I think most of us, including Tiger Woods himself, were surprised at the overwhelmingly positive reaction he got from the fans in his return to golf at the Masters. A couple weeks ago, Woods said he was hoping to get “a few claps.” Instead, he was greeted with hearty applause and yells of encouragement. There was no heckling.
What we forgot is that a golf tournament is a sports arena, not a place for dishing out judgments. We cheer all the time for players on the home team who may be complete jerks in their personal lives. We also clap for golfers who are not nice guys, who have been unfaithful to their wives, who have walked past kids asking for autographs.
The difference in the Tiger Woods case is that we know about those things. Well, not just that we know, but also that they occurred on a grand scale that could not be excused or explained away.
In team sports, we cheer for our team regardless of the character of the players on it. A player can be found guilty of a crime, but when he returns to the team and scores the winning basket, fans rejoice. Maybe if your team accumulates too many guys you don’t like, you might switch allegiances, but that’s rare.
The moment of truth comes when an athlete returns from a brush with the law or a drug suspension and is introduced with the starting lineup at the start of a home game. At that moment, if you cheer, you are not cheering for a particular basket, touchdown, home run, or whatever, you are cheering for the player himself. In nearly all cases, the player gets the cheers anyway. Maybe it’s to show forgiveness and encouragement for better behavior in the future, maybe it’s just to show that you want him to contribute to the team’s success, but usually the applause comes. Unless, of course, it’s a road game. Then there will be boos.
In golf, every game is essentially a home game. The fans are supposed to cheer every player, and they do. Booing and heckling are not allowed.
The equivalent of the pre-game introduction in golf is the walk to the first tee. As it turned out, fans reacted to Tiger like he was an athlete returning to play for their home team, with whoops and hollers. This is where I was surprised. I was expecting only polite applause when Woods first appeared, the kind of applause that engendered the term “golf clap.” After that, once he got out on the course and made a long birdie putt or hit an approach shot close to the hole, I was expecting the usual cheers, because, after all, this is a golf tournament and the fans are there to watch golf.
The fact that Woods’ return was at the Masters probably had something to do with the absence of heckling or disruptions—nobody wants to risk losing a badge and, besides, the fans are more polite to begin with. I’m not sure that it had anything to do with the enthusiasm, though. No matter the site, there would have been an element of fans in the “I’m just glad to see Tiger back playing golf again” camp who would have been enthusiastic on his return.
Of course, there is another camp, too. The not-enthusiastic-about-Tiger element can be broken down into people who never liked him in the first place and those who liked him well enough before but are too disappointed in him to fully support him now.
Golf is different from team sports, where it’s black-and-white that fans root for one team and against another team. At a golf tournament, fans don’t outwardly root against anyone, but they don’t cheer equally for all golfers. Golf fans are allowed to have their favorites and to root harder for some players than for others. Naturally, they tend to root for players they like. As a golf fan, you are free to whoop and holler for “your” guy and give only polite applause to a player you don’t particularly care for.
Of course, inside your head, you as a fan at a tournament are free to pull against someone, to hope that he hits it in the trees or misses the putt. And watching on television in your living room, you are free to outwardly root against, boo, hiss, disparage, or curse any player you want (though cursing Tiger if there are children in the room would be hypocritical). Undoubtedly, that’s what’s going on in many living rooms this week. But at Augusta National, it’s golf-fan business as usual.