The myth of the Tiger – the Bobby Fischer of Golf?

Wright Thompson’s ‘The Secret History of Tiger Woods‘ on ESPN is expected to be nominated for several journalism awards at the end of the year. Before the Masters, Sports Illustrated led with a front page story on Tiger Woods – ‘What happened? It remains the most vexing question in sports?’ An interview with Tiger in TIME magazine just before Christmas was called ‘his best interview to date’.

In the same period, the former number one golfer has opened a golf course in Texas, played a few corporate clinics and charity events, gone to a few NFL games, played with his children and played Call of Duty on his Playstation 4. Tiger has not played competitive golf since August, when he played in the Wyndham Championship.

He is now ranked 515 in the world rankings. In his previous year on tour, he had more 80s than 60s, suffered chipping yips and finished at the bottom of most stat categories, inbetween pulling out of tournaments through injury. He hit 40 years old in December.

Yet public fascination for the Tiger story continues to grow. The cover issue of Sports Illustrated came after world number one Jason Day had won two tournaments in a row. Instead of focusing on golf’s newest star, it chose to rehash an old tale.

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The front cover of Sports Illustrated before the Masters Tournament, an event that Tiger did not play in

It is not as if Day’s story is not sellable. Jason Day revealed that he got his first golf club in a dump. His story is one of rags to riches, with an interesting relationship with his father to boot. Day is photogenic with a beautiful wife, athletic and plays the most Tiger-like game out there on tour today.

He is not Tiger though, they’ll argue. How can he ever be anywhere close though in the public’s mind if a premier sporting publication chooses to retell a story of a semi-retired golfer instead of one with a new, interesting story at the peak of his powers?

‘The Secret History of Tiger Woods’ is fantastically written and has deservedly gotten a lot of praise. But what has not been mentioned is that he relies heavily on the testimony from Tiger’s previous coach, Hank Haney. The most interesting parts of the article were about his Navy SEALs obsession. However, most of this was already revealed in The Big Miss by Hank Haney, a fantastic book released in 2012. While it is presented in a nice way, ‘secret history’ it is not and again it is rehashing an old narrative.

It is the golf journalism equivalent of pushing another sequel when there is nothing to it. Tiger Woods may come back to golf this year and add another act to the story. But it must come organically. It has not come in the past year where he probably spent more time on the couch than playing golf.

It leads to Tiger being mythologised with every extra week he spends off the course. Will he break Jack Nicklaus’ record? Will he come back to golf? Will he ever win a tournament again? These questions dominate the casual golfers mind while great golf goes relatively unnoticed.

In chess, larger than life character Bobby Fischer was the most talented chess player of all-time. He dominated all opponents and fascinated with his eccentric personality before becoming a recluse. He did not play an event for 20 years but his absence fascinated the public. Why would he leave the game he dominated? The Hollywood film Searching for Bobby Fischer, a film about chess released in 1993, explains this.

It seems like Tiger, from prodigious youth to dominant star, to sex scandal to losing his game becomes more interesting with every passing day that he is absent.

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Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all-time, became a mythical player in his absence

Unfortunately, it sparks nostalgia confused with reality. Twitter is full of gifs and videos of Tiger hitting remarkable shots over 15 years ago saying ‘can’t wait til Tiger’s back!’

Sorry fans but that Tiger is never coming back. If it was any other sport, he would have retired by now.

What other sportsperson in their peak in 2000 is as good as that today? It is only because he is a golfer that there is an expectation for him to play through his 40s. However, Woods’ swing that brought new levels of golfing excellence is also one that caused toil to his body in a way it would not for most 40-year-old golfers. One of the genuinely new pieces of information from the Wright Thompson article was the insight of fellow transcendent star Michael Jordan. According to Jordan, Tiger Woods “wishes he could retire” and would do so if he won another major.

With the chances of that diminishing every year and no sign of interest dying for this enigmatic sportsman, it seems that the Tiger story, no matter what Woods does himself, is set to rage on for the foreseeable future.

David Gorman

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