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25 June 2001

Thank God he has a weakness, even if it is only nicotine

By Robert Winder

It was hard to say, in the aftermath of the US Open, which was the greater surprise: that Tiger Woods failed to add a historic fifth major win to the historic four he already has, or the less-publicised news that he has enjoyed the odd cigarette from time to time (this must be true: it was in a newspaper).

Even in defeat, the Tiger remained an immaculate perfectionist – composed, assured, smiling and saying that he was proud of the way he ground it out, and hey, it was fun out there. It was hard to imagine him doing anything so irrational and unconstructive as puff on a cigarette. Perhaps, as the commentators kept saying as his ball slid past the hole, it only goes to prove he is human after all.

An anti-smoker would probably think the two facts were connected, that Tiger’s game was suffering from nicotine mood swings. But it is hard not to see it as a likeable weakness. It is clearly reckless for any sportsman or woman (let alone one as disciplined and accomplished as Woods) to smoke. But lighting up represents at least a modest blow against the tyranny of athletic excellence that these people have to live with every day: the body fascism that controls their diet and musculature, the practice drills and workouts that refine and eliminate error, the psychological war against self-doubt.

Even their table talk seems well-grooved. As someone once remarked, most golfers’ idea of a witticism is: “I thought it was a seven, but it turned out to be a six.” It is not that hard, in golf, to be a personality – you only have to sprint across a green to be thought a wild Che Guevara of the links.

The idea that Tiger Woods has secret depths, then, is encouraging in that the only thing possibly wrong with him, so far as anyone can see, is that he seems too good to be true. His prodigious, Mozartian upbringing has merged fluently with the American college system, which turns out smooth golfers the way other factories turn out streamlined cars. He’s a top-of-the-range model; he makes it look easy. Those stray cigarettes suggest something that everything else he does contradicts: that his victories are hard won and come at a price; that the pressure cooker of all those final-round dramas leaves him needing to let off steam. It is nice to see him as more than a college jock who happens to be coolly half-black.

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His defeat came at a good time, when the whispers were growing louder that he was in some way bad for golf, that having only one winner was dull. It is indeed one of his achievements that, in scooping most of the top prizes, he diminishes the stature of his opponents; he is rarely up against other major winners, because he holds the titles himself. As it happens, I don’t find this boring at all: the will-he-do-it spectacle is endlessly gripping. But one of the many freakish things about golf is that its fans hate underdogs; it’s a top-dog game. Those Japanese or Argentinian nobodies who hog the leader boards early on are expected to do the decent thing and surrender the high ground to the big guns as the tournament unfolds.

During the US Open, you could almost hear the TV producers screaming at the last-round duellists, Retief Goosen and Mark Brooks, to slog their balls into the lake and stop hogging their precious screen time. A lot of ratings fantasies were punctured. Actually, it could hardly have been more melodramatic, as the event closed in a blizzard of missed putts (the US pundits called it “Choke-la-homa”). But the next day’s papers woefully recorded the ratings dip provoked by Tiger’s absence from the fray. Even the play-off – a classic shoot-out – inspired drooped shoulders. “Please, sports fans,” said USA Today, “don’t all run for your television sets at the same time.”

That’s the commercial significance of the Tiger effect. His supreme talent and debonair ethnic convergence make him possibly the best marketing emblem golf has ever had. But there is social significance there, too. He is the best hope for anyone who would like golf to shed its gin’n’jag, misogynistic flavour (women and children last). Certainly, America is proud of him. He seems like living, breathing proof that America is the land it still dreams of being: open, equal, smiling.

In truth, his great feats are usually performed in exclusive, almost mono-racial country clubs that continue to price out members who – how to put it? – might not fit in. Tiger plays a quiet game in this combustible respect; but if he ever decides to flex his sociological muscles off the golf course, then who knows how far-reaching the effects might be. His defeat made headlines everywhere; in a few weeks’ time, Americans might be pushed to remember the name of the winner. Tiger’s father has often sworn that his amazing son would change the world. His claims usually sound inflated by fond pride. But what if he’s right?