Silence is golden: When you carry the clout of Tiger Woods, it doesn’t pay to speak up

September 4, 2018

Here’s a headline from Sunday’s New York Times: “A Day of Mourning for Washington, a Day of Golf and Sour Tweets for Trump.” The mourning reference, of course, was to the funeral of John McCain. The rest is even more obvious. Following the PGA Tour and tweeting about alleged press misdeeds are two of President Trump’s favorite activities. Last week, he combined those two hobbies in one amazing tweet, in which he serenaded Tiger Woods and dissed the “Fake News Media.” The tweet was liked more than 150,000 times, so it was no surprise when Trump revisited the subject several days later, via Twitter and in a speech in Indiana.

With Woods and his brethren playing on Labor Day at the FedEx stop in suburban Boston, Trump, if he followed form, likely kept track of the action. Some years ago, Trump played in the pro-am of the event’s precursor, played at TPC Boston. Trump walked down a fairway, cellphone in hand, and said, “I’m here with Tiger Woods.” And it was true, in the sense that both men were somewhere on the club’s 250 acres. It seemed harmless, at the time. After all, in those days, Donald Trump was just a blustery real-estate mogul and TV personality. But that was then.

Maybe you come to sports in general and golf in particular hoping to escape the rancor of politics. That’s not going to happen, not soon, anyhow. Not with NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem and President Trump obsessing about it. (Maybe you recall this presidential bon mot from last year: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”) Not with the 2022 PGA Championship slated for Trump Bedminster, a course owned and operated by the Trump Organization.

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Tiger Woods is asked about Trump now and again, most recently at a post-round press conference on Aug. 26, at the conclusion of the first FedEx event.
Getty Images

Woods is asked about Trump now and again, most recently at a post-round press conference on Aug. 26, at the conclusion of the first FedEx event, at Ridgewood Country Club, in northern New Jersey. Woods, true to form, didn’t wade far in those roiling waters. Then came Trump, jumping in by Twitter: “The Fake News Media worked hard to get Tiger Woods to say something that he didn’t want to say. Tiger wouldn’t play the game — he is very smart. More importantly, he is playing great golf again!”

The use of capital letters on “Fake News Media” was an inventive touch, as if the phrase was a proper noun. The New York Times is a proper noun. Moe is a proper noun. PGA Tour Champions, believe it or not, is a proper noun. The phrase “fake news media” is not. If you can stand any more grammar here, GOAT, for greatest of all time, is an acronym. Muhammad Ali loved that phrase and used it amusingly. LL Cool Jay has an album called “G.O.A.T.” That’s a proper noun. Language is a strange and powerful thing.

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President Trump and Tiger Woods have known each other for years.
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Seeking office, presidential candidates often wrap themselves in the blankets of this team, that sport, this athlete, that event. Trump’s interest, as spectator and businessperson, in boxing, football and especially golf is deep and genuine, and it no doubt helped him go 1-for-1 as a political candidate. Talk about a bigly debut.

On the other side of the ropes, there have always been athletes willing to talk publicly about their politics. Ali, famously. But also Mike Tyson, who endorsed Trump in his presidential run; Ronda Rousey, who endorsed Bernie Sanders in his 2016 primary bid; many others. But then there are many brand-name athletes, including Woods and Michael Jordan, who are circumspect about their political views. That, of course, is their prerogative. (It’s a free country, right?) But that doesn’t stop politicians from trying to align themselves with famous and successful sports figures.

Trump loves winners. That makes him like most everybody else, unless you’re a New Yorker who roots for the Mets. (Trump’s team is the Yankees.) He has spoken admiringly of Woods for years. Trump once told me, years ago, how Woods was the perfect athlete, with the DNA for both mental and physical superiority. A few years later, Trump predicted that Woods would come roaring back from infidelity scandal that had engulfed the golfer. He’s a super fan. Trump named one of the villas at Trump Doral for him, and got Woods to show up for the ritual ribbon-cutting.

At Ridgewood, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at about 1:50, Tiger met with reporters, as per usual. There were maybe 20 reporters on hand, under a canopy beside a spectacular clubhouse that looks like it was lifted off the set of Downton Abbey. Broadly speaking, the session followed a form that has survived for centuries. Reporters pose questions as they see fit, subjects answer them as they see fit.

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When it comes to politics, Tiger Woods has stayed relatively silent.

