I Come to Praise Tiger, Not Bury Him

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

This column is about Tiger Woods and it's going to be loud and angry, which I'm telling you in advance. And it's going to deal with race, so be warned of that, too. I woke up yesterday morning eager to read about Woods's British Open victory at St. Andrews, his 10th major championship victory, a wire-to-wire job that in the end became the most lopsided victory in a major since the last time Tiger teed it up at St. Andrews.

There's a lot of junk in sports these days; I suppose there always has been. But the four days of the British Open, for me, were a break from BALCO and a diversion from pitchers throwing at batters' heads.

There's plenty in sports to criticize, but occasionally there's something to celebrate. And Tiger Woods's place in the athletic universe is something that is overwhelmingly uplifting, as these things go. At the moment, Tiger is a little bit Ali, a little bit Jordan, a little bit Nicklaus at their best. And he's 29 years old, which, since he's a golfer, means Tiger could be with us for Sunday afternoons for the next 15 to 18 years, maybe longer. As he chases Nicklaus's professional record of 18 major championships, Tiger is going to frame the discussion of athletic competition in this country and around the world until babies born yesterday begin college. He is as significant a figure in sports, worldwide, as there is.

Sportswriters have their favorite sportswriters. Two of mine are Bill Plaschke, the wonderful sports columnist of the Los Angeles Times, and best-selling author John Feinstein, my first mentor at The Washington Post and good friend for 25 years. Both wrote about Tiger yesterday; Feinstein's piece appeared on The Post's op-ed page. I wanted to strangle them both within seconds of reading their pieces, both of which centered on what Tiger Woods isn't -- that he isn't Jack Nicklaus, that he's not warm enough, that he doesn't share himself enough with the public, that he's too corporate, curses too much, on and on.

Plaschke wrote that "Woods is not simply a golfer anymore, he is Microsoft, he is Coke, he is Steinbrenner and that isn't fun. He is not as beloved as much as he is feared. He draws fewer embraces than stares."

To all this, I'd raise a toast. Good for Tiger that he's Microsoft and Coke and Nike and Buick. Because I know how eloquently Plaschke has written about racial prejudice in sports over the years, I'm going to presume he slipped up for just a moment and didn't forget in full how long black athletes waited for the day when they would be courted by America's major corporations.

This isn't ancient history; Serena and Venus Williams, as big a stars as they are, had trouble attracting sponsors a few years ago. I don't remember much if any criticism of Arnold Palmer, even though in his mid-seventies he's one of the top-earning athletes in the world. And it sure isn't from winning any golf tournaments. It's from being corporate. I only wish Lee Elder and Charlie Sifford had the chance to be so corporate.

Feinstein criticizes Woods for not trying to curb his language, which can get pretty foul when he misses a putt or hits a bad shot, just like most of us. And because Feinstein is a golf historian, I know he knows that Nicklaus, whom he justifiably praises to the high heavens, could have cursed up a storm if he wanted in 1962 or thereabouts without it reaching the television because he wasn't followed everywhere with sound men holding frighteningly high-tech boom microphones so close they can pick up the sound of his stomach churning. So, apparently, to Feinstein and Plaschke (and I know they are joined by a great many) it's not enough to win major championships, to win so much and with such style it revolutionizes the entire game and elevates the profile of the profession -- no, he's got to smile the way they want him to smile, accept only as much money from Coke and Nike as they want him to accept.

They both say he isn't beloved, which to me is clearly ignoring mountains of evidence to the contrary. They and lots of others may not find Tiger beloved. But millions of people, perhaps people who don't register with Plaschke and Feinstein, adore Tiger. He's beloved in the worlds in which I travel. I'm not about to suggest Tiger Woods is perfect. I find that his caddy, Steve Williams, acts boorishly too frequently. But I've also been in enough of Tiger's galleries to know that they are full of non-traditional golf fans who behave very often in, shall we say, non-traditional ways and need to be kept in check. If it offends anybody's sensibilities that Woods has bodyguards, too bad. Anyone who doesn't recognize that Tiger and Jack, 36 years apart in age, didn't live in different worlds is embarrasingly naive.

And if it offends Plaschke that Woods is more feared than beloved, he probably would take that as high praise. How many of the truly great performers, at their very best, were cuddly and lovable in the heat of competition? I can think of Magic and Shaq, and not many others.

Certainly not Russell and Chamberlain, not Oscar or Bird, not Ali and Jordan, and not even Nicklaus.

Have people such short memories they've forgotten that Nicklaus was disliked in many quarters for knocking off the King, Arnold Palmer? You think Nicklaus cared, or would take back that he supplanted Palmer and therefore angered some folks?

If Nicklaus had half the major championships he won, the applause wouldn't have been near as loud at St. Andrews last Friday. I don't pretend to know Tiger Woods well. I've spent extended time with him once, this past winter while working on Charles Barkley's recent book, "Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man," Barkley's interviews/discussions on race in America with a variety of people.

Tiger may not strike you (or them) as a typical black man in America because his mother is Thai and he's rich beyond most people's wildest dreams. But Tiger, as he explained the day we talked, knows his father Earl played baseball at Kansas State but couldn't stay with the team when it traveled to Norman, Okla., because the hotel was "whites only." Tiger was called "nigger" at the Navy golf club when he was a little kid.

On his first day of kindergarten at a school where he was the only child of color, Tiger was confronted by a group of sixth-graders who tied him to a tree and spray painted "Nigger" on him and threw rocks at him. I bring this up because the things that shaped Tiger Woods, that cross his mind, that make him angry when he wakes up, didn't shape Nicklaus or Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson or Colin Montgomerie, or for that matter, Feinstein or Plaschke.

He doesn't need to wave like Jack or be like Jack. Tiger Woods is 29, a champion already and an icon. Can you imagine how the game of golf would be reduced without him?

He's a work in progress, as we all are. And I consider myself lucky to be able to watch the length and breadth of his career. When Nicklaus waved bye-bye from Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews Friday he was in essence handing the game over to Tiger Woods, a champion and caretaker golf is lucky to have.


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