Great Divide: Tiger's breathtaking victory was tempered by a soap opera sideshow

Tiger Woods
Icon/SMI
You could take away everything Tiger Woods has done in his life except what he has done at Sawgrass, and he still would have led a rich and strange life.

There is the golfer and there is the man, and both are great, as Jay Gatsby was great, as Barry Bonds and Mickey Mantle and Michael Jordan were great. Can you imagine someone more exciting and flawed and unknowable than Tiger Woods?

For a half-hour there at the finale of the Players Championship, it was looking for all the world as if Tiger and Sergio would meet in a playoff, that their verbal sparring would be settled in a more manly way. But then Tiger pulled out his Sergio García voodoo doll and made the Spaniard hit three balls in the water on the final two holes. And they weren’t even in the same group. How’d he do that?

Woods has now won 78 times on the PGA Tour. Seventy-eight, and he’s 37. He has won twice on Father’s Day, at the 2000 and ’02 U.S. Open, and now he’s won twice on Mother’s Day, in Atlanta in 1998 and this year on the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass. After winning his second Players Championship, Woods, an only child, gave his mother a TV shout-out. In his victor’s press conference he apologized for spiking her blood pressure with his 6 on 14 late on Sunday afternoon, a time of day he used to own the way you own your memories.

The root of that double bogey was a hooked three-wood, a foul pop that plopped down in a murky lagoon. It was a shocker, that shot, a flashback to 2010, when he was lost in his swing.

But then he stepped into the box on 18, water left and trees right and the tournament on the line, and he nutted a vintage, boring, drawing three-wood, 286 yards, the very shot he had been looking for at 14. It’s a bread-and-butter shot, formerly a standard part of his repertoire but MIA in more recent years. It will most likely be fully back in a matter of weeks. You can’t win a U.S. Open without it, and the national championship is at Merion, golf’s Fenway Park, next month.

His rock-solid par on the home hole sealed the deal on Sunday but only because of Sergio’s collapse. Had García finished par-par, instead of quad-double, both former child stars would have finished at 275, 13 under par. Instead, Tiger Woods was your winner by two, over 49-year-old Jeff Maggert, rookie David Lingmerth and journeyman Kevin Streelman. Sergio was six back.

Lindsey Vonn, la skieuse extraordinaire, saw her man raise crystal for the first time. (There was no cardboard check for his haul, 1.7 large.) It was not a victory that oozed joy. The setting has something to do with that. The Players has turned into a true world-class event, but not a grand one. Augusta, Merion, Muirfield in Scotland, Oak Hill, the sites for this year’s majors, all radiate charm. The Players will drain a fan’s wallet and make a player’s head ache. It’s a gaudy show and a good one.

You could take away everything Woods has done in his life except what he has done at Sawgrass, and he still would have led a rich and strange life. It was there that he won his first major event, the 1994 U.S. Amateur. He won the 2001 Players at Sawgrass, and in February ’10, in the Taj Mahal clubhouse, Woods offered up that painful public mea culpa, dwarfed by those somber blue ballroom curtains, famously asking us for a second chance, as if he owed us anything. At the 2011 Players, he played nine holes in 42 shots and withdrew, citing a leg injury.

Last week at the Players, there was something for everybody, including a tried-and-true Tiger Woods golfing exhibition. The scoop is out of his chipping game now, which means he’s not afraid to play shots off tight lies from just off the green with lofted clubs. He hit five-woods that went 250. His putting stroke, for four days on fast greens, was DSP. (See: Jenkins, Dan.) In his indoor sit-down press conferences, wearing his Nike cap and his Rolex watch and his Buddhist bracelet, he answered many questions expansively and demonstrated his prodigious memory. And then there were his outdoor stand-up press conferences. They were must-watch TV, almost as entertaining as the golf.

The game took an interesting turn last week -- time will tell whether or not that’s a good thing -- and Golf Channel was there to record it and dissect it. It’s a new day. Tom Watson and Gary Player had a serious rules dispute decades ago that never really made it out of the papers. Last Saturday’s dust-up between Woods and García unfolded on live TV, and was likely the first act in turning golf into the soap opera that every other sport is these days.

