Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why "We" Like Tiger

What is the secret to Tiger Woods' vast appeal?

Is it because Americans love a winner, and he has won more than anyone his age in the history of golf? Is it because, as David Brooks argues, we admire his ability to focus on one thing in an increasingly distracted, multi-tasked world?


But it may primarily be because--more than any other golfer--he has unrepentantly made golf his work and his obsession and has thereby brought golf out of the realm of upper class leisure and turned it into a sport for the masses.

Sports earned their mass appeal during an era (late 1800s - early 1900s) that saw the definition of the modern work week and a need for organized leisure for the working class. People were gaga about baseball and football, in part, because the athletes were like them: workers who, especially in the case of football, punched a clock (football players even get and morning and afternoon breaks and a "half-time" for lunch!). Americans took aristocratic British games and made them popular and uniquely American: cricket to baseball (excuses to Mr. Doubleday), rugby to football.

Golf never made this transition. The sport remained a leisure activity for the upper class.

Begin by considering what golfers wear. Most athletes wear some sort of uniform appropriate to their sport: shorts, jerseys, headbands, helmets, etc. One glance and you know they are going to their work. Golfers look like they're heading for a weekend retreat at the Hamptons with the family.

Unlike working class sports, in golf, the player is trusted to call his own penalties. Working, professional athletes cannot be trusted and must have a foreman/arbiter keep them in line.In good Victorian fashion, golfers never touch their opponents except to shake hands at the end of the round. In working class sports, physical contact may be regulated but it is certainly present. Finally, golfers hire someone else, a caddy, to do their heavy lifting for them. Even the USGA, with its emphasis on amateurism, seems determined to maintain an aura of wealthy elitism.

In addition to pants, caddies, and crowd shushers, the PGA expects its pros to be keep up the country club image on and off the field. John Daly, despite two wins in majors, has never played on a Ryder Cup team. And his lifestyle has garnered all sorts of media attention. In most other big sports, his antics would make him just another player.

So golf is first and foremost a sport of upper class decorum.

At least it was. Enter Tiger Woods.

Woods turned pro at age 20 and began winning tournaments almost immediately. He has never hid his desire to be the best golfer ever. He approaches the game with workmanlike seriousness, even desperation, determined to win. And win he does: he wins big, wins ugly, wins with grit or with grace. He finds a way. About the time he came into the pros, the "YOUTHEMAN / GETINTHEHOLE" crowd appeared in the galleries. The genteel fans were replaced by raucous ones who loved that Tiger eschewed the aristocratic detachment and nonchalance of the past and began pumping his fists and staring intently at his putts, willing them into the cup. In addition, Tiger obviously lifts weights and trains incredibly hard away from the course. His is not a life of leisure. Even his name suggests a working class upbringing. He is no Davis Love III. He has something to prove.

And last week he did it on a torn ACL with two stress fractures in his leg.

Other players have made steps to move golf in this direction. But none have equaled Tiger's reach and popular appeal.

Yes, Tiger is an impressive athlete, he is incredibly focused and he is a winner. But Tiger has brought golf into the limelight because he is unabashedly professional, because he has impressively broken through the genteel traditions of a gentleman's game to connect with the masses. And he has done it not by laughing and chatting, but by working. Hard.


SM Sprenger said...

I think, rather, it's because he's a winner and mass crowds, who have little capacity for taste or judgment, go with what's number 1. The fact is Tiger is a machine with no charm or personality--reminds me of Yvan Lendl. I took Brooks' article to be somewhat ironic and even critical of the "frozen stare" (doesn't sound like a real compliment to me). By the way, with all of the municipal courses and even on military bases that emerged around the US in the 1950's and 60's, the craze for playing (not watching) golf can be traced further back than Tiger. Where I grew up it was mainly a working class sport--perhaps for pretenders who imagined they were participating in the high life. In England and Scotland, too, there are lots of working class folks who play the game.

Corry Cropper said...

I agree. Bourdieu writes that the win-at-all-costs mentality is actually a middle-class appreciation of sports. So in that sense, crowds do like a winner... in individual sports, especially (I think in team sports, many more root for the underdog).
I don't know that many PGA pros have come from the public courses... could be wrong. But you're right, the fact that I've played golf (on public courses and, yes, at Nellis Air Base) proves that it is accessible to the... ahem... lower middle class. Tiger just embodies the win-at-all-cost mentality better than any other golfer in history.

SM Sprenger said...

Sevi Ballesteros was a poor kid who played for years with a single club--a seven iron. But he had that big smile and tons of charisma. And John Daley--an aristocrat from Arkansas? Even two most charismatic players ever to play the game, Palmer and Nicklaus, were middle class kids. I think you'd have a harder time finding "aristocrats" on the tour. I think your theory doesn't work.... No doubt Tiger is great--and perhaps will considered be the greatest player ever to live. But he doesn't seem to enjoy what he does; he lacks that something that would make him truly transcendent. His press conferences sound like a businessman talking.

Corry Cropper said...

Again, I agree. I'm not saying all golfers are aristocrats, far from it. I'm saying that Tiger approaches the game like it's his job. A job he takes very seriously. In a way, he has americanized the game. He is efficiently single minded about winning. And yes, he's boring in press conferences. Very much like a businessman--that's my point. I put "we" in quotes, because I prefer the John Daleys and Seve Ballesteroses who have character and are unpredictable, and who ruffle the PGA execs' feathers. Still, none of those guys had the following or the economic impact, etc. of Tiger.

SM Sprenger said...

I thought you were saying it was a high brow, quasi aristocratic game that Tiger singlehandely brought down to a mass level. Whereas I think the masses have been with the game for a longer while. It's true he has a bigger impact on viewership than players past, but do you really think people admire him for his work ethic? Another huge difference from just a few years ago is globalized television--where everybody in the world can tune in. This brings in colossal sums of money that weren't there in the past.

Corry Cropper said...

A global TV audience and a very good "Tiger Woods Golf" video game.

SM Sprenger said...

On second thought, here's what to admire about Tiger beyond the obvious fact that he's the best golfer: he is willing to sacrifice what seems to be working well for something even better. This goes beyond a simple work ethic: it requires an unimaginable amount of guts and faith. In this sense, Tiger could be a useful metaphor for what America needs: to break out of our smug complacency and strive for something better. We're going down the drain sitting on our laurels.