One day was celebration of a return to glory.
The other was recognition of the remarkable ability of a gender.
One can argue which of these was more significant. All I know is that Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley has to be wearing a broad smile after what transpired at his club the past eight days.
The climax of the Tiger Woods Redemption Story is what’s dominating news cycles, social media, and sports talk radio this morning, and frankly, it should be. His victory, highlighted by a vintage Tiger dagger on 16 (he nearly recorded the third ace of the day on that hole), also provided a certain measure of revenge against his previous two major championship vanquishers – Open Champion Francesco Molinari (who looked rock solid for three and a half rounds until he joined the Death By Rae’s Creek Fraternity at the 12th hole) and PGA Champion Brooks Koepka (who had chances late in the round but couldn’t convert some makeable putts).
From a pure golf standpoint, how Woods ultimately won was something of a departure from his usual M-O. Must of us are accustomed to Tiger recovering from errant tee shots and holing every putt in sight, and while there were a few Big Cat sightings in Augusta’s pines and a couple of bombs holed out, what sealed the tournament for him was the way he managed the course.
They say that experience counts at Augusta, and Woods’s play throughout the competition was, pardon the pun, masterful. He understood when to attack, and, more importantly, when to back off. Nowhere was this more evident than on Augusta’s 12th hole, perhaps the most perplexing par 3 hole in the world. Many have postulated on how best to judge the wind; apparently the theories of Molinari, Koepka, and Tony Finau were faulty, as all three of them dumped their tee shots into Rae’s Creek.
Tiger was having none of that. Having played there enough to understand that firing at the Sunday flag on 12 is a fool’s game, he rifled a 9-iron over the front bunker, leaving a lengthy but dry putt. That unspectacular shot essentially won the tournament for him.
The reaction to his victory has been . . . well, interesting. Sports media, of course, loves a good story, and the story of Tiger Woods has been as wild as that of any major celebrity. It’s also leading the speculation of him reaching Jack Nicklaus’s major victory mark of 18 and a possible Grand Slam (“He’s won at Bethpage! He’s won at Pebble Beach! He’s won at – oh wait, they haven’t played the Open Championship at Royal Portrush since 1952 . . . No matter, he’s going to do it!”).
Social media reaction has been mixed, as many have chosen to judge Woods on his (and his handlers) past moments of arrogance and sins of the flesh (I wonder how many of the latter voted for Donald Trump?).
For me, the real story was Tiger’s post-victory celebration with his family, the reception he received from his fellow competitors as he marched to the scorer’s area, and, most of all, the manner in which he fielded questions from the assembled golf media. While he will always keep some distance between himself and the press, his joy and humility were palpable. And his final statement to them was downright funny – “Now I have something for show and tell on Monday!”
While Tiger’s win can be considered another one for the ages, what transpired at Augusta on the Saturday prior to the Masters may have broader long term implications for the future of golf.
The Augusta National Women’s Amateur, first announced last year by Chairman Ridley, was an unqualified success; the perfect confluence of setting and personality. Seventy-two of the world’s best female amateurs were invited to the event, one which featured a rather unusual format – the first two rounds were played at Champions Retreat in nearby Evans, Georgia on Wednesday and Thursday, which reduced the field to 30. But all participants were afforded the opportunity to play a practice round at Augusta National on Friday, with the 30 finalists teeing off on Saturday.
So while the course provided the setting – particularly the second nine (along with all the other jargon that The Great (mostly) White Fathers of Augusta impose of the golf community, I learned this year that there is not a front nine and back nine there; instead, it’s “the first nine” and “second nine”) – the personality was spread among the participants, almost all of whom were beaming as they finished their rounds.
The main fireworks came from the final pairing of Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi, who pulled away from the rest of the field and put on a display of shot-making that left even the most hardened golfing chauvinist awestruck. Ms Fassi is a next-level star-in-waiting – a native of Mexico and a star at the University of Arkansas, she possesses a powerful swing and a thousand megawatt smile. Her interaction with the “patrons” (translation from Augusta lingo – “spectators”) was on a level with that of Lee Trevino, and should bring a breath of fresh air to the LPGA.
Jennifer Kupcho, on the other hand, was a bit more reserved – although she, too, could not hide her delight at playing at Augusta. And she pulled off two of the gutsiest shots I’ve seen on the 13th and 15th holes that for all intents won the tournament for her. The Wake Forest senior should also make some noise in the future, as well.
More than the quality of play exhibited by these two young women was their obvious mutual respect and sportsmanship. They conversed throughout the round, applauded each other’s shots, and, at the risk of gushing, did the game of golf proud.
Which leads me to the fulcrum of my gist.
Much has been said about the impact of Tiger Woods on golf. The argument goes that he would bring more people – particularly young people of various ethnic backgrounds – into the game. One look at the Augusta National sponsored Drive, Chip, and Putt competition (held for ages 7 through 13 the day after the Women’s Amateur) would certainly support that point. And the obvious spike in television ratings when Tiger is in the field cannot be denied.
At the same time, some have tried to make the point that Tiger’s absence from the game has resulted in a downturn in participation and the closing of golf courses. That’s giving The Cat a bit too much credit. Course closings are more of a result of a projection made back in the 80’s and 90’s that retiring baby boomers would take up the game in droves. That has simply not turned out to be the case.
Where the game’s best opportunity for growth has been – and will continue to be – is participation by women. Many savvy parents have recognized the opportunities presented by Title IX and steered their daughters toward the game. And as more women have climbed the corporate ladder, familiarity with the game affords exposure to more clients.
My friend Sharon, a retired insurance executive and avid golfer, will watch her local high school girl’s golf team practice from her back patio. I once asked her what appealed to her about watching them.
“How intense they are,” she replied. “The control and command of the game at such a young age.”
“That’s good insight,” I replied.
“The way they cheer for each other and walk down the course together. They realize the competition is within yourself and not who you are playing with.”
I think she has something there.