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July 13, 2012 7:48 pm
There’s a brilliant anecdote I happened across when I was initially thinking of writing a book about golf. I don’t remember where I read it – an old edition of Golf World, perhaps, or a dog-eared copy of John Daly’s autobiography – and I don’t remember the exact details (so forgive me if I’m a little fuzzy around the edges) but it went something like this.
It’s around 2005 and John Daly (crazed, ursine, mullet-sporting redneck – one of golf’s true genii/car-crashes/nut-bags) is “hanging” with his cronies at the bar in the clubhouse of an upmarket golf course when Tiger Woods walks into his sightline – sober, wonderfully toned, decked out in immaculate gym gear, evidently on his way to a demanding workout. Daly is appalled (the workout is anathema to him at this – or, indeed, any – point in his career. Come on! The post-practice workout is for stress-bunnies and try-hards. Ever genial, Daly yells over to Woods to ditch his stupid workout and come and join him and his pals for a drink instead (unspoken message: just relax, for once. Be one of the guys, Tiger, one of us.)
Let’s get inside Tiger’s head for a second, shall we? Imagine how Tiger feels. Daly is a nightmare – he’s the circuit’s light entertainment, a borderline laughing stock. He is probably pissed. Tiger is probably the only black man in the clubhouse (a wild guess but I’m fairly confident, statistically speaking).
Tiger just wants to go and to work out, in peace. To unwind. He just wants to be left the hell alone to follow his routine. Routine is important to Tiger. Routine is everything. It is what drives him, what sustains him, what makes him great. Because Tiger always embraces discipline. He is a true professional, a sporting hero. He is at the top of his game.
And Daly? Oh Lord, Daly is crashing and burning. At this point in time he has a drink problem. He is chronically overweight. He is out of control. He is a lunatic. But we love him. We just don’t want to be him, that’s all.
Daly knows he is down on his luck (he’s no fool). Maybe it’s been a good day, though, and he has asked Tiger to join him in front of his cronies as an expression of boyish bravado (Daly’s hallmark), his inherent friendliness (he’s a sweetheart) and his vulnerability (he’s a mess). A rejection would be painful (a casual one, unforgivable).
Tiger pauses, then smiles, then shakes his head, regretfully. Daly senses the imminent refusal and stiffens. “Ditch the gym,” he persists. “Screw the gym. Why go to the gym? I never go to the gym.”
(To respond to this statement – if it was this statement – would take a 30-page booklet. I mean, the poignancy, the bluster, the hidden meaning. How to fully decipher it in a couple of paragraphs? The majesty of one man’s – no, two men’s – careers in a couple of hundred words?)
Tiger doesn’t pause. “John,” he says, the smile widening, the head still regretfully shaking, “if I had your natural talent, I wouldn’t need to go to the gym.”
Oh wow. Wow. High fives to Tiger. He peerlessly extracts himself from the situation, flatters Daly’s considerable ego, is exquisitely modest to boot, humble even. And yet ...
Is there something ... ? I mean, if we read that sentence with a furtive sense of irony ... ? Might there be a tiny, niggling alpha-dog-style negative hidden in there somewhere? Not a big dog neg. Just a teensy-weensy one. A short-haired, tea-cup chihuahua, perhaps. A perky Chinese Crested.
Reading this anecdote for the first time was definitely the moment I fell in love with Tiger Woods. OK, so that isn’t strictly true. I fell in love with him years earlier, A) after watching him play: a handsome, weirdly programmed automaton. Powerful. A Terminator. Completely unbending. A Mr Cool who sometimes cusses and spits in the cup, just to keep things interesting. (Powerful. Custom built. Gracious.) Commentators love him and hate him, love him and hate him. But it’s all so guarded (because of his colour), so careful, so proscribed, so icily polite.
B) He’s called Tiger Woods (OK, he was christened Eldrick, but hey). Tiger Woods! It’s the best name in the world for a sportsman. He’s a tiger, and he is a golfer, and golfers play with a club called a wood. It’s just too perfect (although after he was caught cheating on his wife, the “wood” part developed another somewhat less seemly connotation, became the core of several thousand seedy one-liners). In fiction you just wouldn’t get away with a name like that. Why? Because Life, the little strumpet, always jealously guards the best jokes for herself.
