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Friday, December 4, 2009

Tailgate and the 2010 PGA Season

I’ve avoided the whole Tiger fiasco of the last week, primarily because this blog is concerned with helping weekend golfers play better golf. I don’t see how the sordid details of Tailgate, which change almost hourly, can help anybody play better. (Why is Tailgate my preferred name for this train wreck? It’s a combination of the busted-out rear window in the Escalade and that whole “got a Tiger by the tail” thing.)

However, I do think it’ll have an effect on the 2010 PGA season… but not for the reason anybody else might think.

Will the media pressure on Tiger when he finally emerges next year affect his game? Probably, at least for a while. It’s hard for me to believe that, if things are as bad as the media says they are, Tiger didn’t see this coming. His uncharacteristic displays of frustration this year would then make sense. When you see your life spiraling out of control, it’s a natural reaction to tighten your grip on the things you feel you can control – in Tiger’s case, that’s his swing. But if that’s true, the fact that he still won so many tournaments after the layoff and rehab tells me that it won’t affect him for long.

No, the real effect will be seen on the other players.

I’m not excusing Tiger for what he has apparently done, or the pain he’s caused Elin and the kids. (Having to live with that will be more punishing than anything the media can dish out.) But given the repeated comparisons to Bill Clinton, complete with “Slick Willie” comments, I feel I should point out that many other famous people have failed miserably in their family lives. King David comes to mind – considered the greatest king Israel ever had, and described in the Bible as a man “after God’s own heart.” He is also a man who slept with another man’s wife (that man being a hero in his own right), got her pregnant, tried to fool the man into thinking it was his baby and then, when that failed, had him killed. How could such a man be called a man after God’s own heart?

The point is that otherwise good men sometimes do horrendous things. David was a man after God’s own heart because of the way he dealt with his sins after they were exposed. We often talk about how good Tiger is at recovery shots; it will be his recovery from this that tells us what kind of man he is, not the fact that he has shattered his superhuman image.

But that shattered image is what I believe will affect the other players in 2010.

Some media people have said for years that most players are afraid of Tiger. I don’t buy that; rather, I think Ben Hogan was right when he said most golfers underrate themselves. (See my last post, if you missed that.) The other players on the Tour simply believed Tiger was better than them… not a better player, just better. He seemed to have everything under control, and I mean everything. How can you compete against a superhuman? I don’t think I’m overstating the case; while not all players say they are “bad people” when they don’t play well, the things they say about Tiger often go beyond just believing he’s a good player.

But I think that’s about to change. Tiger is clearly human; he has failings. He can screw up big time. (And yes, that’s the right choice of words.) Many of these players who have stood in awe of Tiger are going to see him in an entirely different light. Come on, if he can make mistakes this bad off the course… These players will get a boost of confidence from this newfound revelation that perhaps the beast can be slain. It will elevate their play.

I also suspect some of the players will start to see themselves as better than Tiger – not a superiority in skills, but in morals. They won’t say so in as many words… but they will think it, just the same. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that feeling superior is the same as having confidence, nor that it’s a good attitude to have. But I think it will be there, and for some of those players, it will elevate their play also.

And who is the person with the most to gain from Tailgate? It has to be Phil Mickelson. I know a lot of you don’t like him – you think he’s a fake, that he plays the camera, and that his image is contrived. But measured against the sometimes self-righteous standards that Tiger has been judged by in the past week, Phil is a saint. I understand the anger and resentment we feel when an idol lets us down, but you can’t have it both ways; if you’re going to label Tiger as evil incarnate, then Phil at least deserves a halo. You Phil-haters owe him some serious props for his family life, no matter what other faults you may think he has.

While I don’t expect Phil to be the “superior” type – for any family man, this whole debacle is heartbreaking – I do expect him to come out feeling pretty good about himself and his game. Say what you like about Phil’s attacking style, he feels that his game is in its best shape in years… and he smells blood. Like Arnold Palmer, he’s not afraid to attack. And if he gets off to a good start early, Tiger could end up on the defensive and the two could start pushing each other the way we’ve all been hoping they would.

The application for weekend players?
The “Tiger Effect” – intimidation by mere appearance – gets to many weekend players. They’re beaten before they step onto the course by players who seem to be better than them. I’m echoing Ben Hogan’s words here: Don’t underrate yourself. Make your opponent beat you. Don’t just roll over and say, “I have no chance.”

The application for the Tour? Well, next year should be interesting, as I suspect the “Tiger Effect” will be lessened. But I’ll really be paying attention to the Phil/Tiger duel. Depending on how things play out, by 2012 we may see the end of the [golfing] world as we know it…

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