If Tiger Woods were an ordinary top golfer, by which I mean someone who’s won a couple majors and has been in the Top 10 for a long time, people would be starting to forget about him already.
But that will never happen to Woods. Even if the way he’s played since he came back from marital meltdown is the baseline for how he’s going to play for the rest of his career, we’ll never stop obsessing about him until he puts his clubs away for good.
So don’t listen to anyone who tells you that Tiger has to have a good showing at Pebble Beach to maintain his relevance and his hold on the public. He doesn’t. He can shoot 82-88, miss the cut and throw his clubs into the Pacific Ocean on his way off the 18th green and it won’t matter. Golf fans will still care.
You would think it wouldn’t be so. You would think that Tiger’s reaching that area where people are going to simply stop caring.
If the people are sponsors, you would be right. He won’t get any new ones to replace the ones he lost if he doesn’t start winning again, especially majors. That shouldn’t concern us, though. I know some fans do keep score by how many sponsors a player has, but I don’t, and you shouldn’t, either. Money is not how we measure success in sports. Championships are.
And that’s why Tiger’s popularity will continue no matter how badly he stinks out the joint. He’s got 14 major titles, the second most ever to Jack Nicklaus’ 18. A generation ago, fans kept caring about Nicklaus and Palmer long after their games had declined to a sub-championship level.
Being a fan is a quasi-religious experience. You don’t simply become a non-believer just because the object of your adoration is no longer believable. You deny the obvious and keep right on thinking that nothing has changed that can’t change with the next shot, the next hole, the next round, the next tournament.
So it’s going to take a lot for Tiger’s fans to abandon ship. It’s not as simple as saying, “He’s no longer a great golfer, I’ll go watch somebody else.” There’s no on-off switch to fandom.
The same goes for the people who like Woods about as much as they like pay cuts and tax hikes. To dislike a golfer like Woods takes a big investment of energy and caring, and you don’t turn that off easily, either.
I know people who say they’re disgusted with Woods for his lack of middle-class morality. They’ll add that they never liked him because he’s arrogant and he throws clubs and curses and isn’t much of a tipper. And then when he has a bad result, they’ll expend several thousand words to tell me how much they enjoyed the tournament without having Woods in contention. They say they don’t care, but their enjoyment of watching someone else win is directly proportional to how badly Woods does.
So no matter how badly Woods plays, people are still going to care, none more than the people who swear on a stack of FootJoys that they don’t care about Woods any farther than they can spit a lug nut.
No one knows how he’s going to do at Pebble Beach, but I’m guessing that even his most dedicated fans aren’t assuming that he’ll make the cut. They certainly assume that at some point, he’ll get everything back together, because that’s what he’s always done. But nobody can assume he’s going to contend now.
It’s quite a change from the last time Woods played at an Open at Pebble Beach. That was in 2000, when he put on the most crushingly dominant display ever seen in a major championship, winning by 15 strokes, a margin that remains a record for major tournaments.
That was Tiger’s third major title and it established him as not just the best overall golfer, but the best in every phase of the game. You name it, he did it better than anyone else, from driving to putting, from scrambling to bunker shots, from 300 yards or three yards. It didn’t matter. Challenge him to a contest in anything and he’d take your lunch money for the next three years.
That’s the Tiger who created an army of fans and anti-fans who aren’t going to stop obsessing about him anytime ever.
He may stink, but he’ll never be just another struggling golfer.