Karma returns to majors

Remember how in 2009 the wrong player kept winning major championships? Welcome to 2010, where karma is back.

Phil Mickelson was dressed in black on Masters Sunday, including a black cap, but figuratively he was wearing a white hat. He and his family have been through a rough time in the last 11 months, with his wife and mother both undergoing treatments for breast cancer. This was the first time since last May that his wife, Amy, was able to attend a tournament.

Phil is a fan favorite anyway, a modern-day Arnold Palmer when it comes to making eye contact and connecting with folks in the gallery. His willingness to sign autographs and his bold style of play also earn him points.

His main foes on Sunday were Lee Westwood, K.J. Choi, and Tiger Woods. Westwood and Choi are nice enough guys, but they are from England and Korea, respectively (though Choi lives in the U.S. now). Neither was going to be the people’s choice in Augusta, Georgia, as long as there was a good American alternative.

Woods, of course, was making his return to tournament golf after a scandal-induced five-month self-imposed exile. The contrast could not have been more stark. On the one hand, you had the consummate family man who took time off from the Tour last year to be with Amy during treatments. Going up against him, you had a serial philanderer who had been unfaithful to his wife with, apparently, a parade of other women.

Amy Mickelson was waiting for Phil with their three children behind the 18th green after spending most of the week resting in their Augusta rental home (the long-term prognosis is good, but day-to-day life not easy while the treatment is ongoing). Woods’ wife, Elin, and their two children, were back in Florida, and no one knows if the marriage has a chance of surviving. If Tiger had won, he would have been greeted behind the green by…his agent.

Golf is rarely a morality play, nor should it be, but this had all the trappings.

On top of that, Woods was playing the role of heavy very well. Early in the week, he said he would change his temperament and behavior on the course, reducing his outbursts even though it would also mean toning down his celebrations. But once he started hitting some bad shots on the weekend, it was the same old Tiger, petulant displays that on a couple of occasions were spiced by curse words picked up by microphones.

Then there was the ungracious interview with CBS’ Peter Kostis, where all Woods could manage was to spit out that he wasn’t happy with the week because he didn’t win, instead of saying that it was good to be back and acknowledging the support he received from the fans. When asked about his demeanor, he said that too much was being made of it.

But he’s the one who said he was going to change. And then showed no signs that he was even trying to change, no acknowledgment that he’d said he would work on that.

I’m actually fine with Tiger being intense on the course, as long as he makes an effort to tone down his worst outbursts and stops acting like there’s nothing wrong with dropping f-bombs in front of 6-year-old spectators. I think it is possible to rein in the negative without turning into some flat-line version of Tiger. I’m also fine with Tiger being ultra-focused on winning. That’s who he is. He doesn’t need to change his stripes on the course all that much.

Where Tiger needs to change is off the course, to become a “better man,” as he has said. I think he can do that while remaining the same Tiger the golfer except for softening some of the edges.

There are some changes he should make on the periphery of his play in tournaments. He could do a lot more in terms of signing autographs, giving clinics, doing interviews, etc. And he needs to lose the sense of entitlement that he displayed in his golf life as well as in his personal life (not committing to tournaments until the last minute, demanding not to be interviewed by certain people, etc.)

Woods was welcomed back because fans wanted to see him play golf again. That doesn’t mean they wanted him to win, especially when Mickelson was in the mix.

I found myself not wanting Woods to win the Masters almost as a matter of penance for his scandalous behavior (and I don’t mean the swearing). That doesn’t mean I don’t want him to ever win another tournament. Somehow, though, it just seemed fitting for him to come up short in his first tournament back.

Woods may never again be as popular as he once was. Then again, “popularity” might be the wrong word with Tiger. His appeal was never really tied to his likeability. The main thing that draws people to Tiger is his extraordinary ability to play golf. If he wins another major or two, we will all be drawn to his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ total of 18 majors.

Woods justifiably drew some flak for comparing himself to Ben Hogan for playing in the Masters without having previously entered an event during the year. He would have been better off without mentioning that Hogan did it “after the crash,” because that only drew attention to the contrast between his accident and Hogan diving in front of his wife to protect her when a bus crashed head-on into his car.

In fact, though, the comparison between Woods and Hogan is apt in many ways. Hogan burned with more competitive fire than any other member of his generation. He was utterly focused on the course, known for an icy stare, and rarely acknowledged or interacted with the galleries. He displayed a handsome smile at awards ceremonies, but not while he was playing. He was all about winning. Just like Woods.

It can be fascinating to watch a player like that. If it’s back to business as usual between the ropes for Tiger Woods, that’s a good thing for golf.

Of course, Mickelson winning the Masters was good for golf, too. It raises the possibility of Phil putting up a real challenge to Tiger in 2010, and that’s something we’ve always craved.

That aside, it was just a heartwarming story, and those are always nice. Especially after what we’ve been reading and talking about for the last five months.

Mickelson finished second last year in one of those lack-of-karma majors, the U.S. Open, shortly after Amy was diagnosed with cancer. It was great to see Phil and Amy have their moment.

Now, if we can just do something about Tom Watson winning at Pebble Beach or St. Andrews…

One Response to “Karma returns to majors”

  1. Tom Bedell

    I felt exactly the same way, David: it just didn’t seem right that Tiger might win the Masters this year. It felt unseemly, too soon. I don’t know what time frame will make it right, I just knew this wasn’t it.

    I don’t really want or require any more public penance from Tiger–although I’m sure there are those who won’t be satisfied until Tiger is flogged on the first tee of some tournament–but I would like to see some of this new respect for the game he’s talking about. I understand he may be a work in progress. Dropping the whiny petulance will be a big step forward.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)