With the nation so recently enraptured with Tiger Woods’ triumph at the Masters, I found myself wondering what it is about Tiger Woods that excites golf aficionados with such rabid intensity. Surely the reasons have changed over the years, with a great deal of this most recent infatuation attributed to, most likely, the feel-good nature of a comeback, tenfold given it is one of the greatest comebacks of all time. Even Michael Jordan thinks so:
“I took two years off to play baseball, but nothing like that,” Jordan told The Athletic. “I’m pretty sure he questioned himself, whether he could get it back, and he had to put a lot of work in. But he took it head-on. He had to change his game; he had to change his perspective a little bit. To me, it was the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen.”
All-time greatness always inspires, and surely Tiger is up there as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, golfer of all time. This is not news to anyone. Yet rarely have we seen the consequent fawning over and intense scrutiny Tiger endured throughout his ascendancy, bottoming out, and now return.
Part of this could be due to the intensity with which Tiger has traversed each arc of his career. In 1997, when Tiger became not only the youngest person to win the Masters but also the first black man to win, he won by not only the widest margin ever (twelve strokes) but also shot the lowest score in Masters’ history (-18). These four variables are astounding, in retrospect: youngest; first black man to win; widest margin of victory; lowest total score—all in one tournament.
The first fifteen years of Tiger’s career are littered with benchmarks like this that undoubtedly led to Tiger’s transformation into a global icon that transcended sport (a place few athletes get to), rather than simply being the best golfer of his generation (which is no simple task). Of course, this ionic status is also what made his downfall all the more unfathomable.
And what a downfall it was. There has never been a drop as shocking and rapid as Tiger’s, and it’s hard to imagine how there ever could be again. Tiger’s mountaintop felt like Everest, his fall like a plunge into the Mariana trench.
Anyone new to Tiger’s story can look up the troubled history, and I don’t want to recount it here, but I do think it was the polar extremes through which Tiger lived that will, five hundred years from now, make him possibly the most remembered athlete from our brief moment in time.
With this thought about future remembering in mind, I also began thinking more and more about golf itself, and how it came to be that an American black man of mixed race transcended the whitest, wealthiest and most elite popular sport. In turn, I wondered how Tiger’s race impacted the massive highs and lows of his enigmatic career, and, most pertinently, how much of the everyday sports fan’s undying fascination with Tiger can be attributed to the fact that he is a black man owning a white man’s game.
I find it interesting, in fact, that Tiger’s race is so rarely brought up in popular discussion. This isn’t the case with the most successful black athletes in other sports where the majority of athletes are black. LeBron is often questioned, for instance, on his opinions regarding race. Same for Adam Jones in baseball. And no need to remind about Kaepernick, Eric Reid and the NFL.
While I won’t portend to answer these questions about Tiger here, what I did do was travel back in time to try to understand how golf might have been seen, say, a hundred years ago, by one of golf’s most well-known writers, to see if I could interrogate more efficaciously the foundation on which golf’s substrata was laid.
P.G. Wodehouse’s two short story collections – The Clicking of Cuthbert (1922) and The Heart of a Goof (1926) – are considered canonical in the annals of sports literature (even more so if you narrow your gaze to golf writing) and, a hundred years on, the books remain easily attainable (with The Golf Boxed Set: The Collector’s Wodehouse having just been released in 2016!).
The nineteen stories (all but one of them) that make up the two books (Wodehouse has other golf stories elsewhere) are narrated by the Oldest Member, an old-timer who has nothing better to do than hang around the clubhouse waiting for a willing, or not-so-willing, listener to receive his long-winded stories, primarily about past matches between club members.
The matches often involve misunderstandings, dramatic bets, foul play, or unwelcome newcomers whose skill set is either far beyond or far behind the regular members of the club. The golfers the Oldest Member describes are also generally failing or succeeding as a result of their current state of emotional well-being. Romance, for instance, generally comes into play.
Wodehouse enlists a schema to tell these stories, which is why he was probably able to write so many of them. In fact, Wodehouse was an unbelievably prolific writer throughout his career, in a multitude of genres, with golf being only one of his many interests. He is generally considered one of the great humorists of the early twentieth century, in the tradition of say, Mark Twain, many years his senior.
If only I found these stories as funny as Mr. Twain’s!
A hundred years later, I fear, Wodehouse’s humor misses the mark in a way Twain’s surely does not. These stories felt like a sitcom; a not terribly funny one with overdone scenarios and obvious endings. The personas are stereotypical and the action lacks impetus, with an occasional plot turn.
Most pertinently however, Wodehouse confirmed my greatest fears about golf. Millionaires are regulars in Wodehouse’s stories, as are debutantes and high-fashioned wives and businessman. The men are petulant and value the links more than spending time with their families. Bad golfers are chastised and deemed unworthy specimens. There seem to be no characters of color.
While I wasn’t particularly surprised by this, I was holding out hope that I might find some alternative access points to appreciate a game that I love playing and watching so much, while always feeling guilty to do so. Does any other game have a greater negative impact on the environment? Is any other game so inaccessible to those in poverty? Is any other game as exclusive, elitist, and white?
It’s fair to say then, that Wodehouse’s stories do accurately represent the stifling culture that has continued to follow the sport. It was only two years ago in fact, and only after losing the right to host the Open, that Scotland’s Muirfield voted to admit women. And it wasn’t until the early nineties that many exclusive golf clubs around the U.S. began accepting black members (including Augusta, only a few years before Tiger’s first victory).
For another example, the prize money disparity between women’s and men’s tournaments continues to be unconscionable. The PGA could and should rectify this. (For a wonderful article in this regard, see here).
Nevertheless, despite how late golf is in coming to the game, ideally this progressive trend toward inclusion continues. Ideally as well, Tiger’s resurgence continues. It is amazing to hear his competition talk about how they idolized him growing up, would watch him at home with their parents, and now are playing alongside and against him.
I am eagerly curious, along with everyone else, to see where the next path of Tiger’s career arc takes him. Could it possibly be again as extreme? It is easy to imagine him in the final pairing this June at Pebble Beach, but could he possibly be in contention at all four majors?
What if he wins them all?
I think my head would explode. And as long as P.G. Wodehouse doesn’t rise from the grave to write a short story about it, that’s okay by me.