By Jeb Lund
You probably don't think of it this way, but five years was a lifetime ago. You just started college and thought good jobs awaited you at the end. You had 12 followers on Twitter and still got notifications of your @mentions from them texted to your phone -- which could only do three other things: act like a phone, "flip" and play "Snake." That Obama "Hope" poster didn't seem ironic or freighted yet. You had more hair.
If you're a casual or serious golf fan, five years signifies the last time Tiger Woods won a major, an anniversary that arrived this Monday and whose meaning you're excited to erase by the end of this weekend. Which is to say that you're probably eagerly cheering on the resumption of dominance from a relentlessly gifted golf-bot whose strongest flash of personality was a negative tabloid story. Which, artistry aside, is kind of weird.
Enjoying Tiger Woods in the act of golfing is not weird at all, of course, for a multitude of reasons. Sponsors enjoy him for the fluid and powerful mid-swing branding. Networks adore him, because the appeal of seeing him do something verging on the impossible is confirmed by those plunging ratings whenever he is injured. More pointedly, even during that span of nearly a decade when he walked onto the course as near to an inevitability in human form as possible -- a nagging memento mori on the golf tapestry, reminding other players that their hopes and talents would inevitably just die -- he often committed acts of golf genius so stunning that it made the dominance palatable.
Generally speaking, though, we don't like dominance. There will always be voluble and unbearable tribes of frontrunners during any sustained team/player excellence, perhaps to keep the rest of us with ethics honest. But for the most part, we start to reject unremitting excellence after a while, out of resentment, boredom, lust for variety or a social sense of fairness.
We only seem to make exceptions when that level of superiority comes with Mozart grace notes. The San Antonio Spurs and New England Patriots have set the tone their respective sports for over a decade, to the loathing of apparently everyone, despite emphasizing the sort of discipline and fundamentals we praise as essential. Granted, there are mitigating factors -- sourpuss coaches, fragile superstars with fainting spells, forearm shivers to opponents (see Horry, Robert and Harrison, Rodney) -- but they also seem desperately dull. Routinized, optimized and functioning best in the pursuit of someone else's weakness. Meanwhile, over that same span, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal won nearly every trophy that the other guy didn't, and we've loved them for it. If for nothing more than the fact that those two insist on being so crazily beautiful about everything.
Woods falls somewhere in the middle, having set a standard for training and athleticism in a sport that even in the late-1990s still had a kind of half-buttoned post-prandial dad-pants chic, while also effortlessly dropping shots that seemed too serendipitous to be real. And while the miraculous latter bits are what we remember as the years telescope outward, it's that former regimentation and humorless focus that remains hard to get geeked up for mid-tournament.
Outside those moments of otherworldly talent, Woods remains a determined and not necessarily fun force. For the fan watching in a bar or airport or flipping through channels, there's not much to engage with, outside of those unexpected moments. Admittedly, Woods is under no obligation to invest a competition with personality -- and he shouldn't be; we can resist the Real World-ization of sport as long as possible -- but the ambient vibe around him is as grimly disciplined as his game. Tiger Woods appears on TV and always conveys capability and intelligence, but the idea of him belly-laughing until his eyes are wet is as far-fetched as him farting loudly on air in front of Dick Enberg. He is striking, real and as un-enigmatically mute as the Mona Lisa not smiling at anything.
The flatness extends even to the moments off-script. Strangely enough, his most revealing moment ... wasn't. Woods' domestic life was thrown into turmoil by the revelation of a series of alleged mistresses around the country, none of whom were especially interesting. If anything, this should have alienated millions of frustrated, average guy fans permanently. Here was a man who'd earned a billion dollars and was one of the most iconic sportsmen in the world, and he failed to spice up his sex life by living out the most exotic and unbelievable fantasies available to the imagination. Yet, in a way, it was perfectly Woodsian. Despite nearly globally limitless possibilities, he did the rich guy analogue of what sends millions of husbands to bed with women less attractive than their wives: because that dumpy co-worker sent a signal that she was willing; because that emotionally dead-ended Bennigan's waitress was there.
This is not to say that Tiger doesn't cut a compelling or even sympathetic figure. It's just one that's not especially his own. Thanks especially to years lost to injuries, going into any tournament now, the most compelling Tiger story is a universal one: an older athlete's wit and craftiness holding ground against the inexorable retrenchment of mortality. It's a story told sadly and beautifully in every other sport but perhaps with greatest resonance to golf's traditional demographics, Jazzying from green to green, Blu-Blocking nature's most trifling hater, the cataract.
Most of us won't think about any of that this weekend, not if he shows those those old flashes of baffling talent, albeit fewer than 10 years ago. The peerless, enviable demonstrations of ability will always make the Tiger story interesting even if he really is not.
Truly great moments need no narrative, and perhaps that too explains why it is difficult to hold on to one while watching him play. Those moments make it seem irrelevant to wonder if you're rooting for a media-honed smile and a brand visor, or the resumption of machine-like dominance -- like you're rooting for a force, hoping that gravity can get back on its constant.
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