How To Be a Tiger Woods Fan (Still)

In an individual sport, can you cheer for the player and not the man?

Tiger Woods, befallen by infidelity and exposed as one of the world’s most successfully contrived personas, tees off today for the first round of the 2010 Masters.

This comes 13 years after a 21-year-old Woods shattered every record that matters in the 1997 Masters en route to a 12-stroke win and the front of the American sports conscience. That four-day foray inspired this chubby little 12-year-old to pick up golf. I suspect I’m not alone there. Tiger inspired a generation.

He also inspired this 24-year-old to spend his 2009 tax return on a new set of Nike irons, a Nike driver, a Nike golf bag and a pair of Nike golf shoes. All told, $900 spent without hesitation. I trusted the swoosh because I trusted Tiger.

Nike released its first commercial featuring Woods since his lie began to unravel last Thanksgiving. In the 33-second clip, Woods stares blankly at the camera while an audio clip of his deceased father plays. Earl Woods says:

Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?

Woods offers no answer. Apparently, his silence is supposed to speak volumes, but for many people, the commercial doesn’t land.

A silent Woods offers no answers to his father, but I would like to.

*  *  *  *  *

I want to find out what your thinking was…

When I heard news Woods was involved in an early morning car accident outside his home in the early morning after Thanksgiving, my immediate fear was Woods would never play again. I had seen a blurb on a sports gossip site somewhere days earlier about an alleged affair, but I didn’t connect the dots.

I was at a farmhouse with my dad back home in South Dakota. We were rooting through a storage unit and I found an old driver and a bucket of golf balls. I just had to take a few shots into this cornfield, because it had been months since I last played. How thematic — bonding with my dad, hitting some golf balls, not unlike a younger version of Tiger with Earl. My dad and I have experienced some good times on the golf course, and I’m not sure that would’ve happened without Woods.

We listened to the local ESPN Radio affiliate on the ride home as the story was breaking, and I thought, What if he never plays golf again? At the time, I thought that was the worst possible outcome.

This weekend, Tiger Woods returns to the site of his breakthrough performance at the 1997 Masters. He'll be playing for his fifth green jacket.

…I want to find out what your feelings are…

Now that we’re here, at the tail-end of Tigergate, the tabloid frenzies and myriad mistresses coming forward, I’m left to wonder if I can cheer for Woods this weekend. It’s in my nature to forgive and for all intents and purposes, Woods owes no apology to me. We never took vows. I’m just a guy who decided to clear out emotional real estate for the monumental appreciation of a single athlete. That’s my fault. That’s on me.

Friends, family and co-workers have asked if I’ll cheer for him this weekend. I think I’m more cheering for the principle of forgiveness and rehabilitation. At this point, it would seem unbecoming to wish failure upon Woods. Lord knows he’s been through enough. I’m rooting for him in the way I would root for a prisoner who’s been released after serving his time or for a recovering drug addict clean after months in rehab.

I believe in redemption. I have the word Champ tattooed on my left wrist. My grandfather made that my first name, even sending postage to Champ Miller whenever a holiday or birthday rolled around. This was the same grandfather who took me to the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional in Bethesda, MD. We arrived Friday, round two, and I remember my grandfather pushing me through a gallery to the front row alongside the third-hole green. There stood Tiger Woods, a moving monument in white slacks and a lime green polo. Six-foot-one never seemed taller. Tiger mattered to me from that day until last fall.

My grandfather did some pretty despicable things in his day, but over time, he redeemed himself. Clearly, he left a mark on me.

That in mind, how can I not root for Tiger?

…And did you learn anything?

It’s just sports. These are just athletes.

Tiger Woods is a brilliant athlete who plays a difficult sport. As a fan, I get to watch him try and solve a game that stumps 99.9% of other golfers on a regular basis. As a fan, that’s all I get. That’s all I deserve. The personal stories, feature pieces, in-depth interviews — I don’t want or need them. No more buying into the brand of an athlete. Give me a performance, I’ll be sure to stand and clap.

We’ve all got demons. It’s hard to compare infidelity to a history of violence or drug usage or abuse or any other form of indiscretion. In some way, big or small, we’re all wrong at some point. Some of us, however, are never exposed. Far be it from me to level blame or disdain for Woods. Shame on me for thinking I “knew” him or even had the right to.

I’ve experienced a growing emotional detachment from athletes over the past few months. Even while my beloved Minnesota Vikings came this close to playing in the Super Bowl, my Orlando Magic push to get back into the NBA Finals and my Minnesota Twins enter a season of great expectations, I’m taking more interest in wins and losses, not who’s earning them. They can have their lives, keep their privacy. I just need a box score and a recap. I might just play some fantasy sports, too. Spare me the personal life details.

I can cheer for Tiger Woods, the player, without cheering for Tiger Woods, the façade. Above all, this weekend, I’m cheering for redempton.

Before a room crowded with media on Monday, Tiger was in rare form as he took on a barrage of questions built up from five months of silence. At one point, he said, “It’s not about the championships, it’s about how you live your life. I have not done that the right way for a while. I can be a better man going forward.”

I genuinely hope that’s the case. However, it doesn’t matter to me like it used to. That’s his family and friends’ concern.

Google Knocks Tiger in Super Bowl Ad

No one’s going to see this ad and think, “Google? What’s Google?”

The ad is completely unnecessary. Google is the most popular Internet search engine in the world.

But, how awesome is it that they scrapped together a few bucks to air this thing during the Super Bowl? Apparently, we’re to the stage where Tiger’s extracurriculars are just good material.

This is really all I have to offer today for TMT. I don’t give a damn who wins the Super Bowl, but I’m watching it. I’ve been watching the pregame show for the past two hours and there’s still two hours to go. It’s a sad day for football fans, as this is the last consequential football game for a good eight months. My Minnesota Vikings should be playing today. This should be one of the most memorable days of my life as a sports fan.

Bloody hell.

My prediction: Colts 34, Saints 23. Manning should change his name from “Peyton” to “Patton.” He’s the best quarterback in the NFL, and while he’s the blandest, most vanilla star athlete in pro sports, you have to admire the fact he’s really, really good at what he does because he puts in the work.

Jesus, listen to me. I sound like Jim Nance.

Masters Nostaglia

For every sport, there are several “Where were you?” moments. Buckner’s botched grounder in baseball. Jordan’s 17-foot dagger in basketball. Flutie’s haily mary in football. The list goes on. What’s the greatest “Where were you?” moment in golf?

Easy. Tiger Woods on the 16th hole in the final round of the 2005 Masters.

You can watch it now, four years later, and have no absolutely no clue how to play the game and still get goosebumps. What made the shot even more incredible was the context. After shooting two-over (74) on his opening round, Woods bounced back with a 66 on Friday. Was nine-under for the tournament through nine holes on his third round when play was suspended, trailing leader Chris DiMarco by four shots. Needing to play at least 27 holes on Sunday, Woods made four birdies on his first four holes on his way to a third-round 65 while DiMarco limped into the clubhouse with a 74. In one round, Woods gained seven strokes on DiMarco.

Why was “The Shot” so epic? Woods had a one-stroke lead, but it was a disastrous lie with par/bogey potential. DiMarco has stuck his tee shot and was putting birdie. It looked like DiMarco would at least walk away with a piece of the lead and two holes to go. Instead, Tiger makes birdie and DiMarco bogeys, clearing a two stroke lead for Tiger.