The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson: only one clear winner

Personally, last week was one of the most riveting weeks of the year. Why? Because it was Masters week.

The Masters is arguably the most important single tournament of the year on the PGA Tour, and certainly the most prestigious. It is held at Augusta National Golf Club, where every hole on the course is named after a flower. It is a four day tournament from Thursday to Sunday with non-competition events earlier in the week, and above all, the winner receives his own lifetime membership to Augusta, exemplified by a green jacket presented at the end of the tournament.

The Masters is also the first of the four major championships held every season which along with the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship, constitute the Grand Slam of Golf. Of the four, the Masters seems to be the most difficult one to win. Winning a single Masters can define a professional golfer’s career. This year’s tournament is especially important, not just for golf, but for the entire sports world as well.

Tiger Woods finally emerged from his fortress of solitude to join the party at Augusta. Behind his dark shades, he clearly demonstrated that his game was still sharp, yet still came short of his goal of victory. The buzz was on Woods for five days before Phil Mickelson decided to write a different storyline. On Saturday, Mickelson almost made three eagles in a row on the back nine to move into second heading into the final day. On Sunday, Mickelson lived up to his reputation of going for the high-risk shots on his way to victory on the back nine. His 6-iron that he hit 207 yards off of pine needles to four feet on the par five, 13th hole, was nothing short of spectacular—undoubtedly the shot of the tournament, maybe the year. In other words and less numbers, an emotionally charged Phil Mickelson was brilliant. These two men are the top two golfers in the world, but their personal lives couldn’t be any farther apart on the spectrum.

The Masters was Woods’ first tournament this year, returning from a self-imposed hiatus following his Thanksgiving car accident last November, the incident that ultimately revealed his multiple extra-martial affairs and sparked scandal. Last February, Woods gave a very scripted “press conference” where he profusely apologized for his infidelity and hinted that he may not return to competitive golf this year. In January, Jack Nicklaus (whose record of 18 major championships is Woods’ goal) essentially said in an interview that Woods could not sit out this year if he wants to catch his record.     

Last Monday, in his first unscripted press conference since the Thanksgiving car accident, Woods told reporters that he started hitting balls five weeks ago: “And then I started hitting more balls and more balls. And I started getting the itch again to start playing again.”

During the same press conference, Woods claimed that the reason he did not play earlier this year was because he was not physically ready to play and compete on a high level until now. Personally, I don’t believe him.

The Masters is a special tournament not only for it its significance, but for its prominence as well. By now, the whole week has become, essentially, a very controlled event. At the Masters, golf fans in attendance are identified as “patrons” and are knowledgeable of the game. It is the only major championship where the photographers and reporters of the associated press are not allowed inside the ropes at any point in the event. Essentially, the organizers of the Masters make their best attempt each year to make the tournament as “pure” as possible by placing careful attention to the game of golf. This fine attention to the game includes being highly sensitive to every player’s need. Aside from it being one of the four majors, it is because the Masters is so controlled that Tiger Woods decided to make his return to competitive golf.

I think Woods could have returned three weeks ago at Arnold Palmer’s tournament on the PGA Tour, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill (for those of you unfamiliar, Arnold Palmer, along with Jack Nicklaus, is one of the legends of golf, not just a drink you can mix with alcohol). It is a tournament where Woods does what he does best—win in dramatic style.

I believe that Woods was fully ready to play two weeks ago at Arnold’s tournament, but chose not to in fear of the public’s reaction. Like most other PGA Tour events, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill is an event open to all golf fans—not just the demure “patrons”—who can shout and heckle all they want. Arnold’s tournament also is open to more media outlets and paparazzi than the controlled Masters tournament. The reason Woods did not come back sooner is because he didn’t want to face all those people—not because his game wasn’t ready.  

The Masters provides Woods the ideal theater and ideal audience to return his name to the sports pages, not the tabloids. It appears to be a very calculated decision to come back at the Masters, but in my opinion, it is the wrong decision. I believe Woods should have returned two weeks earlier at Arnold’s tournament because it would have shown good character on the part of Woods. It would have given him a chance to face up to the public. 

No one condones Woods’ infidelity, that’s for sure. But as a golf fan, all I want is to see him play golf at the highest level of competition. I believe he could have been competing two weeks ago to the delight of fans, but instead he chose to come back this week to the comfort of the hyper security that the Masters organization can provide and to the delight of golf “patrons”. 

But despite all of the provided comfort, Woods still didn’t win the Masters. He hasn’t won it since 2005, plagued with putting woes each year. No, Woods didn’t win. Mickelson did. And what a great win it was. An exhibition of exemplary shot-making over the weekend earned Mickelson his third green jacket, and 38th victory on the PGA Tour. But more importantly, Mickelson’s story is as inspiring as Woods’ is frustrating.

Last year, Mickelson’s mother and wife were both diagnosed with breast cancer. His family has not been able to travel with him to tournaments since May. That is, up until last week when the family rented a house for the duration of the tournament. On Sunday, Mickelson’s wife Amy stayed at the house to watch the tournament unfold on television. But when it looked like Mickelson had it locked up, Amy, along with family and friends, went to the 18th green, the last hole of the Tournament. After making one more birdie and securing victory, Mickelson was surprised to see his wife as he walked off of the green, and the two embraced without saying a word—Disney-style.

Woods’ and Mickelson’s personal lives couldn’t be any more different, but they are still at the top of their sport. I hope Woods keeps playing on the PGA Tour to win back some dignity. And as for Mickelson, I wish him the best.

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