Tom Watson raised some eyebrows last week while playing in Dubai—ironically he was invited because the tournament had a large chunk of extra cash to spend on appearance fees since it wasn’t paying Tiger Woods his annual fee of $3 million—when he talked about Woods’ behavior on the golf course.
Let’s put aside the off-course issues for today because there is going to be MORE than enough written and said about them as Woods moves closer to his return to the PGA Tour, which I still think will come next month either at Doral or Bay Hill.
Watson’s point was this: In golf, part of being a CHAMPION is the way you conduct yourself in public, especially on the golf course. It is worth remembering that Watson was one of the first players to say straight out that he had never seen a talent like Woods and that his presence in the game was nothing but a good thing.
I still remember back in 1998, I drove to the airport in Jacksonville during the week of The Players Championship to meet my family, which was coming to town since Danny was on spring break and Brigid wasn’t in school yet. Watson was there, waiting for the same flight from Atlanta because his son Michael was flying in to meet him for the week.
When the plane landed, Danny—who was four at the time—was the first person to come running into the terminal. He spotted me right away and raced over. When I introduced him to Watson I said, “Mr. Watson is a very famous golfer.”
Danny looked at Watson and said, “are you as good as Tiger Woods?”
“Not in my wildest dreams,” Watson answered.
It was also Watson who said during Woods’ 12-shot runaway at the 1997 Masters that, “he’s a boy among men and he’s showing the men how it’s done.”
But it has always bothered Watson—and many other players—that Woods has absolutely refused to clean up his act on the golf course. Most kids learn early that throwing clubs and using profanity on the golf course is unacceptable. Arnold Palmer often tells a story about playing in a tournament when he was about 13 and tossing a couple of clubs in frustration. His father was there and never said a word throughout the round.
“As soon as we got in the car he said to me very quietly, ‘if you ever throw a club again, that’s the last time you’ll play golf,” Palmer said. “You can believe I never threw a club again.”
Can you possibly imagine Palmer, Watson or Jack Nicklaus throwing a club? You might—MIGHT—hear a “dammit,” from them on occasion but that’s about it. Woods AND his thug caddy are famous on tour for their language. In fact, back in 2000, during his historic performance at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Woods rinsed his ball in the water left off the 18th tee at the end of the second round and dropped a clearly heard on national TV f-bomb for which he was given a hefty fine since it was far from being his first offense.
His response was to have his agent call The PGA Tour and complain that there was a double-standard when it came to fines for Woods because he always had a microphone following him. All the double standards that BENEFIT Woods because of his stardom never get complained about.
Part of the problem, as I’ve written before, lies with the tour. Commissioner Tim Finchem still adheres to the ridiculous notion that covering up fines somehow helps the tour’s image as a genteel place filled only with fine gentlemen. (I think that image may have taken a hit these past 10 weeks). Finchem and his board believe that fines and even suspensions should be covered up to protect the tour’s image.
About the only reason to fine athletes who make the kind of money the stars on the tour make is deterrence. Does anyone think it hurts Woods to reach into his pocket for fine money—even if he is the most fined player in golf history? Of course not. But, prior to the morning of November 27th, the second-most important thing in Woods’ life (his golf swing being THE most important) was his public image. The more he came across as the boy next door, the more valuable he was to his various sponsors.
If the tour made public ALL its fines, you can bet all players, would behave better on the golf course. Instead, the tour is so secretive that several years ago one player who was suspended told his wife he had decided to, “take a break,” from playing and she believed him.
Woods has been un-apologetic about his behavior or his caddy’s behavior. On occasion when the issue has come up he has talked about people not understanding the pressure he and poor Stevie are under. What set Watson off was the sight of Woods bouncing his driver into the gallery during a tournament in Australia and recovering it without so much as a word of apology. His feeling, as with many others, is that if you come on tour at 21 with a temper, fine. By the time you’re 34 you should make some attempt to correct it.
Long time tour players Steve Pate and Dudley Hart were known on tour for years as, “volcano,” and “mini-volcano,” because of their on-course eruptions. Both laughed at the nicknames but didn’t like the reputations that came with it. Both worked—successfully—to clean up their act. The nicknames remain but they are no longer accurate.
Right now, while he’s allegedly taking a long hard look at his life and who he is, would be a good time for Woods to reconsider the way he behaves at the golf course and to think about Watson’s point about the difference between being a great player and being a great champion.
The club throwing needs to stop and the profanity needs to be controlled. (I am not going to be a hypocrite and suggest he STOP all profanity because I’ve never been able to do it although I do try to be conscious of it around my kids and radio microphones). He needs to MAKE his caddy behave and not always be screaming at photographers or anyone in the gallery who breathes incorrectly. He should sign more autographs, perhaps take a page out of new best friend Phil Mickelson’s (ha!) playbook and plan time into each day to just sign autographs. The weak excuse put out by his PR people, “if he signs 100, the 101st person will be upset,” should be put away since those first 100 would be thrilled and that’s at least 99 more than Woods signs most days.
He might even want to quit blaming the media every time it does something awful like report that he failed to win a major in 2009. When I think about Woods telling Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz this past fall (before November 27th) that he was tired of the way the media treated him, I want to burst out laughing. Woods gives the media less time than any great athlete in the history of sports. He almost never does a one-on-one with anyone except for paid deals (Diaz’s interview for example was part of Woods’ contract with Golf Digest and he refused this year to do it in person) and softball TV interviews that usually last three questions or occur when he’s pitching something. He’s treated with kid gloves because people in golf are afraid of him and because he sends his agent, Mark Steinberg, to bully almost anyone who steps out of line.
Example: Last August when Woods refused to speak to the media for two days during The Barclays event held at Liberty Island (he was pouting because he’d been accurately quoted by one of his pro-am partners making fun of the golf course) I said in my weekly Golf Channel essay that he’d acted like a petulant child. The next week in Boston, Steinberg told several people from Golf Channel that they might, “have trouble,” getting Woods to talk to them that week (these guys had NOTHING to do with what I’d said) because Woods was angry about my essay. The old guilt-by-association trick.
This would be a GREAT time for Woods to stop trying to pass blame for his behavior—on or off the golf course—onto others and look himself in the mirror. There’s a reason why Tom Watson is universally respected. Woods should think about what he’s saying and understand that he is NOT out to get him. (No one is if you think about it). If he cleans up his act on the golf course people will love him even more than in the past. He’s a smart guy. This should be easy for him.
I suspect it won’t happen.