Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On The Imminent Return of the World's Best Golfer

OK, so here's a trivia question: Who was the winner of the 1996 PGA Championship? And here's a hint: You do not know the answer.

Here's another hint: He's the man in this picture, and you still do not know the answer.

The only reason I know the answer is because the 1996 PGA Championship was the first major golf tournament I ever covered as a journalist. It was held in Louisville, and it was won by Mark Brooks, who defeated Kenny Perry in a playoff. Mark Brooks, of course, was champion of the 1979 Trans-Mississippi Amateur, the 1991 Greater Milwaukee Open, and 1991 KMart Greater Greensboro Open. And let me tell you, Mark Brooks was a font of charisma like none I had ever seen. In fact, Mark Brooks, upon winning the 1996 PGA Championship, upon reaching this life-changing watershed moment in his existence, popped open a can of diet soda and uttered these immortal words: "I don't know what you want me to do."

This was golf before Tiger Woods. (A few years later, I wrote a story about a pro named Jeff Maggert, who was once mistaken for Mark Brooks by a waitress.) I covered the game for about four years, both pre-Tiger and post-Tiger, and I cannot emphasize enough the impact Tiger had not just on golf, but on the perception of the PGA Tour. Pre-Tiger, professional golf was the dominion of decent humans with little to no interest in anything outside the trajectory of a 7-iron. The game was insular, the writers who covered the game were often insular--I sometimes sat next to a longtime golf writer from a rival market, who never engaged in a single conversation with me, presumably because I did not dress like a golfer myself--and everyone seemed happy to let it lie that way.

Then came Tiger, who managed to radiate charisma while saying nothing interesting, and I found myself writing idiotic stories with leads like "Golf is cool."* Then came Tiger, and for a time, you could feel the divide, the resentment among the those who felt their sport was being infringed upon by casual fans who did not feign interest in the trajectory of a 7-iron. And I will readily admit that I am one of those casual fans: The only time I tune in to a golf tournament is on a Sunday afternoon, four times a year, if Tiger Woods is within five shots of the lead.

I have no idea what professional golf is like now--the general lack of diversity, more than a decade after Tiger's ascendance, still shocks me a little--but I get the feeling that Tiger came on tour as an isolated entity, and nothing ever really changed. He was the golfer who represented all of us who didn't really like golf. His friends on Tour were his friends on Tour, but even they existed outside the bubble--at least, that's what this Mark Calcavecchia quote leads me to believe. It makes me think that most professional golfers never really accepted the Tiger Woods phenomenon, even as the Tiger Woods phenomenon (powered by Nike, Inc.) purposely set itself apart from the rest of the game. And I'm not going to get into the Ali comparisons,** but I'm not sure if many of those people who tiptoed around him all these years, who felt that he had shattered their serene little world in the first place, are going to be eager to welcome him back, especially with Ringling Brothers in tow. Which could make it far more difficult for him to do what he once did, but might also provide him with the only motivation he really needs to completely alter the game of golf for the second time in his life.

*This is an actual lead, written by me, a professional journalist. Sometimes I hate myself.
**I can see both sides here, though mostly I just appreciate Bill Simmons' speed chess metaphor. In fact, I wish he wrote about chess more often.

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