Should You Root for Tiger Woods at the Masters?

April 4, 2013

Are you rooting for him?

Consider the question now, when your mind is relatively cool and clear. By Masters Sunday, with the breeze stirring through Amen Corner and your blood racing, everything will look different.

You know how it stands. Jack has won the most majors, 18, and Tiger’s next with 14. He’s been stuck there since winning the U.S.Open at Torrey Pines on one leg on a Monday in 2008. Do you want to see Woods get to 18? Or 19? Do you want to see him get number 15 next week at Augusta?

Tiger is 37, and the Masters will be his 61st major as a pro. Nicklaus was 37 when he played his 61st major as a pro, at Augusta in 1977. He had 14 majors then too. Interesting.

Actually, it’s more than interesting. It gets to the essence of why we love sports. This isn’t about celebrity dating or hyper­bolic Nike ads or medical reports only your osteo could love. This is about two men, two athletes, one done, the other chasing. It’s Aaron versus Ruth all over again.

At this moment everything’s so magnified and alive. Is Tiger’s stance, the very way he stands over the ball, so much better than any other player’s in the game today? Of course not. But when we watch him, on TV or in person better yet, Tiger at address looks like nobody else. The power and the confidence.

The stance looks so solid in part because it is, and in part because the golfer in question has 14 majors and 63 other Tour victories, six of them coming in the past 13 months. (Only 188 players have six Tour wins or more over their careers.) The on-off switch is back on.

If Tiger hadn’t been winning, you’d look at his stance and talk about how much better it used to be. But he is winning, and the frame around that stately painting in your head — Tiger at Address — is made of three U.S.Open trophies, three claret jugs, four Wanamakers and four mini Augusta National clubhouses, all glittery and fragile.

John (as Nicklaus calls Johnny Miller in his fatherly way) likes to tell us that too much is made of the majors. He’s surely correct, and you can’t say enough about Tiger’s 89 worldwide victories, 77 on Tour plus his 12 wins on the big league circuits of Europe, Japan, Asia and Australia. But this is where John is wrong about the major fuss: Sportswriters and broadcasters and everyday fans didn’t start this chase-to-18 craze. Nicklaus and Tiger did. It matters to us because it matters to them.

As for the scandal — the stiletto ­parade — we all know it happened, of course. But fewer of us seem to care. It’s not that winning takes care of everything, because it surely does not. The life and times of Tiger Woods, 1997–2009, reminds us again that you can collect prize money like a Vegas slot machine by day and prowl through your nights like a shark in dark waters and still wake up feeling empty. Fewer of us care because time heals and Woods is changing. It’s subtle, but he is. “Golf is not the Number 1 priority in my life,” Woods said after his recent win at Bay Hill. “My two little ones are.”

The second most significant thing Woods did this year was get that putt­ing lesson from his friend Steve Stricker. (Everybody in this world needs a friend.) The single most significant thing he did was post those snaps, posing with his new lady friend, Lindsey Vonn. He’s moving on. So are we.

Bobby Jones was despised by the locals when he first went to St. Andrews to play in the 1921 Open. The bratty American wunderkind. Thirty-seven years later the townspeople stood for him and sang, “Will Ye No’ Come Back Again?” Alastair Johnston, Arnold Palmer’s business manager, will remind you that Fat Jack had a long metamorphosis en route to becoming Uncle Jack, happy to tell you about his days as a stoner (or one night anyway) and the depth of his feelings for Palmer and Player and the game that made them all. Golfers tend to hang around. Especially those who have won at Augusta. Give Tiger time. That is, years.

And if he starts winning majors, let’s agree not to god him up again, O.K.? In April 2009, Billy Payne, the Augusta National chairman, talked about Tiger as a “very, very special person.” A year later, post­hydrant, he was a “very special player.” The fact is, Tiger is an exceptional golfer, probably the best ever. If you’re looking for more than golf skill from him, you’re looking for too much too soon. Regarding that office pool sitting on your screen right now, we offer only one thought: Tiger at Augusta in 2013 will face the same problems he faced in ’09, ’10, ’11 and ’12. He wants it too much, and he needs it too much.

As for the broader question — to root or not to root? — some guidelines. How connected are you to Jack’s pointy-collared past? To his enduring grace? To the prospect of seeing Tiger fulfill his childhood dream? To witnessing sporting history?

We know: not very helpful. But you can figure this out. Just sort through your whole life experience. Or go with your gut. There’s no wrong answer. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Here come our holy days.