* * *
Sure, I’m fascinated by Tiger Woods. I’m fascinated by him because I cannot figure him out. I have no idea what drives him, what inspires him, what makes him laugh (other than a misplayed chip bouncing into the hole). I don’t know if he’s happy living the most luxurious and public life imaginable, or if happiness is beside the point. I don’t know if he plays otherworldly golf because it’s pivotal to his existence, or because it gives him a high he cannot get anywhere else, or because that golf has won him a billion dollars and the hearts of men on Wall Street and a Swedish supermodel, or if he’s inescapably bound to the dreams of his father and a poster of Jack Nicklaus that he had on his wall as a child.
I don’t know if Tiger Woods hears the cheers and shrieks as he walks through the crowd, stonefaced, distant, alone, like a prison guard walking the line past the cages while a ring of keys swings and sways off his belt buckle. Maybe he really does not hear them, does not hear us, maybe he really is insulated by gallery ropes and five layers of concentration. It’s worth nothing that when he stands over a golf ball he can hear a camera shutter release seven football fields away. I don’t know. It’s a mystery. I don’t know why he throws his clubs like a petulant child when he hits a bad shot or how he climbs into his soul like an old man at peace when he needs to hit a shot close to the hole. I don’t know if hits a thousand golf shots a day through pain and aching monotony because he still rages to become the greatest golfer who ever lived or because he doesn’t really know what else to do, his destiny has been declared, his coronation has been scheduled, his status as the greatest golfer who ever lived has been prophesied — or as Jim Murray said: “Carmen was announced, Carmen will be sung.”
All I know about Tiger Woods can be summed up in about seven words: “I knew he would make that putt.”
Everyone knew that. The first time he made the putt, it felt like a replay. The second time they showed the putt, it already felt like history. This was Sunday, the 18th hole, U.S. Open, officially 12-feet (the newspaper reporters settled on 12 feet — newspaper people still decide such things) over bouncy, chewed up green, birdie putt for a playoff against Rocco Mediate, the 45-year-old Salieri trying to match genius with the broken down Mozart. Woods’ knee shot with pain all weekend when he hit certain shots, so he spent Sunday chewing Alleves or Advils or whatever is the Tiger licensed pain-killer of choice, and he spent Sunday trying to avoid those face-cringing shots. Tiger Woods’ Sundays are usually staid, sober, painless affairs — he usually wins by lethal injection, by shooting solid rounds through the wind and tension while everyone else goes all Jerry Lewis. But this one was different, this was an Opera, complete with staggeringly bad shots, a few touches of brilliance, a little hesitancy and finally this putt, 12-feet, to force the playoff.
“I knew he’d make it,” Mediate shouted when Tiger made it. We all knew. Anyone could make that putt with the right read, a good stroke and a touch of providence. I’d even say that most excellent pros could make that putt in that moment, under that pressure, with a throbbing knee and a U.S. Open at stake. But only Tiger would make it. Maybe that’s the difference with Tiger, the difference between could and would.
* * *
I don’t know why he celebrated like that. When that Sunday putt dropped, Tiger Woods clenched his fists, raised his putter and his eyes toward the sky, shouted pure joy. Maybe it was different from some of his other fist-pumping celebrations. Maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know. I don’t know what was going on in his head. I don’t know if he was happy that he had put himself in the playoff and given himself the chance to win the U.S. Open, his 14th major championship, one closer to Jack’s 18. I don’t know if he was proud of the way he had played for four days, through pain and doubt, if he was shouting, “Yes! I did it!” If it was his way of playing the NBC golf theme, “In Celebration of Man.”
Or, maybe, I don’t know, maybe he looked a little bit surprised, like he had amazed himself for once. For more than a decade now, we have watched Tiger Woods expect perfection, expect every putt to drop in, expect every drive to split fairway, expect every shot out of the sand to check up by the hole. And when those things did not happen, he grimaced, and he stomped, and he slammed clubs into his bags, and he made motions with his hands that suggested the wind had conspired against him or there had been an unexpected disturbance in the earth’s gravitational pull. What happens to a man when he has hit so many sublime golf shots that he no longer knows anything else? Does Tiger Woods feel the same kind of joy we feel when he does something miraculous? Or is miraculous just a part of him now? Maybe this was different. Maybe he was surprised. If you can’t feel surprised when you make a 12-foot bumpy putt on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open to force a playoff — if you can’t take that moment to shout out, “Damn, I really am amazing!” — when can you?
