Tiger Woods won the PGA Tour Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club yesterday, his first PGA win in over five years. And the golf world rejoiced. Golf is back.
That seems a weird thing to say given there are many stellar young golfers out there and Tiger is, well, old. I don’t say that it in a mean way. Chronologically he’s closer to playing in the senior tournaments than he is to his heyday as the greatest golfer on the planet. But that’s the point. In many minds, including my own, Tiger is still the greatest golfer on the planet even though he hasn’t won a tournament in those five years. He’s struggled through debilitating back injuries and surgeries, not to mention some personal drama and poor judgment. So he’s had an excuse for not playing well – or at all – much of the last five years.
This year has been different. He seems less erratic, more consistently in the running, than in the immediate years before. Is he in his top form? Of course not. Will he ever be? Probably not – he’ll be 43 years old in a couple of months and the combination of age and wear-and-tear on his body will keep him from being the player he was in his prime. That’s just nature. But Tiger Woods is playing well this year, and barring any major physical (or judgmental) issues, he should be in contention more often than not.
Now, the “golf is back” rejoicing idea. In truth, the golfing world has mixed feelings about Tiger Woods once again being the focus of media attention. On the one hand it brings awareness to the sport; on the other hand, it distracts that attention away from other players. But this is what makes Tiger so special. Some players have a presence that dominates the public perception. Tiger is one of them.
Growing up I was never a golf fan. Spending several hours watching various people whack a ball toward a hole while former golfers whisper pointlessly in a constant drone was not my idea of excitement. Then along came Tiger Woods and suddenly the sport was exciting. When Tiger fell into his injury and personal issue grounded obscurity, golf receded from my realm of interest. When I heard that Tiger was back into decent form, golf was back for me. I think that is true for many people.
Unlike many sports nuts that know every detail of their home teams, their players stats, and what endorsed products they are to buy, I’ve been more inspired by individual players. My teams are the New England teams – Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, Celtics – with my interest level depending on the season and how much thrill or anxiety they are producing at the moment (e.g., yesterday was a rather depressing day in sports enthusiasm as both the Sox and Patriots got skunked). But when it comes to inspiration, it’s the players that matter more than the teams. The players that inspired me most are all from long-gone days, a function of the window of imprinting that sets fans on their favorite team/player for life. Even though there are current day players I admire, I always fall back to those that were my original inspiration, that I felt helped better me as a person.
Baseball was Carl Yastrzemski – Yaz. In one of his final games with the Boston Red Sox he hit a home run into the bleacher seats at Fenway, just a few rows from where I was enjoying the game with friends. He was a quiet man who led by example.
Tennis was Arthur Ashe. Forget other notables like John McEnroe, whose arrogance and obnoxiousness more than destroyed any benefit of his talent (IMHO). I liked Ashe for his quiet dignity, his skill focus. He was a great player and a great man.
Basketball was John Havlicek, followed immediately by Larry Bird. Both were skill players who won by leading their team, not hogging the ball.
Hockey was Bobby Orr. In my early teens my mother made me a ceramic lamp. The base was a generic hockey player that could be painted into whatever player you wanted. Mine was, of course, Bobby Orr. [For the record, she also made me a small ceramic bust of Abraham Lincoln, which despite not being a sports star has many of the same qualities I’m talking about.]
There is a pattern here that I never thought about before writing this. All of the players who were my idols were on the quiet side. They led by their example, not by their mouth. Naturally they mostly are from Boston-based teams, a function of the aforementioned imprinting. Within that framework, I was drawn by the quiet skill rather than the boisterous box office appeal.
There is one rather striking oddity in the group of my boyhood idols. My pro football idol growing up was O.J. Simpson, who played most of his career for the dreaded Patriot rivals, the Buffalo Bills. I admired his elusiveness, which seems ironic now. Sure, he was fast, but he was successful because he could elude tacklers. In my possibly delusional mind at the time I could relate to his ability to change direction as opposing players tried to take him down. I wasn’t nearly (or even close to being) as big or as fast, but I imagined myself being as quick in avoiding contact. Alas, O.J. has fallen.
And so had Tiger, although clearly to a much lesser extent and not nearly for so egregious an offense. But after the revelations of his personal life surfaced I admit I turned away from him. As those judgment issues faded from public view and the focus turned to his physical ailments, I found myself pulling for his recovery and return to golf. During these past years of his absence I completely lost any interest in watching the sport. Now that Tiger is back, golf is back. To me at least.
My hope is that Tiger will once again become the player of quiet skill that leads by example rather than by hype. I know that hype is what brings in the big endorsement deals, but I do believe there is a more important place for those who are great because of what they do rather than by being showy. It’s the quiet leadership that I admire.
Welcome back, Tiger.
[Photo credit: https://twitter.com/twlegion]
David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.