Woods has typically been accommodating at these sessions and has done hundreds of them over the years. But they, along with his typical pre-tournament interview session, are about the only chance for a reporter to get access to Woods. On that Sunday at Ridgewood — with the golfer Harold Varner briefly sticking his head out of a clubhouse window, playfully mocking Woods behind his back — Woods was available again. He had just finished his last round in the event named for a bank (Northern Trust) that puts up the purse and a delivery company (FedEx) that pays for most everything else.

Those two Fortune 500 names are dropped here as a reminder of a useful phrase used by many, including reporters, detectives: follow the money. The Tour players in general and Woods most especially understand how money gets rerouted from the citizenry (that is, us) to various tournament sponsors to the Tour’s banks and finally to them. As a general rule, they’re not interested in making waves.

Varner and Bubba Watson, two live-wire personalities, were discussing that subject when they played together on that Sunday, in the last round of the first playoff event. This was the message young Harold got from Bubba: Conform to the norm, get valuable cash gifts! (That is, endorsement deals.) On the question of conforming, Bubba is right on the line. It’s a high-wire act. The Tour has turned show-me-the-money into a high art. Tiger is its Rembrandt.

Maybe you wish Woods was more outspoken, in the mold of Jackie Robinson or Billie Jean King. Maybe you don’t. Regardless, he’s not built for that kind of attention. It was Earl Woods who said Tiger would be bigger than Gandhi. Tiger never made any such claim. Anyway, we Americans are all granted extraordinary liberties by the Constitution. To use those liberties as we see fit is itself a liberty. Tiger exhausted the Trump-and-politics questions in about a minute and moved on to Bryson DeChambeau and the Ryder Cup.

The most troubling thing here (to me) is the first sentence of Trump’s tweet: “The Fake News Media worked hard to get Woods to say something that he didn’t want to say.“ It would be one thing if Trump was using that phrase as a joke. I used to think of Trump as a man who didn’t take anything too seriously. Once, when I was going to play in a three-day pro-am on the senior tour, I asked him for advice on how to deal with nerves. This is what he said:

“You’ve got to remember, it does not matter. Your pro is watching, fans are watching, but nobody cares what you do to the ball. It does not matter.”

“What does matter to you?” I asked.

“Family. Health things. Some things in business.”

He paused. “That’s about it.”

But his reference to “Fake News Media” was not a joke. “Fake news” is part of his daily drumbeat. It’s unsettling.

Since the 1950s and the start of the Cold War, the president of the United States has been considered the leader of the free world. That’s our American view, anyhow. A president’s world view must, of course, go far beyond his own family, his own health, his own business interests. That’s why scores of reporters cover the president of the United States on a fulltime basis, to find out what he’s doing and thinking. Even when a president plays golf, we want to know where he played, with whom, what was discussed. We even want to know what he shot, or claims to have shot. The sub-90 scores President Clinton used to report were, to be generous, fantastical. We all saw his banana-ball tee shots and flying elbows.

Trump’s recent golf tweet is on the verge of comedy, but it’s not. The “Fake News Media” worked hard to get Tiger Woods, a person of immense intelligence and discipline, to say something he didn’t want to say? Please. Media, you likely know, is a plural noun. Woods was asked three political questions by one reporter, John Branch of the New York Times. Branch won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for a lengthy piece about a deadly avalanche. He has written about a range of difficult subjects related to sports, including a series about a hockey player who died of a drug overdose. You read a reporter like Branch as you read William Finnegan and Joan Didion and Jimmy Breslin and innumerable others, to expand your own humanity, to keep your empathy gene alive.

This is how the exchange went at Ridgewood went, edited slightly here for clarity.

Branch: “Your relationship with Donald Trump, how would you describe that, professionally and personally?”

Woods: “Well, I’ve known Donald for a number of years. We’ve played golf together. We’ve had dinner together. I’ve known him pre-presidency and obviously during his presidency.”

Branch: “At times, I think a lot of people, especially people of color and immigrants, [feel] threatened by him and his policy. What do you say to people who might find it interesting that you have a friendly relationship with him?”

Woods: “Well, he’s the president of the United States. You have to respect the office, no matter who is in the office. You may like or dislike the personality or the politics. But we all must respect the office.”

Branch: “Do you have anything more broadly to say about the state and the discourse of race relations?”

Woods: “No. I just finished 72 holes and I’m really hungry.”

The golfer sounded almost like a politician, except for the part where he referred to the president of the United States by his given name.

Readers can reach Michael Bamberger at [email protected]