C) Tiger is of colour. He was pretty much the first big golfer of colour. Of course, he’s never made anything of it. Nope. He’s never played the race card. Wouldn’t stoop to it. He got where he wanted to go entirely through talent and determination. The racial debate was simply a conversation that took place in pictures underneath the text of the game. It was unspoken. But it was important.
Bottom line: golf is one of the world’s most elitist sports. And Tiger is a great player. He effortlessly redefined the parameters of the game. He made golf sexy. When Tiger isn’t playing in a major tournament, it somehow doesn’t quite feel like a real competition is under way. It’s like a martini without the olive – a kir royale without the champagne. It just doesn’t fizz. Because he is, quite simply, the greatest player of all time.
That’s not to say I don’t have other golfing heroes. I named my first dog – a Boston terrier (no longer with us, alas) – Tom Watson after, well, Tom Watson, one of the true gentlemen of the sport. Originally he was called Watts (the dog) after the Watts riots (he was riotous) but whenever I used the word “what?” in casual conversation his little head would spin around, so the name had to be modified, and my partner (perhaps a little mischievously) suggested Tom Watson.
Tom Watson was a gentleman dog – handsome, persistent, a keen fighter. He loved the ball. And because I loved him, when the golf was on I would support his namesake. And Tom Watson was, is, handsome and persistent. He is gracious. He is glorious but detached. Aristocratic. Like a delicious honey lozenge painstakingly refined from the sweet, pure juices of The Great Gatsby.
The more I watched golf, the more interested I became in the fundamental nature of the game. In its guts. Because there’s no denying that in some ways it represents everything that is sick and bad and wrong with the modern world. It is a selfish sport. It is elitist. It is criminally, criminally, unenvironmental. In many ways it is a game that represents all the hallmarks of Modern Capitalism in chronic decline. Golf is just plain wrong.
It’s an individual sport. It is a sport in which the practitioner essentially plays himself (or herself). This makes it cruel. It’s all about mental toughness – resilience – and it’s way more anal than chess. Above and beyond everything else, golf is a lonely game that pretends to be social. It’s a hawk gently wrapping its wing around the shoulders of a rabbit.
I was halfway through writing The Yips, my novel about a struggling golfer, when Tiger had his fall from grace, and I knew that the book (a mere fiction) couldn’t possibly contain the billionfold ramifications of this extraordinary historical moment. The initial horror – nay, disbelief – followed, hard upon, by the furtive delight (he is human! He has flaws!), superseded by the gloating and the crowing (we never really liked him. It wasn’t his blackness – God forbid! – it was something ... I dunno ... something ... ) and those sad, proud apologies followed by the sadder, humbler apologies.
And the most extraordinary thing? A sense of history unwinding. Because if it hadn’t been for Tiger Woods, there never would have been a President Obama. Think about it; how these two men’s glorious trajectories have echoed each other. If some people hadn’t trusted Tiger, they probably couldn’t have believed in Obama. So when Tiger fell? How many weeks would it be – two? three? – before the Obama Express started to smack into the sidings? Tiger represented the best that America could be. And if Tiger went – if Tiger was dented, had lied, cheated, was flawed – who the hell else might he drag down in his coat-tails?
I just love these stories. I love these tales about greatness and weakness and power and failing. They are bold and raw and generic. They resonate. And the best part? The best part is that the game simply goes on. It just keeps on going. Young Rory McIlroy’s ego continues to expand, exponentially, week by week. Lee Westwood’s shoulders get ever squarer. Ian Poulter continues to celebrate the glorious success of his one-man campaign to get normal, healthy British males to wear baby pink (he did it all by himself. He single-handedly Barbie-fied British manhood. Either he deserves an OBE for his crimes or a spell in jail, the jury’s still out on which).
And Tiger? After a few months off, he slaps on his famous Nike cap and gets back out there. He takes it on the chin. He starts to redeem himself in the only way he knows how – with a ball and a club – striding through the rough and up on to the green.
