Tiger’s saga is the most modern of stories

December 9, 2011

This is meant to pose a question about Tiger Woods. But let's begin with Hal Sutton.

Hal Sutton was just 25 years old when he beat Jack Nicklaus by a shot to win the PGA Championship at Riviera in 1983. "I have a feeling this is the first of many," Nicklaus said after it ended — Nicklaus was always so graceful in defeat. And there was a point to his words. Sutton had won the U.S. Amateur, the Western Amateur twice, he had been named college golfer of the year, had been called "the next Jack Nicklaus" so many times that it was kind of hard not to believe it. "The Bear Apparent," Sports Illustrated called him. Others called him "Prince Hal."

Hal Sutton was 42 years old when he beat Tiger Woods by a shot to win the Players Championship in 2000. That was Woods' magical year, when he won three of the four major championships, won the World Golf Championships by 11 strokes, won a total of nine times on tour and, by most accounts, played golf better than it had ever been played before. Sutton beat him straight up. He needed to hit a good shot on the 72nd hole to win, and he pulled his 6-iron, and he shouted "Be the right club today!" with the ball in the air. It was the right club.

There is no other golfer, as far as I know, who beat Nicklaus and Woods straight up, in the big moments, with both golfers in their relative primes (Nicklaus was 43 but still strong). There is only Hal Sutton.

Only … what happened to Hal Sutton in the years in between?

His golf game disintegrated, that was the most obvious thing that happened. The Sports Illustrated story referenced above, titled "The Fall of Prince Hal," appeared in 1988 — the worst for his golf game still came AFTER that story. Sutton did not win a tournament between May 1986 and September 1995. In that time frame, he missed the cut in 13 of the 26 major championships in which he played, and he has never again finished Top 3 at a major. He almost lost his tour card in 1992, and for all practical purposes did lose his way. After his renaissance, Golf Digest would write about a reporter ("who must have been on loan from the police beat," the author snarled) who asked Sutton how he filled his time during the years when he "left the game." It was a generally miserable time.

Why did it happen? There were theories, of course. His swing betrayed him. His low trajectory shots were not built for week-in, week-out play. His short game wasn't quite as good as it needed to be. He stopped making putts. He stopped working as hard on his game. One of the popular opinions among golf analysts and players was that Sutton was never that good in the first place. "It was a little unfair for people to project him as a dominating player," Nicklaus said in '88. "He's just not as powerful as guys like [Seve] Ballesteros and [Greg] Norman, and his putter has hurt him."

And then, there was something else … something that would cryptically be called the "wild life" in the various stories written about his decline. Prince Hal, it was said, lived a Wild Life in those younger years. A Wild Life, capitalized, was more or less understood in those years, much the way that a fadeout in old Hollywood movies suggested that Rick and Ilsa had sex. Wild Life meant fast cars (in some of the stories, Sutton admitted his weakness for Porsches), and late nights and parties and hangovers and lots and lots of women. In those days, for the most part, Wild Life was left to the imagination. Sutton would marry and divorce four times. He was cruelly called "Halimony" by some of the players, and at the end of the Sports Illustrated piece there is the story of a mean bit of gamesmanship by Fuzzy Zoeller, who, it appears, was a big-league jerk long before he made his infamous "That little boy is driving well and he's putting well … tell him not to serve fried chicken next year [at the championship dinner]" crack about Tiger Woods.

"Hey Hal," Fuzzy said at a pre-tournament shootout at the Memorial, "how many of your ex-wives are in the gallery?"

Even after Sutton put his life and game back together — found God, straightened his drive, started making putts, won some tournaments, became Ryder Cup captain — he did not want to revisit the old Wild Life. You couldn't blame him for this, of course. The closest, as far as I know, that he ever has come to really discussing those days was on this religious site.

He wrote:

"But golf did not bring me personal happiness, so I began to look to other things for my happiness. With all the money I had made I thought I could buy happiness. I've always loved fast cars, so first I bought a Porsche. When that didn't fill the emptiness, I bought a house. When that didn't do it either, I bought an airplane. None of these things brought me the happiness I was looking for."

