Years ago I was assigned to review a little book about Tiger Woods. At the time Woods was the best golfer in the world and in the running for being considered the greatest of all time. His father spoke of him, without irony, as having been sent by God and as potentially being the most important human ever. Not, as the author of the book noted, “the most important golfer or the most important athlete, but the most important human.” As in, bigger than Jesus.
Woods was young and good-looking and multi-racial and seemed on his way to overturning a lot of the old stereotypes of professional golfers as wealthy white retirees while he was re-writing the record books. But that was all a long time ago. Since then Woods survived a messy divorce, the disintegration of his body (he just recently had his fifth back surgery), and a car crash that fractured his leg. His game, as you might expect, has suffered. But for his surprise victory in the 2019 Masters he hasn’t been great for nearly a decade.
None of this is very surprising. Top athletes usually only stay at the top of their sport for about a decade. Golf is a little more forgiving than professional football, but no one beats Father Time. This makes it all the more surprising to me that whenever Tiger Woods picks up a golf club he is still treated as front-page news.
This weekend was the 86th Masters Tournament and Woods got off to a good start. Which meant that he was the top story not only for sports channels but even for news programming. A writer for USA Today called the story of Woods’s “transcendent game” “much more than a sports headline.” On CNN the Breaking News followed up events in Ukraine with Tiger’s miraculous comeback.
As it turned out, Woods crashed at the Masters, quickly falling out of contention with some disastrous rounds that ranked as his worst ever at the Masters. But that seems not to have diminished him as a draw, with commentators insisting that his performance was must-see viewing.
I can understand some of this, since everyone likes a comeback story and Woods overcoming his long list of injuries is inspiring. But lots of older athletes have had to do the same. The continuing attention given to everything Woods does, so long after his becoming just another golfer, doesn’t make sense to me. Why, on broadcasts of these events, are they even still following him?
The reason this disturbs me is that professional athletics is one of the few public spectacles where you can still count on achievement and ability trumping mere celebrity. It doesn’t matter how famous you are or how much money you make from endorsements if you can’t run faster or jump higher or hit harder than the competition. For years now, however, Tiger Woods has put a lie to that. He is without question the world’s most famous golfer, but is far removed from being the best. And yet the media continue to build him up, with their coverage making him the main focus of interest.
I don’t follow golf, but I am a sports fan. And as a sports fan I feel the same sense of despair at this as when MMA fighter Conor McGregor fought Floyd Mayweather, a publicity stunt that had the second-highest pay-per-view buy rate in boxing history. If this is the future of sport — and Mayweather’s next fight was against YouTuber Logan Paul, which also did over a million buys — where achievement means nothing and we’re just paying to watch famous people perform (and not always perform well) then what’s the point? We might as well be watching Dancing with the Stars.