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Monday, March 30, 2009

Superheroes ... and golf (?)

Watchmen, Spiderman, Obama. Batman Returns. So does Tiger Woods.
The relationship of sports to pop culture has been a subject of so much sappy rhetoric that it has become a tired overstated subject. Sports heroes are our equivalent of the heroes of ancient myths. Annointed by the gods, they seem to be living superheroes, possessing physical and mental powers that surpass mere mortals. We watch their games as reality shows, live dramas anticipating a stirring climax - victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. "Larger-than-life" fits these heroic figures far more than mere entertainment celebrities. Not mere stars, they are superstars.

Rarely, a sports hero surpasses the precinct of his or her specialty and enters the realm of social symbolism when we sense an even greater meaning. In America, when a person of color or a woman becomes a hero, it is remarkable. We have had several examples: Jim Thorpe, Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Babe Zaharious, Jackie Robinson, Ali, Bille Jean King, Michael Jordan.

Tiger Woods may be the greatest of them all.

Wait, a golfer? Are you serious? Golf is not a sport, it is an activity popular with old men like me who can’t bowl. Golf doesn’t demand the athleticism of boxing, football, basketball or even tennis.

Generally true, but let me state the case before you scoff.

(1) Woods is a physical specimen, acknowledged by Jordan, Gretsky, and other friends as one who could have played any other sport at a high level. He brought fitness, strength, awesome power to his sport.

(2) The spacing between Woods and his merely mortal competitors is enormous. Like Babe Ruth, who hit more home runs than any team, Woods sets marks that none can approach. He often wins by wide margins. The U.S. Open by 15, the Masters by 12, the British Open by 8. He wins over 29% of the time (in a sport where the next greatest in history, Jack Nicklaus, won 12%).

(3) His life story is the stuff of legend. Here is the way the L.A. Times once related it.
"Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods was born Dec. 30, 1975 in Cypress and showed an interest in golf when he was 6 months old in his crib, watching (his father) Earl hit golf balls into a net and imitating his swing. The precocious Tiger appeared on the ‘Mike Douglas Show’ at 2, hitting putts with Bob Hope. At 3, Woods shot 48 over nine holes. He played his first pro event at 16, the Nissan L. A. Open ... Woods was 20 when he turned pro in September 1996, after the most heralded amateur career since Nicklaus. He is a three-time winner of the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, from 1991 to 1993. No one else has won more than once.
"At 18, he became the youngest winner of the U. S. Amateur when he triumphed in 1994. Woods won again in 1995 and in 1996 ... where his victory made him the only player to win three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles. Woods turned pro the next day, leaving an amateur legacy rivaling that of Bobby Jones. No one equaled Woods’ record of 18 consecutive match play victories or his winning percentage of .909. His 6 consecutive years of winning a USGA championship are second to Jones’ eight...."

(4) Woods is not just a person of color. He is a person of all colors. He jokingly labeled himself a "Cau-Bl-In-Asian," mother Cambodian, father and African American with native American ancestry.

Golf has been the last bastion of white supremacy in sports and the Masters, in Augusta, Georgia has been the castle keep. Woods’ victory in 1997 ended the whites only aura at the stately club, and Woods’ has since won three more times.

You see, The Masters was created by and symbolized by Bobby Jones, the ultimate symbol of Southern White gentleman amateur ideals. He retired in 1930 after winning what the newspapers later called "The Grand Slam" (his legend created by the great Southern sports writer, Grantland Rice) the four most prestigious tournaments of the time: the British Open, British Amateur, U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur.

Being a product of the 1920's, the Golden Age of 20th century sports, Jones was a hero to the masses rivaling Ruth, Grange, or the Georgian Cobb (an ungentlemanly Southerner). He was given a tickertape parade down Broadway like Lindbergh and Pershing when he returned from Britain. He then promptly retired from competitive golf in favor of a career in law, business and quiet celebrity. He never turned pro and solidified his status as role model for gentlemen. By 1934, he had built his course in Atlanta as an elite vacation place for wealthy sportsman of the northeast for the mild deep southern winters and spring. The course and tournament mystique was established for all time in the minds and hearts of the southern boys who dominated the sport.

In the 30's and 40's the heros of golf were mostly poor white boys who grew up around courses as caddies, and yearned for the status the sport provided. Texans particularly dominated: Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and others. In the 1950's, Arnold Palmer appeared to create a new legend and expand the symbolic nature of the sport. Palmer was son of a Pennsylvania greenskeeper, he was White, but he had the look and manner not of a Southern gentleman but of a Pittsburgh miner. He was a working class looking guy who looked and fought like Rocky Marciano. His emergence coincided with television coverage of the sport and his charging style inspired a popularity of the sport among the hoi polloi it had never known before.

Jack Nicklaus’ arrival as a pro after a storied amateur career to challenge and eventually surpass Palmer and all others over a 20 year stretch, dominated the imagination with a consistency of excellence that most believed would never be matched. He won 18 major championships, including the Masters 6 times in 3 decades.

Woods’ success has taken the sport to a new level of popularity. T.V. ratings for his appearances challenge pro basketball. His marketing clout equals the phenomenon of Michael Jordan. Spurred to new heights of effort by Woods’ example, all the other pro golfers have raised their own games. Conditioning and intensity is now a year round grind. The athleticism which was always lacking in the game is now demanded as is consistent concentration. Because of Woods, the money available to all is now staggering: millions in purses, endorsements, and perks are now standard. Golfers are no longer considered by other athletes and viewers as soft bellied, laid back country clubbers.

(5) Woods has an unparalleled flair for drama.
As an entertainment, sports events surpass scripted dramas for tension and surprise. The last second shot, the buzzer beater, the walk-off homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth, the hail Mary bomb with no time on the clock are moments that children dream of, that Hollywood tries to emulate, that provides shock and awe when seen live and real.

As I’ve written, Woods’ power to separate himself from others by huge numbers is one part of his legend. Another is his unbelievable ability to will himself to win at the last moment again and again. Putting is golf’s equivalent of the free throw. It is something that is not too hard to do until the pressure is on. When thousands are watching, when millions of dollars and the hopes of others are pending, it becomes easy to choke.

This week Woods won a golf tournament with a 15 foot putt on the 72nd hole as darkness descended. He had won the same tournament last year on the same hole with an even longer shot. In the U.S. Open, he sunk one to get into a playoff. He has been doing that same thing since he was a child.

Last year in the U.S. Open, we watched him for five days playing on a leg that had two tibial fractures and a shredded knee ligament. Time after time, he winced in agony as he swung his driver at 120 m.p.h. Limping off the tee, he staggered to the next shot, and the next, for 91 holes until he won and went into surgery to repair his leg.

For 8 months he rested. He is almost a billionaire. Now almost 34, he has 2 children, interests apart from playing the game, his place secure, nothing to prove.

What he proved this weekend is that he epitomizes values that sport in its purest ideal promises but rarely approaches. He is a professional, but defines it not by the money he earns, or the fame it provides. He competes with his peers and finds the thrill of living by winning. More than that, he challenges himself to excel, to continuously test himself, to surpass what he has done before.

Comparison with Barack Obama is not a stretch.

I am not afraid to be corny and overly exultant. We are living in remarkable era when we need heroes.

1 comment:

  1. collins's corner of critical & caustic commentary and obnoxious illiterationWednesday, April 8, 2009 at 12:13:00 PM PDT

    Pro bono day my ass. A "duty day" for which you pick up cases as in money, does not a pro bono day make and you are not "mother Teresa"

    Best whishes,
    Hy Schultz