unique talent was propelled into the limelight by a Father’s dream. A dream that one day his son would be the greatest golfer of all time. A dream that Earl Woods nurtured in his son by making the pressure and stress of striving for perfect performance a welcome event.
Tiger’s ability to focus even when under stress demonstrated that his father’s vision for him, along with his undying discipline and support, would eventually enable Tiger to perform at a level that few others if any had ever achieved. And for the average American, that performance was at the heart of a drama that brought mainstream attention back to the world of golf.
For Earl Wood’s dream to be realized, for Tiger to become the greatest golfer of all time, Jack Nicklaus’ records were the obstacle to conquer. All of Jack’s records hung like tapestries on a young Tiger’s bedroom walls. And one by one, these records were tied and even broken. A young Tiger won not two, but three U.S. Amateur titles, and certainly a fourth would have followed had he stayed for his senior year at Stanford University.
His first win in a major tournament came at the age of 21 and in dramatic fashion, that tournament was the 1997 Master’s. Tiger’s immediate impact on the game made everyone scramble to keep up. Courses needed to be lengthened, and then twisted and turned to challenge his invincible ability to carve his way through the golf course designs that ultimately and without fail succumbed to his genius.
The media was in love. They, and consequently we, followed his skyrocketing career and ability to overcome any course and any competition, thus producing a one-man dramatis personæ who would touch the lives of us all.
Tiger Wood’s success brought with it an almost unreasonable requirement of social responsibility. He found himself representing not only golf, but also young golfers and ethnic golfers. An entourage of advisors (some hired and some not) gathered around this unique sports icon. It was said by some that he would break down, that his success would be short-lived, but the Tiger March continued.
Within the first decade of his career, he had already broken career records and matched or surpassed some of the legends of the game. He became one of only four men to record a career grand slam, winning all four majors. And Tiger did it twice, and once in succession, from the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters.
Many considered this to be not only one of the greatest golf accomplishments, but also one of the greatest sports accomplishments of the modern day.
Tiger’s early worldwide celebrity made it impossible for him to ever experience a normal life. Basketball legend and close friend Charles Barkley once said that he would not want to be Tiger Woods for one second. The fact that even the famous found his fame remarkable can now be looked at through the lens of time as foreshadowing.
Should it have come as a surprise, then, that Tiger’s ascendancy turned into a dive? Why couldn’t we see the difference between his sheltered life and the lives of golf greats before him? Arnold Palmer routinely played golf with U.S. Presidents, as did Nicklaus. Bill Clinton’s stay at Greg Norman’s home ended in a twisted ankle that made national news. Didn’t it seem strange to never see Tiger and our first African-American president share time on the course?
Eventually, Tiger fired “Fluff Cowen,” his beloved caddie, then Butch Harmon, one of golf’s most respected instructors. Later another great instructor, Hank Haney, would leave camp Woods, citing irreconcilable differences. Shouldn’t these events have raised red flags? Was Tiger’s Herculean stature ever questioned when rumors of rampant steroid abuse made sports headlines daily?
Tiger became “The Teflon Man” of sports. No tarnish ever adhered to him, and he was protected from scrutiny even by the media.
Many golf analysts feared that in the absence of a true rival, Tiger’s appeal would dwindle. Time proved them all wrong. Many felt that injuries would derail Tiger’s career and that his lifelong goal of surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ records would never be achieved. But Tiger bounced back from serious injury and even won the U.S. Open on one good leg.
Then came that night at 2:30 a.m. when the media and the world descended on a wounded Tiger…
And not unlike the Biblical King David, the seemingly invincible Tiger Woods would stumble from the sphere of greatness, defeated by his human frailty and his licentious inclinations. We know with great certainty that the personal sanctuary that Tiger used to separate himself from his high-profile reality ended up isolating him with his own adulterous impulses.
His escape from inescapable fame led him to a hidden world of sexual compulsivity. In the darkness of his sexual addiction, Tiger was more alone than ever. While his inner life spiraled out of control, he devoted all his focus and mental energy into building an exterior life that made him appear superhuman to the rest of us.
I’m sure that this was NOT the single-mindedness that Earl Woods had hoped to instill in his son during all those training sessions on the driving range.
The questions that we must consider are these: Will golf itself survive Tiger’s fall from grace? Will recovery from the economic recession bring better times for the golf industry? Or is it time for golf to find a new savior? And when he emerges from obscurity into the blinding light of fame, will we treat him any better than we treated Tiger?
Robert R. LaPorte
“The Golf Nut”