The roar went up for Tiger Woods on Saturday at Olympic Club’s hole No. 9, when he fought off a rough start and rolled in a birdie putt to stay near the lead during the third round of the U.S. Open.
Just like old times.
It’s OK to cheer for Tiger again.
The man who ruled golf like no other for the better part of a generation before a major collapse — defined by much more than an absence from victory in golf’s biggest tournaments — knocked him off his perch and sent him caroming toward mere humanness, felt the waves of appreciation wash over him.
Woods stood — and now stands — at least within a golf shout of winning his first major since his triumph at Torrey Pines in 2008. That seems like 10,000 missed fairways and blown putts and concealed rendezvous and troubled headlines ago, doesn’t it? That was back when Tiger still walked on water, even on a hobbled knee, and sauntered across golf courses like Napoleon over conquered lands.
He was on his way to becoming not just the best golfer of all time, but also the most dominant athlete ever — in any sport. He would easily overtake Sam Snead for most career tournament wins and Jack Nicklaus for most wins in majors.
It was all in the bag.
Next thing, Elin found Tiger’s phone, and uncovered his dirty habit of ordering up more than late-night ham and eggs at Perkins restaurants and … well, you know the sad, tawdry story.
Two questions followed, then: Would Woods ever get his game back? And, if he did, would American sports fans embrace him again?
After already winning twice this year, once at Bay Hill and once at Memorial, with a bunch of wayward shots in between, Tiger seems to have partially rediscovered his old self this week at brutally difficult Olympic, until the third round, playing steady golf on a track that has eagerly eaten up many of the game’s top players.
He shot a 69 on Thursday, a 70 on Friday, and struggled, but hung in, with a 75 on Saturday, all on an unforgiving course set up by the dastardly USGA to make great golfers look ordinary.
Tiger may yet not win on Sunday, and even if he does (it would be his 15th title at a major … and counting), there’s no guarantee he’ll consistently play the way he once did. But he’s still remarkably, exceptionally good. Every time he takes the course, he has the potential to make history.
So, are you cheering for him? Do you want to see history made?
One camp of golf fans will never again root for Tiger. They see his selfish indiscretions and marital infidelities as hypocritical, unacceptable and unforgivable. The idea of a sports icon who allowed himself to be marketed as a person off the course as great as his prowess on it, and then to fall considerably short of that kind of idealistic perfection is a complete put-off to them. So much for the old “I am Tiger Woods” spots in which kids of varying sizes, shapes and backgrounds aspired to form themselves into the all-around greatness that was His Tigerness.
Another camp will accept him back, regardless. Those sports fans might be interested in what an athlete does in his private life off the field, off the court, off the diamond, off the course, but, even if it’s not the lifestyle they approve of for themselves, it won’t necessarily affect the way they watch sports.
For them, there may be exceptions to that rule, such as, say, an abusive college coach who hurts kids or shames a university or an athlete who is a reckless law-breaker. On the whole, these fans prefer sports figures to be great guys, but, ultimately, realize that gauging personal behavior is tricky business. It’s not easy to know, with any degree of certainty, who the Boy Scouts are and who the scoundrels are.
As they learned with Tiger, where the truth lies is often several layers down. On account of that, this group simply wants to see and appreciate games played at an extraordinary level, and take that competitive excellence for what it is.
I lean more toward the second group, although I understand the first. Athletes like Tiger are seen as role models and they are role models, but only because society mistakenly makes them that. Society should appreciate their notable talent and prowess in the realm of sports without expecting them to be what it wants its next generation of children to become.
If gifted athletes truly are terrific people, too, that’s a bonus. But that’s all it is. It’s interesting how fans of Hollywood stars and recording artists often give them a wider berth than fans do their sports stars. They’ll pay and clamor to watch a great actor act or a great singer sing, even if his behavior is ridiculously bawdy. Nobody who loves the food at a particular restaurant would avoid that restaurant if he found out the head chef was sleeping around on his wife. He would simply appreciate the tasty food. In sports, for some misplaced reason, it’s different.
There’s no need to idolize or curse the chef, no need to idolize or curse Tiger.
But within reason, appreciating what he does in the kitchen or what he does on the course can be — and probably should be — enough.
In Tiger’s case, it’s rather amazing. Historic, even.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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