I'm not a golfer. I'm an unco-ordinated putz. Thus my relationship with golf, as with most sports, is tenuous at best. I can't even claim to be a good spectator. Not that I scorn those who find delight in games, either as players or fans. People heading off to a hockey game - even those selfless masochists in Toronto who bear the burden of supporting the Leafs - seem to have several Christmases a year. The camaraderie and exuberance of sports fans is a kind of continuous yuletide spirit.
And I certainly do not scorn golfers. I know there's a class of people who are quite prideful that they "do not golf." They seem to see this not doing something as quite a positive virtue, assert it actually as a lapel pin of superiority. Such people are near relations of another set, those who ostentatiously - almost, it seems, compulsively - announce that they "do not watch television." Invariably, that proclamation is followed by the even more emphatic declaration that "we" - it's always "we" in this context - don't "actually" have a "television in the house." Such virtue.
Superior non-golfers are full of tired quips about golf as a great way to spoil a good walk, that it's not really a sport at all. They're also hung up on a defunct stereotype - that golf is a game for the rich or the professional, purely a pastime for fat cats and corporate types. Actually, golf has been greatly democratized. It brings together the roughnecks and the brain surgeons, the cab driver and the guy who owns a private jet. And it is now quite a mass phenomenon. There are golf courses - please note that plural - in poor fog-benighted Newfoundland, and if there are golf courses in Newfoundland - with its eight days of sunshine a year - that's as profound a tribute to the magnetic draw of the game as you can conjure.
I suppose it's the fact that golf is watched or enjoyed by so many that is giving such convulsive life to Tiger Woods's sorry and ever-sorrier escapades. It's a story that has some of the furious energy that was devoted to Michael Jackson's sad passing. The other, larger, reason why the story is lighting up the Internet, the gossip mags, mainline newspapers and the big television shows is that Tiger Woods himself is one of the handful of the world's genuine superstars. Tiger is Muhammad Ali with a 9-iron.
Naturally, for such is the age we inhabit, the public spectacle of so large - and hitherto regarded as so virtuous - a figure being caught in the self-braided turmoil of multiple adulteries (I believe we're up to a dozen "alleged mistresses," but they emerge almost by the hour) will command unrelenting attention. Word has it that Oprah herself has offered her couch to Tiger - maybe she can have her Christmas with the Obamas one day, and the Repentance of Tiger the next - so we know this story is as big as a story can be. Oprah doesn't do just any splash of adulteries.
Still, even though it is understandably commanding the attention of half the world, we're free to wish it were not. That the appetite for relishing the miseries of others - regardless of whether they bring those miseries on themselves - were not so fierce and rampant. Which is why I took such solace from reading that Jack Nicklaus, the only name in golf that may have equal fame with Tiger's, gave as his considered comment on the mess "none of my business."
Jack Nicklaus once again proves himself a man of class. He is one of the most attractive figures in the entire world of professional sports, a man whose accomplishments would justify an ego as big as the Ritz but who, nonetheless, has always comported himself with modesty, reticence and style. He is not a trumpet of his own skills, not a loudmouth, uncouth, overpaid annoyance - as are and have been so many of those who claim the headlines and high salaries in professional sports. Jack Nicklaus was the king of his world for the better part of 2 1/2 decades, and never once defiled himself or the game he played so superbly with rants or tantrums, with wild living or vulgar egotism.
And he was classy in that ever so easy way of his when he said Tiger will "figure it out," and in making that public declaration that it's "none of my business." If there had been a little of Mr. Nicklaus's self-effacement and friendliness - he is a friendly man - a little projection of that same humility during Tiger's career up to this point, the feasting on the likely wreck of that career would very likely not have been as distressingly zestful as it's been.
Tiger Woods may be the better golfer, but Jack Nicklaus is surely the better man.