I don’t know any stories about Tiger Woods that seem to reveal him. I know one about Joe Montana. I remember reading a story about Montana after he retired, and in the middle of another discussion he said that he likes driving on icy roads. Something about that makes sense to me … maybe Montana needs tension in his life, pressure, danger, something that pulls him out of the monotony of the moment. You know, a person like that could thrive in the final two minutes.
I know a pretty telling story about Michael Jordan. It seems that he was practicing before a game, and arena people were going through all the scoreboard games to make sure they worked. “Hey,” Michael yelled out. “Who wins the dot game tonight?” They told him … say it was blue. That night, during a timeout, the dot game began. Jordan turned to Scottie Pippen: “Hey, bet you a thousand dollars blue wins.” Something about that gets me closer to Michael Jordan, his hunger for action, his need for control, his preparation, his desperation to win. Pippen agreed to the bet, which tells you plenty about him too.
I know a pretty good story about Jim Palmer, a thinking pitcher who has the same lifetime ERA as Tom Seaver, a better winning percentage than Cy Young and also three of Cy’s Awards. I always thought Palmer should get more thought when discussing the greatest pitchers ever. Anyway, when Ron Luciano was umpiring, he used to get his kicks by taking baseballs that pitchers discarded, putting them in his pouch, and trying to sneak them back into play later. It’s a fun experiment, if you think about it, and the only pitcher who threw the same baseballs out, time and again, was Jim Palmer.
I know a story that might explain the comedian Don Rickles too. When he was just starting out, he was at a club with a date, and Frank Sinatra walked in. Rickles had a passing relationship with Sinatra at that point, and his date wanted desperately to be introduced. Rickles walked over and said, “Frank, please, I’m with this woman, she wants to meet you, it would make me look like such a big shot, please come over to the table.” Frank agreed, and after a while he did walk over and said, “Don, how are you?” To which Rickles shouted, “Frank not now! Can’t you see I’m with somebody?”
Point is, I don’t know any stories about Tiger Woods. Not any good ones. Tiger mostly keeps the stories to himself. He sanitizes his image daily. He speaks in platitudes and technicalities and circles — “I love competing,” he says, and “I just try to stay in the moment,” and all that. He does not want to be known.
Some say there’s nothing else to know, that he is what you see, a machine, a force of nature, a golfing prodigy grown into a golfing virtuoso, a computer that calculates only wind and grain and yardage and spin. Bob Costas, in a striking moment during Sunday’s final day, held up a copy of Tiger Woods’ book, “How I Play Golf” and suggested that as a companion, people could read Ludwin Van Beethoven’s “How I Compose Symphonies” — the idea being that Tiger’s genius is innate and mysterious and unknowable.
I don’t know if that’s right, though. Every so often something leaks out — a dirty joke, a wry smile, a hidden meaning — that can make you believe there’s something deeper than what you see. Of course, that could just be the Chauncey Gardner effect too — maybe it’s just tempting to give Tiger Woods’ words added wisdom and his gestures added weight because he can hit a golf ball better than anyone. But I don’t know. I think there’s something there.
* * *
Wait, I do have one Tiger Woods story. I was in Charlotte a couple of years ago, following around Tiger and Michael Jordan, they were playing a Pro-Am round together. They both ended up on the green, Tiger’s ball was maybe 15 feet away, Michael’s maybe 5 feet. And suddenly there there was something else going on. The playfulness that had been fluttering around their pseudo-competition stopped for a moment. Yes, this was golf, Tiger’s game, not Michael’s, but here was something close to a fair fight, a 15-foot putt against a 5-foot putt with everyone watching. Putting, perhaps, is about will, about nerves, about something that Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan understand better than perhaps anyone — that sports ability to win.
Tiger putted first, and he stalked the green the way he does, panther-like, tiger-like, looked at his putt from all angles, transformed himself into that steely and familiar figure from the television set. He stood over his putt, balanced and sturdy, and he knocked it in, stared it in, and then he looked at Michael Jordan and nodded. Your turn.
