Feinstein: Tiger Is Playing, But He Isn't "Back"

Woods will dominate U.S. Open coverage regardless of his spot on the leaderboard – and that's unfortunate 

John Feinstein
June 06, 2018 - 10:35 am

USA Today Images


The U.S. Open is one week away, and only one thing is certain: the TV coverage on FOX and Golf Channel will be dominated by Tiger Woods.
Golf Channel’s pre-championship coverage (The U.S. Golf Association gets very upset if you call any of its "championships" a tournament) will be all about his comeback: how far he’s hit his driver and how, if he could just make a few putts, he’s a threat to win.
For the record: Almost any of the top players are a threat to win if they putt well.
Once play begins, you can be sure Golf Channel and FOX will not miss a single shot that Woods hits, probably starting with his stretching exercises on the range.
I get all this—although the cheerleading on Golf Channel and among many in the print media becomes oppressive at times. Golf Channel’s ratings go up when Woods plays well. Those who cover golf fulltime get to travel more when Woods is playing well. If he’s not playing, their annual December week in the Bahamas at company cost would go away—among other things.
I get it.
I also get that Woods is the greatest player of all time. That’s with all due respect to Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 majors to Woods’ 14. When Woods was dominating the sport between 1997 and 2008—especially during an 11-major run from 1999 to 2002 when he won a jaw-dropping seven times—he did things no one has ever done. The first person to tell you that would be Nicklaus.
Tom Watson told me a story years ago about calling Nicklaus the morning after Woods had won the 2007 PGA Championship—his 13th major championship.
“Did you watch the kid yesterday?” Watson asked.
Nicklaus likes to tell people that he only rarely watches golf on TV. “Yeah,” he conceded, “I watched him for a while.”
“What’d ya think?” Watson asked.
“He’s the greatest player in the history of the game,” Nicklaus answered.
Case closed.
We all know now that many great athletes aren’t great people. That’s true, actually in all walks of life.
Woods was never cooperative with the media, and most fans couldn't care less about that: they cared about his golf. I’ve always felt athletes have an obligation to the public to talk about what they do because it is the public that makes them rich. Beyond that, though, no one is obligated to talk about his or her personal life or about what drives them or how they got to be who they are.
Fortunately for guys like me, many are willing to do that and many are more than willing to talk about any charity work they do—even though in most cases their "foundations" are run by others and they merely show up every now and then for a photo-op.
Whenever that happens, I think of two things: first, Jim Valvano saying to me when I went to Indiana to begin research on “A Season on the Brink”: “You know a lot of guys in coaching visit kids in hospitals. We just don’t bring camera crews and reporters with us when we do.”
He was referring to defenders of Bob Knight—myself included—often pointing out that Knight DID visit kids in hospitals.
And then there’s Dean Smith’s line that I repeat so often: “You should never be proud of doing the right thing; you should just do the right thing.”
Dean was one of the very few people I’ve known in sports who did the right thing and never wanted to talk about it publicly.
Woods and his handlers carefully crafted an image for him in order to make him as marketable as possible: Woods talking to his head cover; Woods, always coming off friendly and dignified in commercials; Woods showing off his great smile. Most of Woods’ communication with the world came through his website.
He did tournament press conferences; brief TV interviews and never sat down one-on-one with anyone in the print media. As I’ve said before, even though I would never claim to "know" Tiger Woods the way some of my colleagues often do, I did have dinner with him once and we had a wide-ranging conversation during which we agreed on many things and disagreed—often vehemently—on others.
In 2008, after winning major No. 14 at the U.S. Open, he posted a Christmas photo on his website of his wife, two children and their dog—the perfect American family.
A year later that image was destroyed in the wake of the Thanksgiving "accident" and the revelations that came after that. I will never forget the sight of Woods’ mother, Tida, sitting in the room while her son publicly confessed his sins during what might have been the most awkward public appearance I’ve ever seen. It was cringe-worthy and all I could think is, “What is this poor woman thinking right now?”
As his many defenders have pointed out, Woods was hardly the first athlete to cheat on his wife. Not even close. But it doesn’t take a psychiatrist or even staying in a Holiday Inn Express to figure out that he didn’t do it for love or even because there was something horribly wrong in his marriage—he said after it all happened that he still loved his wife—but because of issues I wouldn’t dare to try to analyze without several Ph.D's.
