When I took a job covering golf back in 2012, I did not completely understand what that meant. I thought covering golf meant writing about the PGA Tour as a whole. All 156 guys every week. I was naive about the way sports media works.
It turns out, writing about sports (any sport, really) invokes the oft-discussed 80-20 rule. That is, 20 percent of the participants get 80 percent of the attention. Except in golf, it’s more like the 50-1-50 rule. One golfer gets half, the rest get the other half.
That one golfer of course is Tiger Woods who, despite having been laid up since he removed himself from the Dubai Desert Classic three weeks ago, inadvertently made waves in sports news on Thursday. His old amateur competitor and fellow PGA Tour pro Pat Perez opened up the discussion when he said the following about Woods.
“He’s the biggest name in the game,”. “He is the needle-mover. He is the needle. That’s the bottom line. He is everything in the game today still until he walks away, he is always going to be the name. Tiger is ... the game of golf as we know it today.”
Sounds great, right? Well, then Perez moved in on Woods.
“But the bottom line is he knows he can’t beat anybody. He’s got this new corporation he started so he has to keep his name relevant to keep the corporation going,” Perez continued.
“So he’s going to show up to a few events, he’s going to try to play ... he’s going to show the Monster bag, he’s going to show the TaylorMade driver, he’s gonna get on TV. He’s got the Nike clothes; he’s gotta keep that stuff relevant, but the bottom line is he knows he can’t beat anybody.
“He knows it … the guy shot 77. That guy can’t shoot 77. What does he do the next day? ‘Oh, my back’s gone.’ He knows he can’t beat anybody! I told you! He’s not gonna come out and play poorly.”
And of course, all hell broke loose. You would have thought the USGA instituted Bryson DeChambeau as its head of rules for the next decade with the way golf fans, those with even a passing interest in the game, stormed the gates of Chateu de Perez.
Their pitchforks and torches were met with more takes than a David Fincher film. These sometimes-flaming tirades took up space on two quite opposite ends of the spectrum. In fact, there were only two takes to be had at all.
Take 1: Perez is completely wrong and totally out of line. He’s only a two-time winner on the PGA Tour. Tiger has won 79 times. How dare he! Show some respect!
Take 2: Perez is 100 percent right, Big Cat is toast! He may never walk again! I’m glad somebody finally had the stones to go after him like that!
Perez apparently deleted his Twitter account at some point during all the hubbub, though the exact timing of this has gone under Zapruder-like scrutiny. Then he told ESPN later on after the radio show (which he hosts with ESPN’s Michael Collins) that he felt like he got the Fuzzy Zoeller treatment when it comes to Woods.
Whew. Got all that?
The other day, ESPN’s Ryen Russillo went on Richard Deitsch’s podcast and told Deitsch one thing he has learned in working in sports media is that it does not really matter if you’re right. It matters if you’re loud. It does not matter if there is nuance to your angle or if it is a well-reasoned argument more airtight than a Jason Day collar-less polo. It only matters that your flames run hotter as they tease the dam holding the cascade of folks willing to lap at a brook only two inches deep.
As someone who loves the nuance in all things, this is a bummer to me. Within the nuance of sports exists a sort of small, intrepid subculture where people with whom I love to discuss non-sports topics reside. Within the nuance of sports exists the reality that Jordan Spieth is a great iron player, Russell Westbrook is actually eons better than Oscar Robertson and Big 12 defenses are underrated when normalized.
Within the nuance exists five realities about Perez’s comments nobody is discussing.
- He did not frame them well: When you lead with “Tiger is doing this because of his sponsors,” literally everything you say after that is going to be taken the wrong way.
- He essentially said we’re all out here on the PGA Tour because of Tiger. I know it’s easy to cherry-pick the headline, but in the lead-in, Perez all but wrote Woods a check for the tax on the nearly $20 million he’s earned in his career.
- He is saying what most other people are saying behind the scenes: The rest of Tiger’s competitive golf life hinges on Augusta this year. Not whether he plays well but whether he plays at all.
- He sort of called Woods a liar about his back which is more than sort of weak.
- He’s right that Woods knows he can’t beat anybody right now and probably right that Woods’ pride runs too deep to do that for any extended period of time.
All of that adds up to some really interesting talking points for what we talk about when we talk about the future of Tiger. Motifs of pride, anxiety, pain, fear and hope are all buried within Perez’s comments which makes for the most compelling type of conversation when it comes to one of the best athletes (if not the best) who has ever lived.
But all of this got charred to a crisp and Perez was ejected from the conversation harder than Dustin Johnson in the fourth round of the 2010 U.S. Open.
I know this is essentially a consequence of our take-making society. I get it. This is how the 2016 election was constructed. We seem to have evolved (if you can call it that) into a society that cannot hold multiple true ideas in our hands at the same time.
Those of us in the media often have to cook up something that sizzles, and I am often as guilty of it as the next person. And I get that I care about these comments more than most (my livelihood rides on whether they’re true to some extent). But it is a shame to me that we burn the tree out of spite instead of using its branches to hang our thoughts on a variety of real, interpersonal turmoils Woods is likely struggling with.
Rory McIlroy recently noted this week that he hurts for Woods. I could not agree more.
“I never thought I would say this but I felt sorry for him,” McIlroy told the Guardian. “I just felt bad for the guy that his body won’t allow him to do what he wants to do. I can’t imagine anything so debilitating where you can’t even stand up to do a press conference.”
Nobody has had a more unique intermixed personal and professional life than Tiger Woods. Nobody is more embroiled in the world of money and power in golf than Woods. These are completely fascinating narratives. And yet nobody reads past the headlines. Nobody tries to formulate a take that sees both sides and empathizes with one yet affirms the other.
Because those kind of takes don’t sell daytime television spots. Sex sells, remember, even if it is grotesque.
This will exist regardless of whether I like it, but it seems a little bit unfair to the athletes whom we want to disclose honest opinions about first-hand knowledge the rest of us are only innocent bystanders to. This is not the first time this has happened. McIlroy himself said a few years ago that Woods and Phil Mickelson are on the back nine of their careers. A point that could not be more factually true. He got roasted.
It’s frustrating when Tiger Truthers come out of the woodwork at any hint that their 2-iron-spinning demigod cloaked in check marks and surrounded by more trappings than he can possibly ever fully understand is a mere mortal like the rest of us. Because he is. Even when it is not conveyed like it should be. The bottom line in all of this is that at some point the take lake will dry up because athletes won’t dare speak of their colleagues or much of anything at all. It’s not worth it. There is no point.