Again, you have to read between the lines. When my friend, sportswriter Ken Burger — who will admit to having lived a WILD LIFE, all capital letters, filled with divorce and alcoholism and the rest — wanted to talk with Sutton about their rough pasts, Sutton bristled. "What do you know about it?" he snapped.

"Plenty," Kenny said.

I guess the point is that, in general, the story of Hal Sutton and the Wild Life was kept in code and in shorthand and in closing paragraphs. Of course, Hal Sutton wasn't ever really a big star. He was a promising golfer who won a major championship at a young age, but he wasn't front-page news. Then again, Sutton wasn't the only golfer who lived the Wild Life — or the only golfer whose game probably suffered because of it. There were others, truly great players, who lost their touch and lost their feel and lost their swing, and the other players whispered about the "real reasons" behind it all. But you haven't read those stories, I haven't read those stories — or if we've read them, they were hilarious tales about how Walter Hagen filled bathtubs with champagne, won golf tournaments after long and sleepless nights, all until his putting stroke had, in the immortal words of John Lardner, "been fatally marred by, he said, a 'whisky jerk.'"

It was a different time. It was a different world. "Wild Life" was as far as anyone would go, and often people would not even go that far.

* * *

OK, so Tiger. An editor brought up this question, and I think it's a fascinating one: "Isn't this whole Tiger Woods story entirely a product of the TMZ era? If this is 1955 or 1975 or whatever, none of this happens — the public revelations of infidelity, the crumbling golf game, the divorce, etc. No?"

This is stuff I've thought about, you've probably thought about ("It's a different time"), but perhaps not so directly. A quick view of the Tiger Timeline shows, I think, that the editor is right, that this is a most modern of stories. I have written this timeline in longer form, but for this story it's worth repeating quickly.

Nov. 25: The National Enquirer announces that it is about to break a story that Tiger Woods had an affair.

Nov. 27: Tiger Woods gets in a one-car accident. Details are sketchy.

Nov. 29: Tiger Woods releases his first statement taking responsibility for accident and asks for privacy.

Dec. 1: A woman — not the same as the National Enquirer woman — comes forward to say that she has had a longstanding affair with Tiger. A panicked voicemail with Tiger Woods' voice is released to U.S. Weekly.

Dec. 1: Tiger Woods releases his second statement, taking more responsibility, asking for more privacy.

Dec. 3: TMZ reports that another woman — third woman so far — had an affair with Tiger Woods.

Dec. 6: Radar Online reports that a fourth woman had an affair with Tiger Woods.

Dec. 6: The New York Daily News reports that a fifth woman had an affair with Tiger Woods.

Dec. 6: The News of the World reports that a sixth woman had an affair with Tiger Woods.

Dec. 7: A porn star announces that she is the seventh woman to have had an affair with Tiger Woods.

Dec. 8: A second porn star announces that she is the eighth woman to have had an affair with Tiger Woods.

Dec. 11: Tiger Woods releases his third statement, taking more responsibility. He says he will step away from golf to "focus my attention on being a better husband, father and person."

Dec. 13: The first company — Accenture — drops Tiger Woods as spokesman. It will not be the last.

Feb. 19: After a two-month absence — during which rumors continue to fly and Woods is photographed at a sex treatment facility — Tiger Woods speaks publicly. He again takes responsibility and says he doesn't know when he will return to golf.

March 16: Woods announces that he will play at the Masters.

March 17: A porn star releases text messages that she claims were from Tiger Woods.

March 21: Woods gives his first interviews — to the Golf Channel and ESPN — and says he's done some pretty disgusting things.

April 5: Woods does his first full-fledged press conference, leading up to the Masters.

And so on — good Masters, bad tournaments, splitting with golf coach, lots of talk about what it all means — until finally we get to where we are and the finalizing of the divorce, and People magazine's exclusive one-time interview with his ex-wife Elin.

Now, look at that timeline … and tell me how much of that would have come out in years past. Some of that stuff — cell phone voice mail, texts — did not exist even a few years ago. But even beyond that, we might assume that not too long ago, the first Tiger Woods affair story, the one that started everything, might never have appeared in The National Enquirer. As far as I know no damaging stories about Mickey Mantle's Wild Life appeared during his playing days, just as an example, and Mantle was for the time as famous as any athlete in America. It's one of those mind-bending, It's A Wonderful Life, questions, to wonder if the entire Tiger Woods history would have been different had that first story never run.

