Tiger: Even in defeat, he affirms golf is life

View: When the world's best player shoots 10 over par in Scotland, the maddening aspect of this gentleman's game is brought home to every hacker.

July 28, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

EVERY PLAYER knew it had to happen: a really bad day for Tiger. His 81 last weekend brought a knowing smile to the faces of proud hackers, the Sunday players who marvel at Tiger Woods' consistency, his strength, his elegance and equanimity. Marveled at them - and knew they wouldn't always be enough.

It wasn't gloating about Tiger's vulnerability, but an affirmation of the maddening game. The world's best player had come back to earth during the third round of the British Open. He shot 81, putting himself out of contention for the championship.

Too many other players were too far ahead of him, though you can bet some of them thought he'd shoot 61 on Sunday and win anyway. He shot 65, six under, that day to finish at even par for the championship, five off the lead.

People say weather drove him back to the realm of mere mortals. It's partly true. But, in fact, other players handled the wind and rain at Muirfield better than he did. As usual, he made no excuses. It's another aspect of the man that makes him special. He plays the course. He plays through the conditions whatever they are. It's part of the gentleman's game.

What Tiger does even in defeat deepens the luster. Tigermania - like Arnold Palmer and Arnie's Army - brings more fans to the courses or to the television screen when he's playing. Even his troubles last weekend will help the professional game.

One admires his elan and imperturbability but a good rivalry - Hogan vs. Snead, Palmer vs. Nicklaus - would be equally important. It's about competition. In recent years, the world's best golfers have been unable to match Tiger Woods' skill and will. His name goes up on the leader board and the other guys succumb to their internal storms of doubt.

So, maybe last weekend reminded them they could eventually find a way to compete.

Ernie Els, the South African with the syrupy swing, prevailed in a Sunday when Tiger's fall gave a dozen players a real chance. Fighting his tendency to pull the ball left, Els made several recoveries to defeat three others who were tied with him at the end of regulation.

Els put all his angst on the table when he talked to reporters later. The little elf of self-abnegation perched on his shoulder, he said, and almost jeered him into the tank. But not last Sunday.

The player stared back at his nemesis, shook off mistakes, accepted the challenge, trusted his game, dared to play his best and win. No wonder these guys have sports psychologists on their payroll. In the breach, of course, it's only you and the fears, however defined.

So, it's not all about your slice or your silly little putting stroke. Sure, you want to hit the ball well, but most of all you want to stand up to the hobgoblins of doubt, the psychic boo-birds happy to tell you you're a loser. Mark Twain called it "a good walk spoiled." Players know better. Their view?

Golf: life itself.

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