Back in the day, when I was a kid, I had a dartboard in my bedroom. I was the all-time champ on that dartboard, the undisputed king of the room. I won every game I played.
This dominance was helped immensely by the fact that I was the only one who ever played darts in my room. (Yes, I was a lonely child.) The point is, it’s easy to win games when you’re playing against nobody.
Tiger Woods should know all about that.
Woods has long been acclaimed the greatest golfer who ever lived. Throughout his career, he won tournament after tournament, major after major, heart after heart of everyone who ever looked at a little, dimpled ball and found love.
All that came to a crashing end–literally–back in 2009. But you wouldn’t know that by the coverage Woods still gets in the major sports media. Any mention of any golf tournament must be framed by the question of whether or not Woods will participate or not. When an event’s leaderboard runs across the crawl on any sports channel, Woods appears among the rankings, whether he is close to the lead or not. The sport of “golf” might as well have its named changed to “Tiger Woods” for all anyone cares about the game beyond Tiger’s participation. Even now, after years of Woods being a shadow of his former self, commentators still breathlessly discuss his every appearance on any links. Just this past week, Woods’s play on his “home course” in a minor tournament (where he finished in last place) was prefaced by eager discussion about whether Tiger is “back” or not.
The problem with all is not simply that it ignores Woods’s now seemingly permanent irrelevance; the trouble here lies in the fact that such worshipful treatment of Woods denies the reality that he never actually merited his lofty status in the first place. Just like me in my bedroom with that dartboard all those years ago, Tiger Woods spent most of his career playing against nobody.
Sure, there were bodies out there on the links, mannequins of golfers who were stationed on the finely-manicured grass to fill out the field. They may as well have been cardboard cutouts for all the competition they provided against Woods.
Think that assessment is unfair? Maybe it is, and I doubt you could prove the point scientifically. But I would like to offer one piece of subjective evidence.
For most of his career, the point of comparison for Woods was Jack Nicklaus and his record for wins in majors. I’m too young to remember Nicklaus’s early prime, when a still viable Arnold Palmer was his chief competition. But I do remember back to the mid-’70s, and even as someone who has never been much of a golf fan, I can recall a host of names of pro golfers from back then. Tom Watson. Lee Trevino. Johnny Miller. Fuzzy Zoeller. Seve Ballesteros. I remember those names because they were winners. Those names and more graced the sports media of the day because they won tournaments; they were legitimate competition for the man who was acknowledged as the best in the game.
Now consider Tiger’s career. Apart from Woods, which golfers from the beginning of this century will the non-fan remember in 2035? A plausible answer is “Nobody.”
Phil Mickelson? Perhaps, but Lefty should hardly be held up as an example of the stiff competition Woods faced. For most of his career, Mickelson was criticized for gagging under pressure and letting tournaments slip out of his grasp.
Who else? Anyone? All I hear is the sound of crickets. Remember when Sergio Garcia was supposed to be the next big thing? How’d that work out? Maybe people will remember Angel Cabrera, but most likely it will be less for his two majors and more for the fact that he liked to blow a butt after each hole.
Some will argue that Woods’s dominance made everyone else look bad. To be sure, I’m not saying Woods was a bad golfer; clearly, he was an exceptional talent. But his talent shouldn’t have rendered everyone else untalented. If golfers could walk out onto the course and go toe to toe with Nicklaus, and win their share back in the day, it could have–should have–happened against Woods, too. But it didn’t, because when Tiger showed up, the competition was nowhere to be seen. That’s probably why Woods was signing mega-endorsement deals as soon as he turned pro, even before all his major wins–everyone could see no speed bumps in the road ahead of Woods, and the smart money knew from the start that the rig was on.
Those days are over now. That’s not to say Tiger Woods needs to go away; he’s a pro golfer, he should golf professionally–that’s what he does. What needs to go away is the Woods worship by those in the media who, by this time, should know better. That’s the way of the sporting life: players come and go, but the games endure. Golf survived and continued even after Palmer and Nicklaus declined; the same will happen once Woods winds it down. It’s time for the media to give it a rest, so the rest of us can move on, too.