I grew up obsessed with golf. I had the yips at times, an occasional shank, a tendency to snap hook a drive when the pressure was on, but I wasn’t too bad.
I knew there were plenty of people who didn’t care for the game, who posed questions like: What’s the point of chasing a ball around with a stick? Why ruin a good walk? Isn’t it just a game for rich guys with too much time on their hands?
Maybe all those things are true. But I was addicted to the game. It’s beautiful when you feel that perfect click off your clubhead, the ball rapidly rising into the sky on a direct line for the pin. There is the momentary illusion that things are going to be good from now on. You’ve figured it out. Just remember that same swing thought — slow and smooth — and apply it to the next shot. The walk down the fairway after ripping one down the middle is a moment to savor, the silent “you da’ man.” Your human frailty and imperfections can be forgotten. Then you stand over the nine iron, giddy with yourself, imagining a birdie circle on your scorecard. You swing, feel the ache of metal on ball, then look up, unable to find its path. Anybody see that? The pine tree answers you with a clunk; the ball drops out of bounds.
The game is king. You are not. None of us are.
I remember the first time I heard of Tiger Woods. There was a brief article in Sports Illustrated about a skinny, 13-year-old black golf prodigy, who hit blistering drives farther than many tour pros. I still remembered Sports Illustrated’s Sidd Finch hoax from 1985, an April 1 article about a young pitching prospect who wore only one shoe, a heavy hiker’s boot, and threw the ball 168 mph. I was so excited about the possibility of a superhuman pitcher and was really disappointed to learn writer George Plimpton was just pulling our legs on April Fool’s Day.
But when I read about the amazing kid golfer, I wasn’t excited. No, I was jealous. It’s the same way I felt when I went to junior golf tournaments and saw some guy on the driving range who was clearly a stud. There were always kids with prettier swings, better games. Between the ages of 14 to 16, I traveled to Dothan, Ala., for the Future Masters. My final year, I sank a 25-foot sidehill putt on the 18th hole for a 75. About 12-to-15 people applauded from the greenside grandstands and I raised my hand up to them as if I was somebody. I was elated, thinking that putt had earned me two more rounds. Too bad I had yipped a par putt from two feet on 17, missing the cut by one shot.
Anyway, I realized my golf limitations around the age of 17 and started plucking on a guitar instead of picking up a club. My interest in the game waned. But later, as Woods came on tour, my old jealousy gave way to amazement. With Woods, the game is not the impossible humbler of men. Maybe it can be conquered. For a dozen years, I’ve paid attention to all four yearly majors, looking for Woods and the large negative red number that usually accompanies his name atop the leaderboard. I haven’t been as much a golf fan as a Tiger Woods fan. I’ve never been very interested in what kind of guy he is. I simply like watching someone reach a 640-yard par 5 in two, or smack a six-iron 210 yards out of a fairway bunker to a tucked pin, or chip in off the 16th green of Augusta with the Masters on the line, the ball pausing at the cup, then dropping.
Anytime I’ve played the rare round of golf as an adult, I’ve thought of Woods, wondering what he would do on a recreational course of 340-yard par 4’s. How many greens would he drive? When I’m hitting a three iron, would he hit a seven or eight iron? Would he break 60?
But our thoughts about Woods are different now. The sex scandal is jaw dropping. And it seems there is something weirder every day, the photographed makeout session with a waitress in a church parking lot, the seedy Vegas parties, the possibility of tax troubles for paying for prostitutes with money from his corporation. This is sadly fascinating. It is a tragic American fall-from-grace story and I admit I can’t look away. I check Google News about once a day to see the latest headlines. It’s really surreal.
Despite all the terrible personal tales, despite the fact that he was sleeping around while his wife was bearing his children, his game on the links will remain a source of fascination and admiration for all golfers.
Or will it?
Amid all this, the doctor who helped Woods recover from his knee surgery has been arrested for having banned human growth hormones.
Woods was a skinny kid, whose friends jokingly called him “Erkel” for the nerdy sitcom character, when he first arrived on the golf scene. But he has bulked up in recent years, looking more like an NFL free safety than a golfer.
I hate to be suspicious. But it’s hard to ignore that twinge of skepticism now, given all the ugliness and deception in his personal life.
I fear he may become the new Barry Bonds, and Jack Nicklaus — the all-time majors win leader — the new Hank Aaron, with no one wanting to see the honest record shattered by the tainted one.
Obviously, he betrayed his wife, but did he betray the game, too? We may never know.
As a humbled golfer, I have enjoyed watching Woods master the game over the years. It’s like seeing Mozart in our time. But it’s hard to know what Jim Nantz will wax poetic about as Woods strides up 18 at Augusta — that ultimate golf great exposed as something else.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.