Jack and Tiger: a question of legacy


Tiger Woods: the climb up the rungs has been tough.-AP

JACK NICKLAUS defined golf, embodied it, graced it. As a boy, it's all Tiger Woods wanted to be, maybe not just Nicklaus either, but better. As a man, not everyone is sure he is on his way there.

Nicklaus' 18 major championship victories has been the flame that beckons Woods, it is an enormous, almost mythical figure that has become the measurement of genius in golf. Walter Hagen got to 11, but no man has got within sniffing distance. Except Tiger, at 29, is already at 10 after his victory at the British Open.

Tiger is Jack's friend and yet he hunts him, he honours Jack yet in a way he wants to bring him down. Watch him play, see that death mask he wears when he walks down fairways, that unblinking focus he sports when he calibrates a putt, and it is evident Tiger is not playing opponents around him but a fellow in the history books.

Nicklaus has gone now, stepped away from the major championships. His hip is troublesome, his legs feel ancient after a million holes walked, and his withering body cannot match his still stirred spirit. He was angry on missing the cut at St. Andrews, and as Woods explained: "I can see myself being the same way. You always have that edge and that competitiveness. Unfortunately, over time, your body just doesn't exactly equate to what your mind wants it to do."

Writers love the mathematics of legacy, they enjoy the idea of totalling up a man's life, calculating what good he leaves behind minus the ugly, deciding what gifts matter and what don't. Nicklaus' legacy is powerful, substantial, but argument has broken out in America over whether Woods understands it, whether in fact his legacy will be comparable.

John Feinstein, a fluent, sensitive writer and author of numerous books, including A Good Walk Spoiled and The Majors, wrote recently in a U. S. newspaper that, "Woods seems to think that Nicklaus' legacy is only about numbers, that winning golf tournaments is the only thing that measures a champion. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in golf."

Feinstein contends that what champions leave behind is more than mere playing record, though some will dispute that. Not me. Maradona's legend, for instance, has been bruised by his conduct, Pele's is not.

What Feinstein suggests, and this is unarguable, is that Woods can be grumpy and petulant and foul-mouthed. He is indulgent, too, of his caddie, Steve Williams, a bully who enjoys the absence of reins, once hurling a spectator's camera into a pond.

John Daly, in a valiant effort to justify some of Woods' behaviour, recently said: "Tiger gets fined for swearing on TV, but he's got a microphone in his face every shot. A lot of guys are using the same language, but they're not on TV." It is a flawed argument. Roger Federer is stalked by microphones, too, and there is no evidence at present of uncouthness in his quest for perfection.

But we must be fair to Tiger. Clearly he is not a man of obvious warmth, is guarded during the press conference, pulls a veil over his personality, but this in itself is not grounds for impeachment. Pete Sampras appeared remote as well, a distant hero, but perhaps such men can only function within a cocoon. Bradman never smiled too much either.

Thus Feinstein's comparing of Woods to Arnold Palmer, who he writes "is the most popular player in golf history because he always shared his emotions in victory and defeat with his fans" is in a way unfair. Palmer anyway did not live under the scrutiny that Woods faces, did not require bodyguards (the unfortunate accoutrements of modern sport), did not get death threats because of his colour.

Jack Niclaus: his legacy is not only about numbers.-AP

No, we do not know Tiger, yes, it is a pity, but we are also responsible for it. Every Tiger quote is hung out for public inspection, interpreted, analysed, sub-text searched for, inference examined. Who would want to speak? Who would not be cautious?

Michael Wilbon, a gifted Washington Post writer, took umbrage to Feinstein's piece, and to one by Los Angeles Times writer Bill Plaschke, both men who Wilbon confesses to having great admiration for. Plaschke, for instance, had taken issue with Woods' image, saying he "is not simply a golfer anymore, he is Microsoft, he is Coke and that isn't fun", as he were some faceless, sterile, corporate billboard on legs.

Wilbon's reply was telling. He wrote: "To all this, I'd raise a toast. Good for Tiger that he's Microsoft and Coke and Nike and Buick. Because I know how eloquently Plaschke has written about racial prejudice in sports over the years, I'm going to presume he slipped up for just a moment and didn't forget in full how long black athletes waited for the day when they would be courted by America's major corporations."

Indeed, it is often said, and never to be forgotten, that only in the late 1980s, early 1990s, not so long ago, did Michael Jordan become the first, true, crossover black athlete, who could ably pitch products to both black and white audiences.

Arthur Ashe, even when suffering from AIDS, when asked by a reporter about the heaviest burden he'd had to bear, replied "being black". Tiger's viewpoint may differ somewhat, but the fact is that any discussion on Woods is unavoidable without mention of race, and his legacy will always differ from Nicklaus' simply because Jack never got called "nigger" when growing up. Tiger did.

Race, of course, cannot be used as protection, or excuse, but it cannot be escaped. And Wilbon strikes at the heart of any debate on Woods when he says that "the things that shaped Tiger Woods, that cross his mind, that make him angry when he wakes up, didn't shape Nicklaus or Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson or Colin Montgomerie", all white golfers.

Plaschke also contends that Tiger is more feared than loved. Wilbon disagrees. I cannot say for sure having not walked in Woods' galleries across the world, though champions, however claustrophobic their lives become, should not divorce themselves from fans. Still, we should not disregard the truth that, in time, many athletes soften, or the perception of them does. If once spectators mostly handed Sampras a cool respect, such was the affectionate response when he returned to the US Open after he retired that even the controlled American dissolved into tears.

At 65 we can judge Nicklaus, at 29 Woods is an incomplete man and golfer. One man's legacy is powerful, the other is still under construction. Tiger has time to smoothen some of his edges, and he would be arrogant if he merely shrugged them off, but in all the game appears safe in his able, confident, muscular hands.