Tiger (by kind permission of that excellent periodical Golf Quarterly)
IN PRAISE OF THE BIG CAT
Did you rejoice like I did when Tiger Woods won the recent Masters? Or do you view the greatest golfer of the age with some suspicion? Some say there is something alien about the single-minded ferocity and the trappings of showbiz that sweep across the golfing landscape in his wake. Others sense a tide of brash commercialism overwhelming the game of Bobby Jones and Bernard Darwin, the Handicap Committee, The Oldest Member, the Halford Hewitt and the President’s Putter.
Leaving aside his personal life (in any event for me his is a tale of redemption and recovery), I often hear strong reservations expressed about the great man as a sportsman and a golfer. He doesn’t smile enough, he is cold and commercial, he chews gum, he used to spit on the course, his shirts have no collars, his personality is submerged behind his image, he is obscenely wealthy. Some even say he is a dull golfer, he wins from the front, he grinds the opposition down, he doesn’t take daring gambles like the icons of the past. When he takes the lead in a tournament, they complain, there is none of the excitement and danger of an Arnold Palmer (Tiger would never have thrown away the 1966 US Open in flamboyant pursuit of a new record score) or a Greg Norman (can you imagine this year’s Masters champ surrendering a six stroke lead to Nick Faldo in a final round at Augusta?).
I make no bones about it – I am unequivocally a Tiger fan. I am invariably delighted when he wins, and was thrilled with his comeback win at Augusta. But I must declare an interest – I am part owner of a golf course in the Scottish Highlands and there is no doubt that when Tiger wins, so does everyone in the golf business. In the decade after he turned professional, participation in golf rose by a fifth in the US, peaking at over 30 million players before falling back last year to below 24 million. Our own visitor numbers have fallen by more than 15% since Tiger was last World Number One in 2013. I recently discussed this with an Austrian friend who owns a chain of pay-as-you-play courses, and he is quite adamant too that Tiger’s demise translated directly into lower green fees .
Tiger made golf cool. He made it athletic, a proper sport. He punched the air when he holed out, he hit the ball enormous distances with ferocious control, he rippled with muscles. He was excellence personified, and when he smiled he gave little away but the smile was radiant. We were seeing a force of nature bend the course and his rivals to his will. And it inspired millions of kids to take up the game.
At the Open at Carnoustie last summer, there was a whisper that the biggest of the beasts might be back, the whisper became a murmur, the murmur became a roar, the atmosphere became electric, and spectators flooded to the only place where they wanted to be. The trumpets were sounding, the army was on the march: sorry Rory and Justin, but what I saw was every father was hurrying his son to catch a glimpse of once-in-a-generation greatness, the only man to have had all four major trophies on his mantelpiece at the same time.
The man in red and black was on the move, the big cat was loose again, and excitement was back in our game. An astonishing bunker shot on the tenth suddenly made it all seem possible again at Carnoustie, before the fiddliest of chips unravelled the magic. It was striking how the press - for years happy to write his golfing obituaries and solemnly moralise on his fall from grace - followed the tidal wave of public opinion. We Scots may be dour and Calvinist, but we recognise genuine quality when we see it: remember how we embraced Jack Nicklaus from the first when the rest of the world wanted him to be Arnold Palmer, and how we worshipped the Wee Ice Mon, Ben Hogan.
There is another narrative, namely that Augusta does not really embrace Tiger, that a very white and wealthy Southern crowd harbours deep historical suspicions of the black hero. Yet the thunderous and unprecedented chanting of his name surely told a different tale. The Great Man was back and the owners of golf courses all round the planet were celebrating in anticipation of lycra-clad middle aged men binning their bicycles, kids abandoning their playstations and pouring back onto the links.
Perhaps the Augusta patrons all own golf courses like me – I doubt it somehow – but they were swept up in the revivalist fervour for a man who had achieved the impossible in coming back from the darkest physical and mental nightmares. Not quite the greatest comeback of all – that accolade must surely still belong to Ben Hogan – but still a tale for the ages.
So can a 43 year old Tiger really inspire a new generation to take up the great game? I do not know, but the 2019 season has dawned fair for us in the North, and our clubhouse is full of optimism that the glory years are returning.