It’s okay to cheer for Tiger Woods again. In fact, it's encouraged. So as you watch this weekend's U.S. Open (which, after Thursday's opening round, Tiger is primed to win), don't be afraid to let out a few fist pumps for Mr. Woods.
If you’re wondering, isn’t everyone cheering for Tiger again?, the answer would be: Well, no. Consider that 67-year-old Hale Irwin, a great-but-not-the-greatest American golfer, three-time U.S. Open Champion, 20-time PGA Tour winner, and someone who still gets his name in the paper when he shares his opinions, said this week:
Everybody can make up their own opinion, I don’t really care. I think he’s [Tiger] got a long way to go to make up for some of the hurt that he has put on the golf world over the last couple of years.
To Hale, I say: Move on. You’re holding on too tight.
Sure, when Tiger struggled after returning from both his injuries and self-mandated post-scandal exile, I enjoyed watching him flail so publicly. It seemed that Schadenfreude was the only acceptable response among golf fans, myself included. Even as he showed signs of returning to form — as recently as last December he won an unofficial event against a pretty competitive field — I remained dubious. Is it really worth cheering for Tiger, the one who had so wronged us golf fans, especially when the quality of golf had reached a level I had not seen in 20 years of watching tournament golf?
Yes, it is. The alternative is an endless procession of bland golfers, each one less recognizable than the next. Does Bill Hass ring a bell? How about Zach Johnson? Hunter Mahan? David Toms? Steve Stricker? Or any of the top two or three-ranked golfers? Unless you’re an avid golf fan, probably not. If you’re like most golf fans — casual — you know about Tiger and you know about Phil and maybe you know about the guy who last won The Masters (in this case Bubba Watson) but really beyond that, who do you know? Who do you really care about? Who do you put aside three hours on a Sunday afternoon to watch?
The PGA Tour is quick to tout their young guns, guys like Rory McIlroy or Rickie Fowler as the heir apparent to Tiger Woods. It’s the same as the parade of basketball players forever being called the “next Michael Jordan.” I find it hard to root for Rickie Fowler who dresses like he got lost coming home from a Skrillex concert. And his fans do too.
A note about Phil Mickelson, because I am sure there are people out there who would be happy if Tiger never returned to form as long their precious, lovable Phil keeps winning. (My grandmother, for one.) I liked Phil a lot more before he won four majors. Now he’s just another golfer with an enormous bank account, a pretty wife, and a tendency to complain about things, like people taking too many pictures with their cell phones. Phil Mickelson has won the same number of major championships as Ray Floyd, one fewer than Seve Ballesteros, and one more than Larry Nelson. We all love the guy, but when you’re talking about watching the Greatest Of All Time, he’s not even in the discussion. Plus he endorses rheumatoid arthritis medication, and although as a gout sufferer myself I empathize with his plight, it’s getting tougher and tougher to consider Phil Mickelson, on his own, appointment viewing.
That leaves us with Tiger. In case you need reminding, Tiger hits shots that other golfers not only can’t hit, they don’t even try. Remember this one from the 2002 PGA?
Two other thoughts about this video: 1) It is great to see other golfers absolutely gushing about Tiger and 2) Tiger's reaction is given in his classic stiff-as-a-board delivery. Given what we saw come out during his naughty texting days, I think we can all agree this is his "public" persona. Many fans and journalists are consistently frustrated by not getting the "real" Tiger in his press conferences. To that I say, it's been 15 years now since he turned pro — his persona is not going to change. That said, his recent attempts at connecting with his fans, most notably in his April 2012 "press conference" where he "answered" questions that came in from "fans" via social media looked like something you would see at an IBM regional sales conference. It didn't work.
There was this shot from the 2005 Masters, which I happened to be watching with my dad. We high-fived for a solid minute after this chip:
Or how about the pitch from two weeks ago at The Memorial? Watching golf on TV is mostly boring. With Tiger at his best, it almost never is. This was the shot that brought me all the way back. Notice the crowd going absolutely ballistic.
You may still be wondering, “How do I put aside the awful sex scandal and cheer for Tiger Woods? Because I'm not rooting for his personal life. I'm rooting for the best golfer of my time, and dammit, I want to see him become the best golfer of all time. The great thing about individual sports is that an athlete’s accomplishments are easily matched up against all previous eras. Sure, there are considerations with equipment and training, but in a sport like golf, everyone playing in any era has those same conditions. It is really, really enjoyable as a fan to watch the best of all time in their prime and be able to say “I watched so-and-so in their prime.” It’s one of the main reasons we watch sports.
That’s what we were getting before Tiger’s injuries and scandals, and that’s what it looks like we’re about to get again. The U.S. Open started yesterday, and I want Tiger to go all the way. I’m finally ready. You should be too.
Michael Shafrir recently graduated from the MIT Sloan MBA program and is a former captain of his high school golf team.