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Outsiders vs. Insiders: Tiger Woods’ empty soul makes it impossible to root for him at Augusta

I don’t get it.

Today marks the beginning of golf’s annual Masters Tournament (played at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia) and the media seems fixated on only one story – the “return” of Tiger Woods to playing Tiger Woodsprominence in a sport where legends’ careers span four decades or more and greatness is often measured in marketing appeal as well as the number of trophies you’ve accumulated.

Woods has excelled at both (winning and marketing) since he first burst onto the scene in 1996 with his famous “Hello World” advertising campaign and huge Nike endorsement contract to boot. The early media hype was due in part to the kid’s amazing talent – Tiger instantly became the longest hitting player on Tour when he debuted – but was probably mostly attributed to his mixed ethnic background, at least initially.

As we would subsequently learn, Woods’ father Earl was African-American (but also had Caucasian and American Indian ancestry) and Tiger’s mother Kultida was of Thai heritage. In other words, Tiger was about as American as they come with bloodlines linked to four continents. The media only saw one color, however, instantly latching onto Tiger as the first “black” progeny in the sport when in reality he was equally claimed by others as the first Asian male golfer to gain worldwide fame. He was an “outsider” in an insider’s universe.

Simply put, Tiger Woods didn’t look like most golfers (meaning he wasn’t white) and some saw in him a potential new way to sell an old game. By the time he first joined the PGA Tour Woods had already won three U.S. Amateur championships – more than Jack Nicklaus’s two – and the “world” was waiting to discover whether the California phenom could duplicate that kind of dominance when paired alongside the planet’s best in the pro ranks.

Woods then smashed the field at Augusta in 1997, winning by a record 12-shots. The answer to the “could he compete?” question was a resounding yes. From there everyone knows the rest of the story -- Woods went on to win 13 more professional major championships in 11 years, his last being the U.S. Open in 2008. He was the number one ranked player in the world for a record 281 consecutive weeks (and 683 total). On the golf course Woods was untouchable. Players who said they could match him were mocked and rolled by Tiger’s intimidating drive and talent.

Tiger became a golf superstar because of his uncanny ability to perform under pressure and the fact he never lost a lead in a tournament – until 2009, that is, when no-name Korean player Y.E. Yang came from two strokes back during the final round of the PGA Championship to defeat Woods. The loss was essentially the beginning of the end for the “legend” of Tiger Woods.

Later that year he was involved in a one-SUV accident that shook the earth. At that time the married Woods was exposed as a serial adulterer with rather eccentric tastes in women (bimbos). He’d lied to an awful lot of people to carry on his secret life. His wife filed for divorce. His career unraveled. Injuries plagued his once practically indestructible body. Woods endured four back surgeries and the recovery time away from golf (and mediocre play in between) left many wondering whether he’d ever return to his old self.

Now Woods is “back” and to the media at least, it’s as though he never left.

Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote at ESPN.com earlier this week, “With Tiger in contention, more people watched the final round of the 2018 Valspar Championship (6.9 million average views per minute) than last year's final round of the U.S. Open, The Open and the PGA Championship. Even if Tiger is not Goliath, the rating is a pretty good testament to the Tiger Effect.

“But if you have the chance to see Tiger in person in the coming months -- or years, assuming his spinal fusion holds up -- don't pass it up. Fork over your money, fight your way to the front of the rope line and soak in the circus. Hold your breath as he mashes a drive and bends over to snatch his tee out of the ground before the ball reaches its apex, already certain he's found the fairway.

“There are so few experiences in sports that truly live up to their hype, but here is one: Standing in deathly silence as Tiger begins his backswing, and then feeling a wave of sound reverberate off your body a half second after the ball leaves the club and the gallery roars to life. I was standing a few feet from him earlier this year at the Genesis Open when he hit a 4-iron out of the rough on the 11th hole that I keep replaying in my mind, because it seemed as if it defied physics...”

To his credit Van Valkenburg correctly reported Tiger missed the cut at the Genesis Open (by about a half dozen shots). The run everyone – including the TV audience – was expecting from the “legend” Mr. Woods didn’t materialize in Los Angeles and Tiger went home early to Florida to prepare for the three events that have everyone gushing about his chances to contend and even possibly win this week at Augusta National.

Woods could very well realize those lofty achievements – after all, he’s got more golfing knowledge and talent in his little pinky than 99.9% of us will ever have. Tiger candidly admits he can’t do all of the physical things he used to be able to pull off (before his back surgeries) but as a natural “feel” player one must figure Tiger can still get himself around a golf course.

The absence of technical surety may cost him at some point this week, however, just as it did at the Arnold Palmer Invitational when Woods blasted a drive out-of-bounds on a hole most pros were making birdie or better on. It didn’t matter. The crowd roared anyway. Their “hero” was in the news again.

That’s the part I don’t get.

I’ve often labeled coverage of Woods as “Tiger slobber” because it’s always seemed the media was going out of its way to inflate him into this superhero-like charismatic character when in reality he was just a guy who cursed a lot on TV screens and acted as though he was impervious to censure in the personal realm. “Fake” and “phony” are two words that come to mind.

