So my wife and I have a 12-year-old girl staying with us for a while and last Thursday evening she settled down beside me (armed with a big bag of magic markers and a sketch pad) as I watched a recording of The Masters first round. She wasn’t paying much attention. In that way she was a credible stand-in for the broader American public, which, let’s face it, doesn’t pay much attention to golf, even its majors. Indeed, when she did take notice, she playfully mocked the idea of watching golf altogether — that is, until she noticed Tiger Woods walking off a tee.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
That’s Tiger Woods, I told her. I swear to god, I did not prep her in any way; she picked him out of the crowd of players all on her own. The next afternoon, during the live broadcast of Round 2, she wandered back into the living room. Unbidden she asked, “How’s Tiger doing?”
He’s doing quite well, actually. You like him?
What else do you like about him?
“He’s cool. Look at the way he’s walking around. He’s very confident.”
What about that mock turtleneck? Is that cool?
“Oh yeah. Those are in.”
Watching golf with a 12-year-old, distaff, golfing neophyte is a fascinating exercise in its own right. This one in particular had strong opinions: She thought Jon Rahm looked like a fat punk; she didn’t like him at all and rode him without mercy throughout (“He should just go home”). She quickly remarked on the unusually lanky stature of both Tony Finau and Matt Kucher. Brooks Koepka was notably swaggy — but nothing like Tiger, in her opinion. Surprisingly, Ricky Fowler’s youthful mien did nothing for her — something about his eyebrows being too dark (“And I don’t like his shirt”). Norwegian amateur Victor Hovland was pilloried for his prominent schnozz, which, in fairness, was fair comment.
But these were all bit players in the drama so far as she was concerned. Tiger was the anointed one.
A lot has already been written about how Tiger’s victory on Sunday has introduced his phenomenon to an entirely new generation of golfers. I don’t anticipate this girl will suddenly want to play the game, or start wearing mock T’s. But it has been 11 years since Tiger won a major. This weekend’s performance reminded us all of what we’ve been missing.
Forget the 15 majors, the renewed Nicklaus chase. We’ve missed this man’s naked charisma most of all. No golfer in history has half the presence Tiger exhibits just walking down a fairway. Charisma is a hard thing to quantify, but it’s also one of the few things that readily spills over from a niche sport like golf into the larger culture. And that’s another thing golf has been missing these past 11 years.
I watched Sunday morning’s finale at Tomaso’s, a fashionably down-market, diner-sized canteen in Portland, Maine. At 10:30 a.m., when I showed up, there weren’t but 3 or 4 us there. An hour later, the brunch crowd had attracted a full house of young, bearded, IPA-swilling hipsters This was no sports bar, much less a golf bar (does such a thing even exist north of Pinehurst?). Even so, when Tiger birdied 15, the place went crazy. The barman quickly turned off the music (a pleasant alt-country playlist featuring the likes of Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show and Jason Isbell) and turned up the CBS television feed. Tiger had this place in the palm of his hand. When his tee shot on 16 came to rest 2 feet from the hole, the patrons inside Tomaso’s erupted.
About this time, I noticed a text had arrived. A friend of mine was down in Boston at the TD Garden watching the Celtics-Pacers playoff game, an inelegant affair he referred to as a “game/rock fight.” He reported there were “tons of people clustering around TVs on the concourse watching golf. It’s amazing how much love there is for Tiger.”
There’s really is something about this guy — something non-golfers can appreciate. Yes, he has battled back from considerable personal/physical adversity, but this obscures the larger point: He was stupidly charismatic when he appeared on the Mike Douglas Show at the age of 2, when he won three straight U.S. Amateurs, when he debuted as Nike’s cross-over pitch man, when he claimed those 14 majors… Apparently, after a decade away, he remains stupidly charismatic, not just to core golfers but to casual fans and mere onlookers around the world.
Sunday night, my daughter sent me a text: “Is Tiger Woods good again?”
She’s 20 years old, a junior in college, and couldn’t care less about golf. But somehow the news had reached her via the broader cultural news drip. I asked exactly how she learned of his Masters victory.
“I saw him on the TV at this bar! Some people were watching.”
Do you find him charismatic?
“Not really. He’s cheated on a lot of women.”
My daughter is clearly not so forgiving of Tiger, in part because she’s a woke young woman, but also because she’s yet to make the mistakes that Tiger and the rest of us 40, 50 and 60somethings have made. But her admonition is well taken: Recognizing and appreciating anew Tiger’s ungodly magnetism doesn’t mean we should get all crazy (again) about what his charisma really means.
It doesn’t mean, for example, that we should start believing Tiger’s mere presence will bring millions of kids (or Millennials, or Baby Boomers) into the game. That never held in 2003; it doesn’t hold now. Nor does it mean we should start building new golf courses willy nilly to accommodate this chimerical wave of converts. It doesn’t mean Tiger has, on account of his victory, instantly become a particularly good man or father. It made no sense to ascribe him these qualities in 2007 frankly; knowing what we know, it makes even less sense now. Why we blithely attach these sterling personal traits to men (or women) who exhibit extraordinary sporting skill is beyond me. One hopes we’ve learned our lesson here.
But it does seem clear that Tiger and the professional game in which he competes have changed more than a little in the 11 years since he limped to his last major win. Today’s Tiger is 43 years old, his hairline in full retreat. He’s been through a world of shit, both physical and personal. The process of dealing and coming back from all that would change anyone. His swing and his outlook on life are forever altered.
And here we confront what might be the most interesting manifestation of all this change: Sunday’s victory was the first time Tiger has ever come from behind in the final round to win a major tournament. The greatest front-runner in history has learned how to come back.
Tiger won from the front so frequently because, from 1997 through 2008, his outsized aura truly cowed most all of his would-be competitors. Remember how they’d wilt when paired with him? Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau did not play well beside Tiger on Sunday but here, too, the game has changed a great deal in 11 years. Today’s PGA Tour is stocked to the gills with young, dynamic, swaggering talent. It will be fascinating to watch this generation of professionals compete with the man many of them grew up idolizing.
Because one thing has not changed: You can’t take your eyes off this Tiger Woods fellow. This was true over the weekend; it was true through 2008. If we’re honest with ourselves, it was true afterward, through his many struggles. We rather shamelessly rubbernecked the wounded, struggling Tiger like we ogle an accident on the side of the road. More than a decade has passed and we still can’t take our eyes off him. Why? Because he still has more charisma than anyone who has ever played this game, more perhaps than all the major winners in history, combined. Even a 12-year-old, non-golfing girl can see that.