Tiger's best years still ahead of him, he says. -Toronto Star headline, June 29.
I can't convey the reverence with which one of my Dad's best friends spoke of Woods when he first came on the scene, in the 1990s. Woods was something new under the sun. In those days, long before the scandal, it seemed just possible that Woods might become the greatest golfer ever to have played the game.
Woods wasn't quite first-in-class, measured against the best who'd ever played the game, in every respect. His putting, for instance, could be merely good enough to win a championship, but not routinely something that took your breath away. But Tiger did have it all, sufficient to end so many contests atop the leader board. What distinguished him was power - that was what took him above routine champion to superstardom of a sort that we may never see again. Or so it seemed before the scandal.
If it ends now, if Tiger's best years are not, in fact, ahead of him, we'll never know if Woods could have been the greatest golfer ever. I'm not a golfer, but I'm fascinated by those who are the very best at what they do - so good that people will talk of their acumen forever. Because, in a word, they took an already great sport - or other endeavor - to a higher level. I do wish that for Tiger Woods, because he once had it in him to rewrite the rules of the game. And he might yet recapture that stunning talent.
And be a Pele.
Or a Gretzky.
Or a Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, or Satchel Paige.
Or a Michael Jordan.
Mr. Woods misled us.
In an early post-Open championship he'd lost, Woods told a press conference that his failure was that he hadn't brought his "A game." In suggesting he hadn't tried his best, Tiger of course slagged those who finished ahead of him. It took Woods less than a day to realize his unintended error, to say he was trying to apologize to his rivals for not preparing enough for that contest, and that he was beaten by players better than him. He was right, of course. Preparation and lack of complacency is part of greatness.
When he donned the Green Jacket, the first African American to win Augusta, Woods handled with grace the inevitable racist mutterings at that still restricted club. And you couldn't help but be reminded of Jackie Robinson and of Aaron, facing down death threats. If ever there was a sport where players are faced with an absolute minimum of threats of bodily harm, it's golf. But the sentiment was just as odious, and Woods drove a spike through it mostly by keeping his counsel but also allowing, in his non-judgmental way, that don't we all have a challenge in adjusting to change? And he was still a kid at the time. An awfully mature kid who, on that basis, obviously had an illustrious, history-making career ahead of him.
Then the scandal. A character flaw as pronounced and jagged as the Matterhorn, one might say in writing him off, especially given the diminished player who has since returned to the links.
An armchair psychologist like me would have wished that Woods had not so vigorously taken up the endorsement life - Buick, Accenture - and have held himself apart from the fawning and critical press, and just focused on his game and his family.
Only those closest to Woods, and the more observant followers of the great game, will know or sense if that focus is still possible. I hope it is. Golf had grown stale before Woods, as baseball had before Ruth.
I'll end with two athletes, Sandy Koufax, my favorite ballplayer; and Paul Molitor, who led the Blue Jays to a World Series championship in 1993.
You won't find a Koufax memoir. Nor are there many books or magazine profiles of the man, since he had a strong aversion to publicity. Koufax disliked being focused upon, in a sport he felt in his bones was a team effort. Which of course it is. And no endorsements, not that I know of. It was enough for him to be in the "show" (what Bull Durham reminded us is the term for the coveted majors).
Luring Molly from his beloved Brewers was a three- or four-year campaign on the part of Jays management. Like Woods, Molly had once gone astray, in this case with drugs. Brewers management had been as supportive as one could ask of any well-managed team.
The Brewers were murder on the Jays in what then was the AL East. Yet they never could win the pennant. It took Brewers owner Bud Selig, finally, to persude Molitor to go to Toronto, which had a chance at the championship, having just won it the year before. This was ownership at its best, and ownership is the weak link in pro sports. Selig implored Molly to finish out his career with a team with a shot at enabling him to win a World Series ring.
And so this great all-round player came to Hogtown and helped lead us to the second of back-to-back World Series championships. Molly quickly befriended his new teammates; was an unfailingly supportive clubhouse presence; and, of course, would hit to any field, to any depth, to get a run across. Molitor was a DH who would humble himself to drop a bunt or hit a shallow bloop single without complaint when that was asked if him.
And after many years of DH-ing, Molly became a position player during the NL games of the 2003 Series against the Phillies because we needed his bat. He played like a major-league fielder in his prime. It was John Olerud whose place Molly took in those Veterans Stadium games in Philly. In removing John's hot bat from his hands - a cause of more controversy in Toronto than any mayoralty race - it helped that the two men had been chess players in the dugout all season. Molly and Olly worked it out between themselves, and Olly, another class act, saw the wisdom of sitting out those games.
Two stories of humility, the latter of redemption as well.
We'll see about Tiger. He has the humility in him, and redemption lies at hand if he can find his game. I hope he does.
(The great Henry Aaron still holds the record for career home runs. The two steroid addicts who much later "broke his record" have bold-face asterisks beside their names.)
Where Have You Gone, Sandy Kaufax? (Roger Launius's Blog)