Of Winners and Whiners: Tiger Dismantles Sergio

It’s rare in golf to see a gallery cheer for a bad shot, but it happens. The patrons of the game love to brag about the sport’s unique decorum, but there are times when rooting interest takes over and fans can’t help themselves. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when the spectators at the 17th hole at the Players Championship — the famous island green — gave in to their secret enthusiasm when Sergio Garcia hit a first shot, and then a second, into the water. He was in the middle of a duel with Tiger Woods, and because both men are larger-than-life figures, and because they despise each other, the gallery was almost obliged to pick a side. It wasn’t a difficult choice, and when Sergio lost the tournament on 17, the partisans roared for Tiger.

But here’s something I don’t think I’ve ever heard in golf before: sarcastic applause. As when Sergio finally put his tee shot on the green in his third attempt. The mocking roar that rose as the ball landed went a step beyond instinct and into something like cruelty. A choice had been made — Sergio was the bad guy, and it was OK to collectively cheer his failure. It was late in the day, and the fans, to steal a phrase from Tiger’s post-match press conference, were “well influenced.” You could hear isolated shouts of “get in the water!” ring out after Sergio’s tee shots, and when he put another in the drink on 18, a fan with masterful comic timing waited until moments before his second shot to shout “water on the left!”

Their man was about to win the title, but the caustic aftermath showed that the drama went beyond Tiger vs. Sergio. This was love against hate.

Hypothetical Player A is the consummate underdog. He’s a gambler with a flair for the dramatic and a boyish charisma, qualities that made him a phenom at a young age. But his career never panned out like anyone thought it would, and he suffered through personal struggles and lost his self-belief in the intervening years. But he’s playing great golf again, and you can see the enthusiasm starting to return as he attempts to reverse a career of failure in big events.

Hypothetical Player B is the consummate favorite. He’s the greatest of all time, and he’s been a phenom practically since childhood. At first, his career panned out in a way that even exceeded the considerable hype. He was on a trajectory to become the greatest of all time by a significant margin. He’s aloof, maybe a little arrogant, and if he isn’t exactly disliked by his fellow pros, he doesn’t have many friends. Aside from his greatness, we know him for swearing on the course. Later in his career, it came out that he was a serial adulterer whose wife left him in, um, dramatic fashion, sparking a career nadir that has only recently come to an end.

If we made a film with these two characters, there’s no doubt who we’d cast as the hero and the villain. But this is real life, and what I want to talk about is why, after everything, we hate Sergio Garcia. And why we still love Tiger Woods.

I’m speaking broadly, of course. Not everybody hates Sergio Garcia, and, judging by my wife’s reaction, there are still many who would love to see Tiger Woods fail miserably for the rest of his career. But in a case like this we have to defer to the wisdom of the masses, and the verdict from the Players Championship (and really, the entire preceding year) is in: Our fascination with Tiger Woods is complete. When I say we love him, I mean that we’re drawn to him in a way we almost can’t help, and we root for him despite ourselves. We can’t help wanting to see him succeed, mow through the field just like old times with that flinty look in his eyes. We get the sense that whatever else he is, he’s a purebred winner. And I don’t care if that’s a cliché, because the truth is that sometimes we long for clichés. When Tiger is stalking the field on Sunday, we don’t care about anything else — we want to see his true nature emerge. His career trajectory may have taken bumps and bruises along the way, but he can’t hide who he is.

So why can’t we distance ourselves from his journey? My theory is that we want to believe that some men are larger than life. In that sense, Tiger has never failed to deliver. But first, we can’t escape …

The Incident

Saturday, Sergio and Tiger led the tournament and were paired together in the third round. On the second hole, Sergio was preparing to hit his fairway shot when Tiger, out of sight on the left side of the hole, pulled a 5-wood from his bag. That inspired cheers from the gallery, and while Sergio claimed it was “on top of the backswing,” video showed that it happened while he was approaching the ball. He chose not to back off and let the noise die down, and there was relative silence when he swung. Only after the shot turned out poorly did he glance in Tiger’s direction with a look of rebuke, and, being Sergio, he complained about it to NBC during a weather delay later in the round:

I wouldn’t say he didn’t see that I was ready, but you do have a feel when the other guy is going to hit. Right as I was on top of the backswing, he pulled a 5-wood or 3-wood out of the rough and, obviously, everybody started screaming, so that didn’t help very much.

There is no way in which Sergio’s gripe is not absurd. First, there was no noise when he swung, or even just before. Second, a marshal had told Tiger that Sergio already hit. Third, there was no reason to believe that Tiger could expect cheers to greet him when he pulled a club from his bag. Fourth, even if it was a very minor distraction, is there any benefit to fixating on it? None that I can see, unless you’re someone desperately seeking an excuse to lose.

Tiger took it mostly in stride after the round, but couldn’t resist a quick barb: “Not real surprising that he’s complaining about something,” he said. To which Sergio responded proudly and somewhat confusingly with, “at least I am true to myself.”