But even assuming that everything went as it did … none of it would have appeared in the news. None of it. Women wanting to tell their stories about affairs with Tiger Woods? There undoubtedly would have been NO market for that — how many "I had an affair with Jack Kennedy" stories were there in mainstream publications when JFK was president of the United States? And that was a MILLION times more interesting that the story of a professional golfer cheating on his wife. There might have been a brief mention of Woods' car accident, I suppose, but undoubtedly it would have been viewed as "minor," and Tiger Woods' statement would have instead said something like, "I am fine, and hope to be at 100% strength by the beginning of the golf season."

Would there have been a layoff? Doubtful. Would there have been questions? Doubtful. Would anyone even have dared write about Tiger Woods' "Wild Life?" Doubtful — those Wild Life stories that were written in years past were usually done after the wildness had passed, when the stories were more about redemption than the fall.

You could ask, of course, if Tiger Woods' golf game would have fallen off had he not had to go through the media hell that came with his Wild Life revelations. But I think it's at least possible that his game would have fallen off — this kind of thing has happened before. You can say, "Oh, but Tiger Woods was so much better than, say, Hal Sutton." And he was. But he's not immortal. Whether it's the Wild Life, whether it's getting older, whether it's injuries or late nights, time catches everybody. Sooner or later, Tiger Woods won't be a great golfer anymore. Maybe it's not for another few years, but someday it will happen. Whether people want to admit it or not, he happens to be showing signs of it happening now.

I think he might have shown those signs no matter what was in the tabloids. But maybe not. And anyway, the obvious point is that the coverage of his off-year would have been very different in a different time. There would be much more talk about his swing plane — if you can bear that.

In the end, Tiger Woods' life story isn't simple. Nobody's life story is simple. It seems to me that we view our greatest athletes through the prism of their time. Ty Cobb was a hard-charging SOB who played baseball with the heat of a cornered soldier. Babe Ruth was a lovable lug with a big appetite for hot dogs and beer and the night. Joe Louis was a dignified man who fought for his country at a time when his country would not fight for him. Ben Hogan was a wee little iceman from Texas who had uncovered the secret of golf by living an ascetic life on the world's practice ranges. Mickey Mantle was the Oklahoma Kid who hit long home runs through agonizing pain and got away by palling around with his friends. Joe Namath was a brilliant quarterback who enjoyed being out and being seen and who expressed the essence of cool without seeming to try. Dick Allen was a fierce man who refused to be called "Richie" — a little boy's name, he said — who hit baseballs with power and grew so despised that he would wear his batting helmet out to the field to protect himself from flying hate. Arnold Palmer was "the King" — the most beloved golfer of his time and probably any other time, too.

That's how we saw them. In some ways that's how we still see them. But is that who they were? Is that who they are? Of course not. We see them through their moment of time … through the codes of their day, the standards of their media, the measures of their time. Could you even IMAGINE the field day that TMZ and the rest would have had with Babe Ruth?

And we see Tiger Woods through his moment of time. Even if he lived EXACTLY the same life, would we have viewed him differently 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago? Of course we would. People wouldn't write this stuff. If anything, he would get the Hal Sutton treatment about Wild Nights. How we view our athletes as people is tinted by time.

In the end, though — and this is one of the charms of sports — the Tiger Woods golf story IS pretty simple. It doesn't really matter what anybody says. It doesn't really matter what anybody believes. It doesn't really matter what theories are concocted, what views are expressed, what stories are broken, even what Tiger Woods himself thinks. If he wins the Masters next year, he's back. If he wins the U.S. Open or the British or the PGA or some combination of the majors, he's back. If he breaks Jack Nicklaus' record for most major championships, he will be widely viewed as the greatest golfer ever. And if he doesn't win those majors, doesn't break Nicklaus' record, doesn't get back to playing at the level at which he once played, well, he isn't back, and he isn't the same, and he will not be widely viewed as the greatest golfer ever.

There's a clarity to sports, like beer and pop, that is both refreshing AND cold.