Tom Watson has been troubled by Tiger Woods’s act for a long time now. The cursing. The banging of clubs. The detached disdain. Watson cannot stand that stuff. He thinks it’s disrespectful to the game’s history. He considers it dismissive of the great players who came before. More than anything: Tom Watson believes it is impolite.
This is because, more than anything, Watson believes golf is a gentleman’s game.
Watson has rarely said anything about it. Sure, he might mention his disgust in passing during an interview or to a friend. “He really shouldn’t be setting that sort of example for kids,” he has told me more than once. But Watson did not want to talk about it publicly.
“Tiger doesn’t need my advice,” he would say.
What he meant was this: Tiger didn’t want his advice. And Watson knew it. Yes, Watson has won eight major championships, five of them British Opens. Yes, he has been named PGA player of the year six times. (Only Woods, a 10-time laureate, has won the honor more.) Yes, Watson is, even now, an iconic world golf figure. And he has never been shy about expressing his views about golf or anything else.* He is, most will tell you, a bit of a scold.
* When I was writing a column for The Kansas City Star, I occasionally would do a piece with nothing but what I hoped were funny lists. Watson called me up one time to tell me he did not like the list columns. At all.** 'Do you want to be just a silly sportswriter,' he asked, 'or do you want to try to be great?' No, Tom’s not shy about expressing his views.
** He wasn’t the only reason, but I did stop doing the list columns.
Still, Watson came to understand that Woods was not interested in his views. Watson’s various interactions with Tiger seemed to leave him pretty cold. And so he mostly kept them to himself. “I’m just an old man,” he would say. “I don’t know these younger players very well. If they ask, sure, I’ll be happy to answer anything. But they don’t need me telling them anything.”
Well, look who’s talking now. Twice recently, Watson has come out, once in his Kansas City hometown and again at a golf tournament in Dubai, and lambasted Woods. What’s most interesting is that Watson has not really blasted Woods over his off-the-course stuff — the infidelities and the stay at the sex-addiction clinic, which made him the butt of late-night talk-show jokes. No, on those subjects Watson has basically said what everyone says: Woods should apologize and make things right with his family and make amends. Obvious stuff.
But when it comes to Woods’s behavior on the golf course, well, Watson rages.
“His swearing and his club throwing, that should end,” he told KSBH-TV in Kansas City.
“I think he needs to clean up his act there and show respect for the game that people before him have shown,” he said in Dubai.
And so on. It is no secret and no small source of embarrassment for golf that Woods and his pit bull caddie, Steve Williams, have spent many years pillaging golf tournaments in addition to winning them. When he hits a shot that’s only 90% perfect, Woods rants like he’s in a David Mamet production. Stevie — as Tiger calls him — seems to enjoy nothing more than shouting at photographers who mistime their shutter clicks and at fans who do not move out of the way quickly enough. Tournament marshals across America have found themselves quietly apologizing to fans for Tiger Woods’s petulance and PG-13 golfing style.
But there were not too many public complaints because…. Well, how were you going to complain about Tiger Woods? What were a few swear words and slammed clubs compared to the genius of Woods’s golf game? Nobody seemed to feel big enough to lecture Tiger Woods when he was winning championships and lighting up Madison Avenue and electrifying the entire world with his brilliance. Golf had never been more popular. Tournaments lucky enough to get him were raking in money.
Now, it’s different. It isn’t only that Woods’s image has been shattered. Yes, people pile on the weakened Tiger. But it seems to me that what Watson is really saying is that Woods has a chance to make a fresh start. And not only is Watson right, but in a weird way this might be the most optimistic view of this whole Tiger Woods saga: He can reinvent himself.
No, Woods may never again be quite the cultural phenomenon he was before he became an American punch line. But he also has a chance to stop being the sullen slasher who acts as if every putt that breaks a centimeter left of his expectations is a capital felony. Woods may never again be viewed as the invincible man on the golf course, but maybe he can be just a little bit more generous with his brilliance: a smile, a real tip of the cap, a wave. It really isn’t that hard.
Tiger Woods and Tom Watson both learned golf from their beloved fathers. Earl Woods, more than anything, taught his son how to win. And Ray Watson, more than anything, taught his son to play golf with respect.
What Tom Watson is saying is this: You can do both, Tiger.
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