He was, if nothing else, a textbook example of several of life’s clichés: money and success can’t buy happiness; celebrity can be as much of a burden as a joy, and, perhaps most of all, the famous Thoreau quote from "Walden": “the mass of men lead lives of quite desperation.”
That’s why those who are absolutely loyal to Woods like to say I criticize him because I don’t like him. I honestly don’t like or dislike him. I doubt I know him well enough to do either. More than anything, I feel sorry for him.
As I’ve often said, I think his sainted father, Earl, did more to damage his life than help it. He’s gotten credit for raising his son to be a champion: as I told Tiger that night at dinner, I believe he would have been a star without his father. To me, back then, Earl Woods was just another of the many pushy jock-stage fathers who saw in their talented child a human ATM machine.
Now, I think Earl was actually worse than that. He raised Tiger to believe he had to be utterly selfish to succeed; that he could not have friends in the locker room, just opponents; that winning wasn’t enough you had to WIN…and WIN…and WIN. Worst of all, he told Tiger to trust no one—except him. Then he betrayed him by cheating on his mother repeatedly—something he often bragged about to friends.
The funniest—and stupidest—question I think I ever heard a reporter ask was when Woods took questions at a press conference at the 2010 Masters for the first time since the accident. (I don’t count the two five-minute TV interviews he did in which he said he’d solved all his problems by putting on a Buddist bracelet).
Someone asked Woods if he thought the scandal might not have happened if Earl—who died in 2006—had still been around. I almost gagged. Who in the world did the guy think Tiger had LEARNED all this from?
Woods has actually evolved since Earl’s death. I wrote extensively in my book, “The Majors,” about how open and friendly he was with the American players as a vice-captain in 2016. Phil Mickelson, hardly a Woods pal, told me he’d seen him open up gradually in the years since his father died. Good for him.
Woods’ latest comeback has been remarkable. He’s 42, has had seven surgeries, hadn’t really played for four years and has played very solid golf. He’s played in nine tournament this year, has two top-tens (including a T-2), and is a very respectable 50th on the FedEX Cup points list. The most remarkable number might be nine tournaments played. In the three previous years, he played a total of 12 times.
I admire what he’s doing. Can he win again? Maybe. Can he win a major, perhaps as soon as next week? Maybe.
But if I had a dollar for every time someone on TV or Twitter or the Internet has screamed, "He’s back!" I wouldn’t be writing this column. I’d be retired.
WOODS will tell you he’s not back until and unless he wins a major. Sure, winning anywhere would be nice and he’d like to get four more wins before he’s done to pass Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82 PGA Tour victories. But the majors and Nicklaus’ record have always been his Holy Grail. A T-2 in Tampa is a long way from there.
On Monday, I tweeted and did a CBS Sports Minute on last weekend’s media hysteria at The Memorial over Woods, who briefly tied for the lead Saturday before fading and then had the second worst round (even-par 72) among those who finished in the top 28 on Sunday. That’s just fact.
If he’s had a problem this year, it’s when he gets within range of the leaders. A bad drive here, several missed putts there. The complete opposite of who he was in the past when he sniffed a chance to win. My media pals don’t want to hear it. “If he only made a few putts…” they repeated all weekend. Folks, that is EVERY golfer’s lament. Why did Woods dominate all those years? Not because he was a great ball-striker (he was very good, but only a little better than average off the tee) but because he could get it up-and-down from anywhere and made every clutch putt he ever lined up.
And so, because I don’t cheerlead like my colleagues, I am blasted for not liking Tiger or, the tired, "You don’t like him because he turned you down for a book." For the record, I never asked him to do a book. When Rocco Mediate asked me to write a book with him on his epic U.S. Open playoff with Woods, I told him right away that if he wanted Woods to talk to the author for the book he’d need to find another writer to have ANY chance to get him to talk.
“Don’t worry,” Rocco said. “He’ll do it for me.”
He didn’t. Rocco was furious. I wasn’t surprised or disappointed.
When I tweeted about Woods’ 72, the usual responses came in about not liking Woods; that I’d have no career if not for him (they never heard of Bob Knight, I guess) and one that said, “But he was the only guy in the field who’s won 14 majors).
As if that was relevant at that moment.
The Open at Shinnecock will be fun. I’ll be watching a lot of golfers, not just one. I wish I could say the same for those of you who will watch on TV.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” spent five months on The New York Times bestseller list. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—a Mystery in Black and White,” was selected by the Junior Literary Guild as one of the best books of 2017. His new mystery, “The Prodigy,” set at the Masters, will be published in August.