Feinstein: Golf Media Shouldn't Fawn Over Tiger

John Feinstein enjoys watching Tiger Woods golf but says the obsession with him has gone too far

John Feinstein
November 07, 2018 - 4:14 pm

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I was scrolling through Twitter one day last week when I came across a series of tweets from someone who works at Golfweek, citing the TV ratings this past year when Tiger Woods was in contention at a number of golf tournaments.
         
The numbers are undeniable: no one in the history of golf has ever moved the needle the way Woods does. And there’s also no denying the remarkable scene at East Lake in September as he and Rory McIlroy walked up the 18th hole. The PGA Tour, in a straight steal from a long-time British Open tradition, let the fans inside the ropes, and what unfolded as they followed the two players—99 percent of them with eyes trained on Woods—made for great TV.
         
But the tweeter (I honestly don’t know who it was) went on to say that those (like me) who have criticized the fawning nature of the media’s coverage of Woods this year should shut-up because, well, look at those numbers.
         
Woods made a remarkable comeback this past year. Denying that is akin to insisting that Donald Trump hasn’t been the most divisive force in the history of American politics.
         
It’s fact, not opinion.
         
I also understand TV’s obsession with Woods. Just look at the numbers. Years ago, when Woods was in his dominant period, Tommy Roy, NBC’s longtime golf producer told me that NBC had done a poll in which 45 percent of those asked the question had said they’d rather watch Tiger Woods lean on his golf bag while talking to (then) caddie Steve Williams than watch any other player actually hitting a shot.
         
I also understand that TV is different from print media. I speak from first-hand experience. During my last few years at Golf Channel, Mike McCarley, the network president, sent out monthly e-mails to the staff. He would always mention Golf Channel’s "goals." One was: “Improve relations with our partners!’
         
Those partners are the PGA Tour; Augusta National; The Royal and Ancient; PGA of America and all players on all tours. The USGA got knocked off the list when it sold its broadcast rights to FOX. To be fair to McCarley, he is a protégé of Dick Ebersol, who pretty much invented the notion that TV networks and those they pay rights fees to are "partners." With great success I might add.
         
My only partner is my wife, Christine. Period. Reporting is a lot different than partnering. Golf Channel allows the PGA Tour to put someone in their truck to monitor their telecasts. Can you imagine me or any other writer allowing the tour to have someone looking over our shoulder and saying, ‘soften that,’ or ‘no, no, you can’t say that.’
         
Of course not. And yet, while I understand TV fawning on Woods and constantly spinning stories in all sports to make their ‘partners,’ look good, I don’t understand it when my print colleagues fawn.
         
Again, it’s fine to admire and to comment on a brilliant performance. I’ve said a million times that everyone has biases but we all should be fair—in both directions.

I had an argument during the Masters with a colleague from Golf Digest who thought that all of us in the golf media should be happy about Woods’ comeback and root for him to play well because “we’re all part of the golf industry and he’s good for golf.”
         
I’ll buy the good-for-golf argument, but I’m not part of the golf industry any more than I’m a "partner" of anyone in golf or, for that matter, anyone in any sport. I REPORT on golf. It’s my job to tell people things they don’t know—whether good or bad—or to comment on things in golf—whether good or bad.
         
Opinions are fine—from all sides—in fact they’re an important part of what the media does. And so, I feel free to write that the European Ryder Cup team played superbly in Paris in September and richly deserved their victory. I’m just as free to say the Americans didn’t play well and Woods and his new BFF, Phil Mickelson, were awful.
         
I’m also free to say that I think the Woods-Mickelson pay-per-view exhibition is a sham and a ripoff. Trust me, if I was still working for Golf Channel and said that on-air, I’d be off-air pretty quickly.
         
Are there people I like more than others? Of course. I’ve made no secret of how much I like and admire Rory McIlroy. Forget his golf, he’s what my mom used to call "a mensch," a real man. He’s made mistakes—the club toss at Doral; the walk-off at Honda—and had some bad days at inopportune moments—notably this year on Sundays.
         
I have pointed these things out but have also noted that McIlroy always owns up to his mistakes. He’s not an excuse-maker. He’s painfully honest on almost all subjects. What’s not to like?
         
There are plenty of people I like across the board: the five quarterbacks I worked closely with on my upcoming book on playing quarterback in the NFL—Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Andrew Luck, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Doug Williams—could not have been more generous with their time or their thoughts. Why wouldn’t I like them? On the other hand, Cam Newton’s agent wrote me a borderline rude note saying Cam had no interest in being involved with the book. I’m willing to bet he never so much as ran the idea past Newton. In fact, I wasn’t asking for anything more than a meeting to explain the project.
         
So, does that mean I should rip Cam Newton? Of course not. Or, for that matter, his agent. He’s just doing his job—as he sees it.
         
Whenever I criticize Woods—for anything—there are always people yammering, "You just don’t like him because he wouldn’t let you write a book about him."
         
That is, quite simply, a bunch of hooey. ONCE, in 1998 when Tiger and I had a brief rapprochement, I asked him to talk to me about his play in the majors that year—he didn’t win any—for a book I was writing on the majors. He agreed. Then, almost certainly under orders from his father, he changed his mind.
         
For the record, he APOLOGIZED, for changing his mind and I completely understood. I wrote about what happened that day in my book, “One-on-One,” and wrote this sentence: “I think I liked him more at that moment than I ever had before.”
         
Why? He was standing up for his father. I never liked his father, but I completely understood.
         
LeBron James DID turn me down on a book idea—through his agent, who I do NOT like—but I think anyone who has ever read what I’ve written about James knows I admire him as a player (as with Woods, how can you not?) and as a person.
         
So, to return to the Golfweek tweeter: Is it understandable that TV networks saturate their golf coverage with Tiger Woods? Of course. Do I get it when my friends Steve DiMeglio (USA Today); Bob Harig (ESPN) and Rex Hoggard (Golf Channel) follow Woods to every nook and cranny of every golf course he ever sets foot on? Of course. It’s what their editors and many of their readers want—demand.
         
But that does NOT mean they or anyone in the print media should fawn over everything he says or does. He may be less openly disdainful of the media than he used to be; he may try to smile more often and sign a few more autographs—especially when there are cameras present. But if anyone believes he’s sharing any of his REAL thoughts about anything other than a birdie or a bogey, they’re kidding themselves.
         
I know many in the public are panting to hear his thoughts on ANYTHING. It’s just that I’m not—until and unless he decides to open up to someone—which I don’t expect to happen.
         
So, I’d rather write about Sam Saunders or Erik Compton or Paul Goydos or Rory McIlroy or Patrick Reed—unpopular with most of my colleagues but popular with me.
         
Reed’s always honest, whether you agree with him or not. I admire that. But it doesn’t mean I feel a need to fawn over him—or anyone else, regardless of TV ratings.
 
 
John Feinstein’s new book, “Quarterback,”—a close-up look at life as an NFL quarterback will be published next Tuesday, November 13th. His most recent work of fiction is, “The Prodigy,”—about a 17-year old with a chance to win the Masters and all the pressures he must deal with because of his remarkable talents. His website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com