Monday, April 29, 2013

Tiger's lost opportunity

Earlier this month, the golfing sensation, Eldrick "Tiger" Woods was given a big chance to bring back millions of fans forever lost to him, and he threw it away.

On the second day of the Master's Championship -- the first of golf's four major tournaments, and for many fans, the most compelling golf on television all year -- Woods hit into the pond fronting the 15th green. Instead of playing his next shot from a drop spot (a much harder shot), he elected to go back to the place where he originally hit the shot. Where he broke the rule was in the placement: he (incorrectly, as it turned out) thought he could drop his ball a couple of feet behind the original location, and did so. After he finished his round, he signed a scorecard that was incorrect, because it did not account for the 2-stroke penalty he incurred with his improper drop. Since he signed an incorrect scorecard, he should have been disqualified. But because of some new rule established in 2011, a rule which is still unclear to me, he was able to take the 2-stroke penalty and continue playing through the weekend.

Whether or not he should have been disqualified is not the point. Tiger ought to have removed himself from the tournament.

Imagine what would have transpired if Tiger had won the tournament by one stroke, or even two strokes -- the win would have probably been dubbed his Masterisk victory, because of the controversial ruling. Why does Roberto de Vicenzo lose out, but not Tiger? In 1968, De Vicenzo was tied for first place with Bob Goalby after 72 holes, but was denied victory because he signed an incorrect scorecard. (His playing partner, Tommy Aaron, gave him a '4' on the par-4 17th, which De Vicenzo had birdied.) I understand that these two instances are not the same thing, and the rulings (new and old) are different for each instance. Still, they both involve an incorrect scorecard.

This is the nature of Woods's arrogance. We applaud it on the course -- his singleminded, win-at-all-cost nature is what propels him, and it is what compels us to watch him. Golf is more thrilling to watch when Woods is in the mix.

But if he had even taken just a moment to realize the situation, to realize that he was not going to blow away the field as he had done in his first Masters victory in 1997, when he beat his closest pursuer, Tom Kite, by 12 strokes, the picture would have come more clearly into view. Who, after all, wants a victory that is tainted? How do we feel about Barry Bonds now, who has the all-time home run record? If you're like me, you're still rooting for Hank Aaron.

If Tiger had disqualified himself, many people who had given up on him after his transgressions of several years ago might have come back. (There is a segment of the female population that will never forgive him.) America is the land of second chances -- look at Eagles quarterback Michael Vick (dogfighting scandal), or former governor John Rowland (corruption scandal), both back at work in the public eye. We want to see people like them pick themselves up and make a fresh start.

If Tiger had addressed the press on Saturday and told them, "I signed an incorrect scorecard; if I had checked with an official before I signed my card, I would have recorded the 2-stroke penalty and continued playing. But I did not know of my error until it was too late, so I must, by the rules of golf, bow out of the Masters."

Nike, his $100 million sponsor, would have gone through the roof. People's jaws would have hit the floor. Here was Tiger, like every other golfer before him, playing by the time-honored rules of golf, in which most players call penalties on themselves, even when they are not visible to the millions who watch on television. (The penalty on Tiger only came about because of a phone call from a viewer, who pointed out the error to Master's officials.) Tiger, that cad off the course, was showing a side we had never seen before. He was fair. He was professional. And in April 2014, everyone would be looking forward to his return, talking about how he had taken a few steps up the ethical ladder, preparing himself for another stab at the green jacket.

But no, he played on to a forgettable top-ten finish. Heck, few of us will even remember that Adam Scott (whose caddie, Steve Williams, formerly worked on Tiger's bag) won the tournament.

Regrettably, it was a lost opportunity for Tiger.

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