And in their remarks, you could intuit the complicated history. It began in 1999, at the PGA Championship, when Sergio hit the most famous shot of his career (until yesterday, anyway). The tournament came down to him and Tiger, and at one point Sergio waved his iron across the fairway as though he and Woods were in a duel. Tiger didn’t appreciate the gesture. Tiger won. In 2000, they played an exhibition match in a made-for-TV event, and Tiger had the flu. When Sergio won, his celebration far exceeded the tournament stakes.

Tiger didn’t like it. And since then, Sergio has felt the fury of Tiger’s vengeance in one devastating body blow after another.

Let’s talk about how Tiger fulfills our larger-than-life expectations just in the context of Sergio. Since that 2000 exhibition, the two have played together on the weekend seven times. Tiger has shot a better round all seven times. Tiger has won the tournament all seven times. Literally and psychologically, he has crushed him.

Let’s talk about how Tiger fulfills our expectations in the context of his career. He has now won 53 of 57 tournaments when he holds a share of the lead after three rounds, including 14 of 15 majors. It won’t be long before he breaks Sam Snead’s record of 82 career PGA Tour wins. He will someday break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships (yes, he will). He has an uncanny sense of the moment — yesterday was his 300th PGA Tour event, and he won. He also won his 200th event, and he won his 100th event. He won his first major at the most famous course in the world, Augusta National. He won the British Open when it was at St. Andrews (twice, actually), the most famous course in Europe. He won the U.S. Open when it was at Pebble Beach, the second-most famous course in America. He won the U.S. Junior Amateur, he won the U.S. Amateur, he wins almost every duel, every playoff in a major, and now we know he can win in recovery.

Let’s talk about how he fulfills our expectations in the context of his personal life. Even at the moment of his shame, Tiger was spectacular. He didn’t just have an ordinary affair — he cheated on his beautiful wife with at least 11 women. And it wasn’t an ordinary bitter breakup — he was scratched and possibly attacked with a golf club.

Let’s talk about how he fulfills our expectations as a corporate symbol. Nike turned him into an icon very early in his career, and even when he was shown having fun, it was by doing something extraordinary. And after the scandal? They remade him as a Lazarus figure, rising from the dead to erase his sins by the simple act of winning.

When Tiger regained his world no. 1 ranking this year, Nike ran an ad with the tagline, “Winning Takes Care of Everything.” It was brazen, presumptuous, and, for the purposes of the sports world, absolutely true.

And Sergio? His complaints about Tiger aren’t really complaints about Tiger. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to realize that Sergio’s tendency to kvetch about other players, bad luck, poor conditions, and anything else that presents itself stems from a crisis of self-belief. Read his words after the 2012 Masters, when he collapsed to take himself out of contention:

“I’m not good enough,” he said that day. “I don’t have the thing I need to have. In 13 years [as a pro], I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place. I have no more options. I wasted my options … Tell me something I can do.”

He feels hopeless, but most of the time he’s not so honest about it. You could say that his penchant for on-course drama is another deflection. Why did he hurt himself by climbing a tree to hit an unnecessary shot earlier this year? Why did he go right at the flag yesterday on no. 17 when he and Tiger were tied for the lead? He’s a gambler, but unlike Phil Mickelson, who gambles with a wide-eyed lunacy and a very American brand of blind optimism, Sergio is grim and resigned. He expects to fail so completely that it almost seems comfortable for him when it happens. Again, this feels very much like a defense mechanism; risk it all, and they can never say you wilted under pressure.

As it turns out, we the sports-watching public hate a whiner. It’s one thing to fold under pressure, but another when you can’t accept the reality of what happened and you try to deflect the blame. When someone loses with dignity, we admire and pity them, as we did with Greg Norman for years. But we expect our greatest athletes to know themselves, and when someone violates that code, as Sergio does again and again, they earn our malice. We love crisis and drama, but we loathe a man who is dishonest with himself. And that’s why we don’t root for the underdog.

The most telling moment of the broadcast yesterday came just after Sergio’s meltdown on 17 and Tiger’s perfect drive on 18 that would help him hold off David Lingmerth and win the tournament.

It begins with a shot of Tiger walking down the fairway. He acknowledges the crowd, but his eyes are narrowed. There is something smoldering beneath the surface. He passes by the water, and because the camera cuts off at his waist, for all we know he could be walking on it. Then we see a replay of his tee shot. We see the angry stare-down, the club twirl, and the way he looks down and yells something hard and triumphant that includes the word “fuck.” We immediately cut to Sergio, walking to the 17th green amid a group of people, suffering his latest bout of humility. His face is set, like maybe he expected this all along, and all he can do is turn to Lingmerth and say, “Good shot.” As he crouches over his ball, he sighs, and copes with whatever is happening behind his eyes.

The contrast is stark. These are two men who can’t escape themselves, and the conclusions they reached yesterday almost felt scripted and theatrical. It was a Greek tragedy where a man’s flaws predict his future. Afterward, Sergio would call himself a victim and claim that he didn’t lose the tournament on the 17th hole, but “just stopped winning.” Tiger would celebrate with his caddie and refuse to talk about Sergio; winners don’t lower themselves. Everything that mattered happened on the course, and his grin said enough.

And we will hate one of these men for his weakness, and we will love the other in spite of it.

Filed Under: Golf, Tiger Woods

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere