Since the dawn of time, some of the most polarizing figures we’ve seen have been elite sports athletes. I would imagine that when cavemen were throwing rocks for distance, the accompanying throng would be equally divided between supporters and detractors as Gronk The Great hurled his mighty stone heavenward into history. I’m sure there were cheers, but they were in all likelihood drowned out by a chorus of hisses and boos. I suppose it would depend on whether Gronk was home or away. In any case, such is the inalienable right of a sports fan; you’re allowed to cheer for somebody with one breath and swear at somebody else with the next. That’s what you’re there for. Sorry Gronk.
Take hockey, just as an example. Generation to generation, for every fan that loves their home town hero, there are four times as many that spit on the stats. Think about it: Sidney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr. Yes, even Bobby Orr, and I was one of them. I couldn’t stand him as a Bruin, breaking all those Black Hawk records. Then when he signed with Chicago, he was the best thing on ice since Crown Royal. And the love vs. hate controversy is universal for all manner of competition in every era; Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Terrell Owens, ARod, Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, Floyd Mayweather, Rinaldo, Danica Patrick, Minnesota Fats, Lebron James, Deion Sanders. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you couldn’t ignore ‘em.
Which brings us to Tiger Woods. No athlete has ever been more polarizing than Tiger and that’s a rarity in golf. Nobody hated Arnie, or Jack, or Gary or the Merry Mex. But most everybody hated Tiger. Not me, by the way. I was one of the ones mesmerized by his brilliance and I couldn’t figure out why so many others couldn’t connect the dots. And they were vicious about it.
“He’s too emotional.”
“He’s not emotional enough.”
“He’s surly, miserable, cocky, over-rated.”
All of these were substitute descriptions for “he’s just too freakin’ good.” Again, it’s a fan’s prerogative to be judge and jury over an athlete’s performance on the field of his or her chosen battle, so no problem there.
But a funny thing happened on the way to first tee. In the last few months, a lot of the hatred directed at Tiger seems to be dissipating. It’s fascinating to watch. He’s somehow morphed into somewhat of a sympathetic figure as he searches for another victory on the same PGA Tour that he once so brazenly controlled. Through the bitter public divorce, the infidelities, the back problems, the surgeries, and the recent bout with bad medication, more and more folks are starting to quietly cheer for the completion of his comeback. I’m not hearing the same kind of vitriol that I once did when Tiger’s name is brought up. As a matter of fact, the first thing I’m hearing when a sports conversation turns to golf seems to be “How did Tiger do?” And that’s an amazing turnaround, isn’t it? I don’t know why it happened, but I embrace it and so should you. He might be the greatest athlete of all time – but that’s a blog for another time.
Look, when the time comes, golf is going to survive without Tiger. There’s DJ and Justin and Jordan and Rory and dozens of young phenoms on the horizon. It survived without Palmer and Nicklaus and Hogan and Watson. The game will be just fine. But it sure is fun to see Tiger competing at his current level and even more fun to hear people rooting for him instead of against him.
All he has to do now is go out and win one. That’ll bring the haters back. That’ll get ‘em fired up.
Hear coverage of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational on PGA Tour Radio beginning this Thursday at 12 pm ET.
Hear coverage of the PGA Championship on PGA Tour Radio beginning Thursday, August 9th at 12 pm ET