Last Sunday, Tiger Woods accomplished something that no one in history had ever done before. He induced my father to watch golf.
My dad is the most ardent watcher of sports I know. He loves football. He adores hockey. He relishes basketball. He’ll watch a four-hour baseball game without complaint. As a master of the remote, he can follow at least three sporting events simultaneously.
But I have never known my father to watch golf, not even when no other televised sports offerings were available. In fact, I would have reckoned him as likely to sit through a chess tournament or view the entire X-Games as to watch a single round of golf on TV.
Yet there he was on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, following Woods’ progress (albeit as part of a remote-controlled viewing rotation that included hockey and baseball). You can talk about the Grand Slam or the “Straight Slam” all you want, but making a golf-watcher out of my dad is as good a measure as you’ll find of what Tiger Woods has accomplished.
With his victory in the Masters, Woods, who is only 25, has captured four consecutive major tournaments (and five out of the past six). His streak doesn’t qualify as golf’s fabled Grand Slam, since he did not win all four majors in the same year. Still, only one other golferBobby Jones more than 70 years agohas ever held four major championships at the same time. And only Jack Nicklaus comes close to rivaling Woods with victories in the majors at such an unripe young age. (By 1966, Jack had won five majors, at the age of 26.)
In the wake of his remarkable conquests, Woods has left legions of agog fans and pundits struggling to make sense of it all. With every new championship Tiger captures, the Media Geniuses flounder around to find new superlatives to describe him, or to assign him a place in history. (Inconveniently, he refuses to sit still.)
Thus far, the results have been so predictable that, if you’ve read one Tiger Woods story, you’ve practically read them all. As the commentators remind us when their spigots are opened to a full gush, there may never have been a golfer like Woods and may never be one again. On the other hand, when they turn reflective, the opinion-shapers try to interpret Tiger through the prism of golfing legends of the past.
For example, some suggest that Jones’ feat remains unparalleled, since only he won all four major tournaments in the same year. Nor did Jones enjoy the benefit of high-tech clubs and golf balls that allow today’s players to send drives into low-earth orbits.
Modernists counter that Woods faces far superior competition; in 1930, two of the Grand Slam events that Jones captured were open to amateurs. Besides, as offensive as purists may find the fat titanium drivers and flubber-filled golf balls, they provide no advantage to Woods, whose rivals stuff their bags with the same technology. David Duval, who would be hailed as the king of a Tigerless PGA tour, correctly dismissed such historical comparisons as more fruitless than apples to oranges; they are more, he said, like apples to peanuts.
It should be apparent that Woods defies any easy categorization, even those that invoke superlatives. Labeling him as the greatest of all timeor his latest accomplishment as one we’ll never see againis about as meaningless as describing him as “black.” (Tiger’s heritage, of course, includes a slew of hyphenations: African-, Asian-, Native-, and several subsets of Euro-American. In that sense, in contrast to his golfing skills, Woods is not a singular, nonrecurring phenomenon but a model of what America will increasingly look like in the 21st-century.)
It’s hard to describe Tiger Woods as anything but a legend. Yet today it’s also hard to describe a legend. That term dates from a time when most sports fans could only read about the exploits of great athletes; at best, they could only hear a play-by-play of a sporting event on radio. For good reason, there was something matchless, almost magical, about seeing a great athlete in person.
A radio broadcast or newspaper account forced fans to rely on their imaginations to fill in the missing pictures, or to rely on writers and announcers to paint the scene for them. Even as late as the ‘60s, before televised sports became ubiquitous, seeing great athletes perform in person was not an everyday experience for most people. And somehow, ironically, going to the venue, far from diminishing them, only made those athletes seem even larger.
Today, our imaginations hardly need engaging at all. TV captures everything. We never miss one of Tiger’s shots. We see how he approaches every hole. We read every expression on his face. Every jaw-dropping shot will be replayed more times than we could count. Perhaps that is why, if the old adage about one picture’s worth is true, all the words seem so superfluous and so ineffectual.
And for all we see, TV still doesn’t quite capture the exhilarating experience of being there. It gives us more of the action but less of the atmosphere. I’ve seen Sammy Sosa hit umpteen homers on TV. But not one conveyed the electricity I felt surging through the crowd at Wrigley Field as they rose when Sosa came up to bat. I’ve seen film clips of Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech so many times that it has almost lost any ability to pull at my emotions. But I was mesmerized to hear the account of it from a man who was there in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, as a new immigrant attending his first baseball game, and heard it all for himself. Now, that would be something to tell the grandchildren about.
During the warm-ups before a game against the Lakers, Larry Bird walked over to the Los Angeles bench and spoke softly to the injured Magic Johnson, who was dressed in street clothes. “Sit back and enjoy this,” Bird told his old friend. “I’m getting ready to put on a show.” (And he did.)
That’s the advice I aim to follow with Tiger Woods: I’m going to acknowledge that I’m witnessing an athlete they’ll still be talking about three generations from now. Beyond that, I’m going to stop trying to figure out what it all means, or imbue it with Perspective. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy.
And one of these days, I’m going to go and watch him play, just to say I was there.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Remember this month. Years from now, we may view April 2001 as the beginning of the end, or at least the end of the beginning, of the struggle against the problems that beset the National Football League. It’s what you might call a momentous moment.
To some, what seemed to be subtle moves now will loom large later. In hindsight, we’ll say that this was the time the NFL put its house in order. When substance-abuse problems began to drop precipitously. When we no longer had to worry about the rate of violent crimes against players. When woofing and taunting abruptly ended; when self-promoting sack dances, TD dances, and pass break-up dances ceased; when the league once again began to enjoy an image as wholesome as amber waves of Kansas grain.
Mark your calendar. This is the month that the NFL, once and for all, banned do-rags.