This Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The public relations machine behind men's golf can thank a gust of lucky fairway wind for an anomaly genius named Tiger--and they can also pat themselves on the back for orchestrating a genius plot named The Big Four. When he first came into his own, back in 1997, swaggering up toward those 18th greens in his signature red warrior shirts, Tiger was the bomb. A strikingly athletic physique, a man of Thai and African-American heritage with a swing as sweet and as powerful as the game had ever seen, a young guy with a marketable solo name, Tiger was just what golf needed to catapult it out of the irrelevant white man's country club and into the modern consciousness of mainstream sports--and catapult it he did.
The business of golf soared for the first time since the glory days of the Nicklaus/Palmer rivalry. Except this time, there was no rivalry. By the fourth and fifth years of Tiger's dominance, he was winning Major Championships such as the U.S. Open by an uncontested fifteen strokes. Just as Ali needed Frazier, just as Borg needed McEnroe, Tiger needed a couple of supremely talented and gutsy guys to threaten his streak, push him to demonstrate his superiority.
Well, at the time, the field was unfortunately wallowing in mediocrity. But a most fortuitous series of events happened, starting in the summer of 2002, and this is where the creativity of the golf marketers came into play. You wouldn't think a slump by a game's Major Star would ever benefit anyone. But Tiger's near-three-year slump gave the field some hope. Tiger, by the way, has never acquiesced to calling the past three years a slump. He's been working on his new swing. He's been acclimating to new clubs. He's been falling in love and getting married. So let's not call it a slump. Let's say these past three years have been a low. Meanwhile, with the Tiger's teeth a bit dull, the other cats sharpened up. Workaholic Vijay Singh basically teed off into a zone last year, won a mind-boggling nine tournaments and $10,000,000 and became number one in the world. The South African they call The Big Easy, Ernie Els, had been a force on the tour for ten years, but last year had his most consistent record and finished number two in the world.
Usually pouty and curmudgeonly Phil Michelson finally broke his Major jinx and won last year's Masters, actually looking boyish in jumping for joy. There were other characters lurking in the clubhouse with lots of great shots and the occasional ability to put them all together in one four-day tournament. Retief Goosen, Justin Leonard, Mike Weir. But the brains behind golf's marketing arm decided to call Singh, Els, Michelson, and Tiger The Big Four. The idea was to recreate the mystique of the Jack Nicklaus/Arnold Palmer/Gary Player Big Three, even though Michelson's one Major title was hardly comparable to Gary Player's record. And neither Singh nor Els should be mentioned in the same breath as Arnold Palmer.
But The Big Four campaign got us to believing that these challengers were doing their part. Now all that was needed was for Tiger to come up from his low and roar again. And this past Sunday, the pink azaleas of Augusta the backdrop for his dead-on chip shots, Tiger at last found his new swing. He made his new clubs work that old magic. And he even had what every champion thirsts for. A battle to the wire. It wasn't one of The Big Four. It was a focused and decisive Chris DiMarco who made Tiger sweat and waver and dig in and conquer.
And now everybody's happy. Tiger's back. Every time Tiger tees it up this summer, we will be witness to a living legend. Yet the Big Four are no longer intimidated. And other players also have a chance.
The only heartache in Augusta was watching tears stream down Jack Nicklaus' cheeks. The Golden Bear is sixty-five now, reluctant but generous of spirit as he steps away from the game he has graced since the age of nineteen.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.