García and Woods both said things that golfers, borrowing a code from another era, used to keep private. You probably have heard it all by now, but the main point is that Sergio García basically declared that he doesn’t like Tiger Woods and Tiger Woods basically described Sergio García as a crybaby. When a Golf Channel reporter asked García to assess their last-round pairings, which had them in different groups, García said, “Good for both of us -- we don’t enjoy each other’s company.”

The root of their dispute goes back to that ridiculous made-for-TV golf event from 2000 called Battle at Bighorn, when an ill Tiger lost and García, at age 20, celebrated as if he had won the California lottery. Various incidents at Ryder Cups and Tour events and majors since then have not helped. Their awkward history showed up in a misunderstanding last week that could have been avoided. It was as if they wanted a confrontation.

In the third round, on the 2nd hole, Woods hit a poor tee shot into the left trees. García hit a better tee shot, on the right side of the fairway. If the players had been communicating properly, García and Woods, or their caddies, would have established an order of play. But there was nothing like that. García, playing out of turn but not able to see Woods, was disrupted as he started his swing by a modest cheer from the woods, where a large group of spectators had surrounded Tiger, forming a human V around his ball. The cheers were a response to Woods’s pulling a five-wood out of his bag, meaning that he was going to attempt an absurdly difficult recovery shot. García, after fatting his shot, turned his round chin in Woods’s direction and glared.

“It’s very simple,” García said during an NBC interview. “You have to pay attention to what’s going on because the other guy is hitting. You do something when you’re in the crowd, and the crowd is going to respond.”

Returning serve, Woods said, “The marshals, they told me he already hit, so I pulled a club and was getting ready to play my shot, and then I hear his comments afterward and it’s not real surprising that he’s complaining about something.”

Well, when they heard that remark from Woods, the marshals were surprised. One of them, Gary Anderson, said on Sunday, “He didn’t ask us nothing, and we didn’t say nothing. We’re told not to talk to the players.”

Anderson’s boss, John North, was the chief marshal for the first three holes. He stood over Woods’s ball to protect it from the throng and was five feet away when Woods played his shot. North has worked the tournament as a volunteer marshal for 30 years, he’s a graduate of the Naval Academy, he served in Vietnam, he’s a FedEx pilot and he donates his round on the Stadium course for being a volunteer to the Wounded Warriors project.

“Nothing was said to us and we certainly said nothing to him,” North said. “I was disappointed to hear him make those remarks. We’re there to help the players and enhance the experience of the fans. He was saying what was good for him. It lacked character.”

Hours later, his workweek done, North watched the tournament on TV in a military appreciation tent. “I hate to say it, but I was rooting for him,” North said of Woods. “It tears me apart. But when he’s winning...”

We all know. When Tiger Woods is winning golf tournaments, it’s one of the most exciting things in all of sport. It’s mesmerizing. As for Tiger in this second act, he looks pretty much as he did in the first. You can say what you want about him and probably will, just as Sergio did last week. The fact remains, there’s something about him that’s great, however you define that word.

UPDATE: According to The Florida Times-Union, a different marshal at the second hole said that he told Woods that Garcia had hit after Garcia hit his shot. Brian Nedrich, a marshal at the second hole, said Woods was wrong about the time sequence -- Woods had already grabbed his club before the marshal told him Garcia had hit -- but that Woods did communicate with volunteers. “It is not true and definitely unfair to Tiger,” Nedrich said of claims that no marshal said anything to Woods about Garcia. “That’s because I was the one Tiger heard say that Sergio had hit.”

In a follow-up interview Wednesday morning, North said that, with an earpiece in one ear, it was possible that other officials had an exchange with Woods that he did not hear. He said he was beside Woods's ball as he prepared to play his shot but was as much as 20 feet away when Woods actually swung. He said his statement about "character" was based on his understanding that no marshal had said anything to Woods.

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