And then Michael Jordan looked at his putt, so much shorter, straight as a yardstick, and he stood over it uneasily, and he glanced over and saw that Tiger was looking at him, straight at him, with not a touch of humor in his face, and then the greatest basketball who ever lived, the man who carved opponents hearts out, the man who could trash talk a defender into hiding and intimidate a scorer into airballs … yanked his putt left.
“I’m a professional,” Michael said to cover up his mistake. “But not at this game.”
Everyone laughed, including Tiger. But the point was made.
* * *
I don’t know why Tiger seemed so sure. But he did. On Monday, in the playoff, he trailed Rocco Mediate by 1 shot going into the final three holes. Tiger looked confident, which was no surprise, but he also looked MORE than confident. He looked like he knew. He looked like he had already played the final few holes, hours earlier, and the outcome was decided, and he would win, and he was simply waiting for everyone else to find out.
Of course, he could not have been that sure. Unless he was. I don’t know. I’m fascinated by Tiger Woods because I don’t know, because his greatness is not easily explained. Jim Brown was bigger, faster, strong and meaner. Michael Jordan had more weapons and more intensity. Richard Petty had faster cars. Wayne Gretzky has more imagination and the touch of a pianist. Steffi Graf hit the ball harder and closer to the lines. Roger Clemens threw 95 mph, and his split-fingered fastball fell in trap doors, and he could locate those pitches, and he’d hit you in the head if he felt like it. Even Jack Nicklaus’ greatness comes down to hitting ball higher, longer, straighter and his uncanny ability to make the putts he had to make. He also played the game seriously and with purpose and force. There are a lot of similarities between Jack and his hunter.
With Tiger, though, there seems to be something beyond even that … yes, he DOES hit it higher, longer, and he does have an uncanny ability to make putts, and he’s magical around the green in a way that Nicklaus was not. But there does seem to be something else inside him, a sense of time, a sense of the future, a sense of destiny. I remember once an opponent talked about trying to beat Bjorn Borg on the clay, and he said something like this: “You go out there saying, ‘OK, I don’t care if I have to be here for seven hours, I’m going to stay patient, and I’m going to keep hitting shots with this guy, and I’m going to outlast him. … Only then, about an hour into the match you realize that he doesn’t care if he has to be out there ALL WEEK or ALL MONTH or ALL YEAR. And that’s the moment when he has you.”
And that, in a sense, is Tiger. He was in trouble on Monday. He took a three shot lead, seemed certain to win going away, and then Rocco Mediate made three birdies in a row, played his heart out, took the lead, placed himself just one good putt away from putting Tiger Woods away. And yet, Tiger never seemed concerned. He never seemed in trouble at all. He seemed to know that Rocco would not make that putt. Tiger seemed to know that he would birdie 18 and force a playoff. He seemed to know that once that playoff began, Rocco would yank his drive, he would blink, just like Michael Jordan did, just like anyone would who has just realized that there’s no beating this guy, not in a fight like this one.
And yet again, maybe Tiger did not know any of that. Like I say, I don’t know. I do know he kissed the trophy at the end again.
* * *
I know one more Tiger Woods story. Last year, Tiger was at Oakmont Country Club, he was giving a tour of the course to eight lucky American Express card holders. He was in good spirits, as he can be when he doesn’t feel crushed by attention or on the record with the press. He explained his strategy on each hole. He explained that every shot must have meaning, purpose, a certain shape, there are no throwaways in golf, no mulligans. The only way to win is to make every shot something close to perfect.
Oakmont is probably best known for its Church Pews bunker — a huge bunker with seven grass covered ridges running across it. The group walked up to it, and were awed, and Tiger seemed in a great mood, and finally one of the fans nervously asked if Tiger might hit a golf ball out of the bunker.
“No,” Tiger said.
“Will you teach us how to do it?” someone asked.
“Hit it there,” Tiger said, and he pointed toward the fairway. They asked him again, and Woods again refused. After a few more requests, he did step into the bunker for a photo, but even then he refused to have a golf club in his his hand, and he refused to hit a golf ball out of the bunker. He said he would not hit one out during practice either.
Why not? Because, he said, he had absolutely no intention of being in that bunker. Ever.
“Why bring negativity into your thoughts?” he asked, and nobody had a good answer for that one.