He persists. That extraordinary Tiger Woods persistence. Because that is who he is. And that is what golf is (what he has brought to golf, and what he has taken from it). Golf is, beyond everything, a long, lonely battle with the doubting self.
My novel is about a golfer in decline, a golfer with the shakes, a golfer who is casting around, in sheer desperation, for a new method, a new knack, a new technique to shore up his sense of self-belief. It is a story, at root, about how we all talk ourselves back into the game – not just the game of golf, but the game of life. It’s about the various techniques we use (and golfers use) to make things feel right again – be they faith, sex, love, art, drugs, alcohol, therapy ...
In truth, when I see Tiger chipping majestically on to the green, I feel as if I’ve barely even got started on the story. I feel like a whole new (and way better) book could (and should) be written about the sheer chutzpah it must take to dust yourself off and get back out there. Because we’ve all done it in our lives at some point or another. We’ve all faltered, we’ve all felt a sense of crucifying self-doubt. We’ve all made terrible, unforgivable mistakes. And we’ve all sought forgiveness, have hoped for redemption, have begged for it, prayed for it. But on such a grand scale as this? So hugely? So publicly?
I make no bones about the fact that I am completely and utterly awed by Tiger Woods. I am totally amazed by him. And I’ll keep on following the story – out there, in bold, on the green, on the screen, in the world – because his is a fable too good, and way too important, to waste in mere fictionalising.
The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes runs from July 19-22. Nicola Barker’s ‘The Yips’ (Fourth Estate) is out now
Missing links: David Owen on the lure of Britain’s best courses
As US golfer Sam Snead arrived in St Andrews, Scotland, for the 1946 Open Championship – the oldest of golf’s four major tournaments – he glimpsed the Old Course from the window of his train. “It looks like that might have been an old golf course that’s gone to seed,” he remarked to a travelling companion.
The Old Course is famously disappointing to first-time visitors since, from a distance, it looks like a wrinkled green-and-brown blanket shaken out towards the beach. But it’s full of haunting subtleties, and it quickly converts those who play it thoughtfully, including Snead, who won that year’s Open.
British links courses – a particular type of sandy, treeless, undulating coastal ground shaped mainly by the wind – have been golf’s holiest terrain since the game arose upon them at least half a millennium ago. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the most ardent worshippers are Americans. Tiger Woods once told me his favourite courses in the world were Scottish, English and Irish links courses, which he had played not only during Opens but also during numerous off-the-meter rounds with friends. (And it’s not just the golf he loves. Woods and the US golfer Mark O’Meara once stayed at Mt Falcon Lodge, north-west Ireland, for the salmon fishing.)
Tom Watson practically owned the Open in the late 1970s and early 1980s and he would have been elevated to Scottish sainthood in 2009 if an unlucky bounce on the final hole at Turnberry in Scotland hadn’t prevented him, at the age of 59, from winning it a sixth time.
The golf shot that’s memorialised by the plaque on the 17th hole at Royal Lytham & St Annes – where this year’s Open begins on Thursday – was struck, in 1926, by Bobby Jones, whose portrait hangs in the clubhouse too.
The great mystery to me is not why Americans seem besotted with links courses but why the British (and Irish) don’t. The 1977 Ryder Cup matches were held at Lytham but, since then, the European side of the competition has been played on golf courses that not only weren’t links courses but also weren’t particularly distinguished.
Why play at the Belfry (which has just two good holes, one of which the matches seldom reach) when the great links courses of the Lancashire coast are only 100 miles away? And why play at the K Club – on a course designed by Arnold Palmer, of all people – when Portmarnock and Baltray are practically around the corner? And why even acknowledge the existence of Jack Nicklaus’s Centenary Course, at Gleneagles, where the Ryder Cup will be held in 2014? (It has paved buggy paths!) Furthermore, the three best new golf courses in Scotland – Kingsbarns, Castle Stuart and Trump International – are links courses that were developed by Americans.
Hey, you guys invented the game. You should act like it!
David Owen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing editor of Golf Digest. He is author of ‘The Chosen One: Tiger Woods and the Dilemma of Greatness’ and writes about golf at www.myusualgame.com
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