The Tiger Paradox

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The fabled Masters golf tournament is under way as of today down in Augusta, Georgia. Tiger is of course the story. Tiger. The greatest crossover sports star since Muhammad Ali. Tiger. The paradox of today's sports world. He's both the greatest element of this era of golf. And he's what's wrong with this era of golf. The players recognize and are grateful that Tigermania has meant a boom in high-class tournaments and hence a climb in prize money. Yet those same players are not jubilant at walking these courses as second-class citizens while the throngs of crazed fans chase and bow to the king of the sport.

After yesterday's final practice round, this was Tiger's quote to the press, "I love mixing it up with the guys here. They're trying to beat me and I'm trying to beat them." And that's what's wrong. The also-rans are all trying to beat one guy, not each other, but just one special guy. The truth is that Tiger is playing this year's Masters against Bobby Jones, the only player ever to win all four of golf's major championships in one calendar year. That was back in 1930. Tiger's teeing it up against Jack Nicklaus, top dog in the sport's history with 18 Major Championships and 6 Masters titles to his name. Nicklaus is 68. Honestly, the television audience and the crowds at Augusta would be just as robust if Tiger flexed his biceps and his irons around the garden azaleas for four days all by himself.

How would you like to be Ernie Els or Phil Michelson or Geoff Ogilvy these days? They are the elite golfers of our time. If they were not cast in the long, strong shadow of Tiger, we would think of them as exciting, deeply skilled, mental masters. But the following are the scenarios at every golf tournament year-round these days. One, Tiger enters and we all tune in to follow his every swing. Two, he doesn't enter and we make other plans. Three, he enters and player Tigergolf which means nobody else matters…which means he is basically playing the course and history. Four, he enters but is off his game and it is an unspoken disappointment that whoever beats him was simply graced that day by his not playing to his potential.

We NEVER get the combination of Tiger on fire with one or two others on fire simultaneously. Why? Because the fire of Els or Michelson or Ogilvy is that of dissipating coals, compared to Tiger's raging flames.

I'm going to follow the tournament through the weekend. But I bet I'm just like you. I have no fantasies about someone finding their inner golf guru, as did Zach Johnson last year, and challenging a sizzling Tiger. I won't be tuning in to watch the Masters. I'll be tuning in for Tiger.

It's a dilemma that often plays out in sports. You've heard it. "Well, he didn't really win the tournament so much as the other guy lost it." That was the story of Monday's men's NCAA basketball championship. Memphis had it. As the clock was winding down, there was no other ending to the Big Dance. Memphis dominated Kansas. The bench players were restless and on their feet, ready to charge the floor and cut down the nets. Sure, Kansas sparked some magic when Chalmers hit that seemingly impossible three-pointer to tie the game and give them a chance in overtime. But the bottom-line analysis is that Kansas didn't win that game. Memphis lost it. They collapsed on gimme free throws. They lost their poise in allowing Chalmers to backspin that three, instead of throwing a hard elbow and make him try for two from the line. And, in the end, except for the boys from Kansas, it was a flat, uninspired ending to what had been a fantastic month of madness.

And back to the Masters, if someone other than Tiger gets hot, we will no doubt feel that that someone didn't so much win the Green Jacket, but Tiger lost it.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images



Diana Nyad