True, there were the trophies and LOTS of winning for Woods. People gravitate towards success and for Tiger there was plenty of it in that 11-year span (between 1997 and 2008). But I’ve also never quite understood why so many people adore Tiger so much. Is it because he’s not white? Is it because he’s intense? Is it because he's weird? Is it because he’s cool and hangs with celebrities?  Is it because he’s seen as being anti-establishment, an outsider?

Who can say? Earlier this century Nike produced an ad showing kids of all different ethnic backgrounds simply saying “I’m Tiger Woods” into the camera. I for one didn’t want my kids to be Tiger Woods just like I don’t want them to be Michael Jordan, Bryce Harper or Tom Brady either. Something just never seemed right about Woods and that was before all his personal foibles hit the light of day.

Why then is Tiger treated so differently than other legendary sports figures by the media? It would take time to list the all-time greats in sports but none of them (at least off the top of my head) jump out as struggling as mightily as Tiger in handling the off-the-course personal side of stardom. Woods is deservedly famous -- but he’s clearly not a great guy. Would you want him to marry your daughter?

Jack Nicklaus, widely regarded as the most successful golfer prior to Woods, had/has a storybook life that’s earned respect from people who know him and those who only understand he’s won a lot of golf tournaments.

Early in his career Nicklaus conceded that golf was a business pursuit but he derived a lot more satisfaction from spending time with his family and friends. Jack didn’t need the swarms of “fans” that worship Tiger Woods. In contrast Woods has remained aloof – if not downright hostile – to those seeking to get too close to him. In effect he shuns people.

Woods reportedly has no contact with his half-siblings (Earl’s kids through a prior marriage); he’s not married (though rumors abound as to who he’s dating at any given time – but who the heck would be dumb enough to date him?). Tiger is known to be a loving and dedicated father. At least that can be said for him.

From observing Woods in person on a number of occasions (while playing) he’s always struck me as robotic and lacking animation, a superior athlete who launches a golf ball better than anyone on earth yet doesn’t possess much “humanity” apart from his golf skills. Tiger’s interviews are always formulaic and seemingly rehearsed. His explanations for all aspects of his life outside of golf sound like they were written by a public relations firm.

He's relentlessly lied over the years about his various physical anomalies and the reasons for them (Woods purportedly once considered leaving golf to try and become a Navy SEAL; the physical training took its toll).

Yet still the fans cheered and the media “slobbered” as though they were afraid of offending him. Earl Woods always lectured Tiger’s doghouse door only swings one way – and once you were in it you’d never be allowed back out.

Perhaps for that reason Woods’ critics have been few and far between. Fans always seemed to love players like Phil Mickelson more than Tiger yet nothing compared to Woods’ crowds at tournaments, even when he’s not in contention. Why? Why I ask?

Even some in the conservative media are under Tiger’s spell. Geoffrey Norman recently wrote at The American Spectator last month, “As professional sports go, golf is unusual in that it leaves you with so few stars to celebrate and root for. There are too many beautifully groomed and trained country-club kids. Perfect swings and perfect teeth. None with the wit to make the fans among us love them or care about what they do.

“And then … there is Tiger in whom the competitive fire still burns exceedingly bright.

“In a couple of weeks, he will be teeing it up at the Masters in Augusta. You could, I suppose, get all political about it but, then, it is just a golf tournament and Tiger Woods won’t be the only great golfer in the field. But on the first day, he will be the player everyone is watching. And the one many of us are pulling for.”

Don’t count me among the “rooting for” contingent. To me Tiger Woods is a man whose genetics, rigorous parental training regimen (from Green Beret father Earl and Buddhist mother Kutilda) and special childhood privileges melded together to constitute what might be the greatest golfer of all time. Woods is the embodiment of machine athletics, the casting of a winner with no soul remaining to shine to the world.

There are plenty of players in the Masters field this week who deserve admiration. As mentioned above, Phil Mickelson’s enjoyed a noteworthy career chasing Woods’ accomplishments while maintaining a healthy mix of play and family life himself. Phil’s wife Amy underwent breast cancer treatment eight years ago and when he won the Masters that year (in 2010) he dedicated his win to his wife.

Their post-round congratulatory hug revealed the depth of Phil’s feeling towards his wife. Sports has far too few “good guys.” Mickelson is one of them. Tiger Woods may be the better golfer but Phil is the better man. I’ll choose the latter any day.

A lot of people say Tiger Woods is a changed man. For those of us who’ve followed his career from the beginning we can only hope so. In a few days we’ll know whether Woods pulled off the most improbable of all comebacks and won the Masters – but in many of our hearts he’ll always be that same oddball guy, full of inexplicable contradictions.

--Note: I suspect Woods no longer putts well enough to prevail at a major championship and that’s the reason why he won’t win this week.

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To Jeffrey. If you feel this

To Jeffrey. If you feel this way about Tiger Woods, fine. We all have our opinions. I happen to like Tiger Woods for his golfing ability. I don't know him personally, but he has never done anything to me to make me dislike him. He won his awards fair and square. It is not his fault other players could not beat him at that time.His color and family tree has nothing to do with his talent. I don't know your race or color or family background but I read your article. It was well written and your opinion. I don't have to agree but I read it. It would have been nicer to write a positive article about someone you like. How would you know about his soul? Try looking at your soul before you judge someone else.