An Irishman’s Diary: when Tiger Woods was king

(THE IRISH TIMES, July 29th, 2000)

T Woods
Tiger Woods raises the Claret Jug after winning the 2000 British Open at the Old Course at St Andrews. 

As one of the multitude that watched bewitched as Tiger Woods bestrode the Old Course at St Andrew’s like a serene colossus of golfing brilliance, I was aware like so many others that his performance was about so much more than propelling a small round white ball into a small round cup in as few strokes as possible. No, this was about watching genius going about its work; confident in its application and routine in its realisation.

The crowds swirling tight along his appointed path parted and regrouped to strain from the next vantage point as this one-part Asian, one-part African American, and all parts talent, continued on his way.

Touching of the royal Nike garment was strictly limited by the phalanx of security and golfing officials and this boy-man seemed to be at once feeding off the adulation that greeted every prodigious drive, soaring iron shot or unerring putt, and yet somehow above it all.

He was in the zone, as sporting parlance would have it, only this particular zone seemed like a parallel universe accessible only to himself. We could see him there, but even the best of the rest of the golfing talent on show could only scratch their heads as they wondered how they could ever reach such an exalted plane.

“Look on my works ye mighty and despair” seemed to be the unspoken message to his would-be challengers. Not that this well-spoken, well-schooled marketing-man’s dream would ever voice such crass sentiments. But they were competing for second place – and they knew it. Only one man really tried to take on the Tiger at St Andrew’s, to tilt at the windmill of his mesmerising brilliance, and that was his playing partner on the last day, the world’s number two golfer, David Duval. On the front nine, he cut into Nike Man’s six-shot overnight lead. One shot, two shots, three shots clawed back as he battled with fierce precision, not just matching the great one but beating him.

How would the Tiger respond? We watched for even a flicker of doubt to cross that unfurrowed brow. He was only biding his time.

The moment of truth arrived on the 10th green when Duval missed his birdie opportunity and Tiger sank his 10-footer with blithe conviction. From there on in, Duval tumbled down the leaderboard, his despair reaching its nadir at the 17th hole where his approach shot to the green found the horrendous Road Hole Bunker. How cruel it was as the thousands watching on the course and the millions riveted to their TV screen witnessed the chilling humiliation of this brave man as he flailed about like a blind man in a sandstorm, taking four shots to escape his bunker hell.

Up ahead on the green, the Tiger, clad as always in final round red, coolly waited to complete a rare bogey. The only challenge left to him was the four he needed at the last hole to complete four rounds in the 60s and to secure the 19-under par total that would eclipse Nick Faldo’s record Open-winning score at St Andrew’s.

Quest completed, the Tiger removed his magic cap and he looked like a mere mortal again. Tiger Woods without his cap is like Superman turned back into Clark Kent. Only the world is in on this secret. Another day, another derring-do mission accomplished with just a flash of those impossibly pearly teeth in response to the gasps of amazement coming from the slack-jawed onlookers. One could just picture it as Nike Man swooshes from the skies to rescue another damsel in distress, before swooshing back to the place where only superheroes go.

Date with destiny

And so he departed Scotland with the fabled claret jug and some more thousands of dollars to add to the already countless millions. It can’t be about the money anymore; what seems to matter above all is the next date with golfing destiny, each tournament a practice run for his next major assignment. Four down and 14 to go as he sets about emulating and perhaps surpassing the achievements of the man who bid farewell to the Open at St Andrew’s, Jack Nicklaus.

The Tiger will not burn bright forever, as the now time-tarnished Golden Bear knows only full well, but at 24, the Woods lustre can only grow even more burnished in the years ahead. In some way, the Tiger Woods phenomenon has gone some way towards rescuing sport for the dreamers, dragging it from the tawdry grip of the drug-fuelled monsters that have tarnished so many other sporting activities. Surely no drug can make you play golf like that? Even the power drives owe less to brute strength than to a seemingly impossible amalgam of finesse, flexibility and timing.

Then there is the colour business. Black he may be, part Asian too, but it really does not seem to be a factor; sheer talent seems to have put him in a pace where colour no longer applies. Not that he would make the mistake of claiming exclusive allegiance to any one race.

The Real thing

As this latest Tiger Woods Show episode ended, some of us turned back to our typewriters and the other implements of our labours and pondered again the Kodachrome gloss that sporting combat and skill of the highest order occasionally visits upon otherwise routine lives. Not that homogenised, artificially pumped up sporting charade perpetrated by Sky Sports and their ilk, but the Real Thing. For take away the hype and the hoopla and it is still obvious that this Tiger Woods is already one of the true sporting greats.

We spectators know full well we are not Tiger Woods, or Zinedine Zidane, or Venus Williams, or any of the myriad possessors of rare talent in their specialised fields, but just knowing they are out there somehow makes the vicissitudes of the mundane world more bearable. Melodramatic as these sentiments read on paper, who in their secret heart does not exult in the surge of imagination the exploits of these people allow us, reaching as they do that part of us that has never quite been subsumed into the world of adult responsibilities and cares?

What a pleasure it was to steal a few moments away from the Moriarty Tribunal and all the rest of it and gaze awhile upon one so at ease with his talent, so blithely accepting and expectant of the gifts that have been visited upon him. A joy to behold and to retain forever.

— Enda Sheppard

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