As the final round of the U.S. Open unfolded on Sunday, it was clear that America had a new cottage industry. It’s called Whatsa’ Matter With Tiger? This media game tries to explain just how messed up Woods’s head is when he addresses a golf ball.
That’s as opposed to the cottage industry known as Tiger Is Back, which was trending like crazy last Thursday and Friday at The Olympic Club in San Francisco when Woods was tied for the lead at the Open.
In the attempt to stay ahead of Woods’s fluctuating fortunes, two schools of opinion have emerged among the media deep-thinkers vying to be crowned as golf genius. When Woods was as consistent as bank stock in posting 14 major tournament titles, it was easy to ride the waves of Woods. Predicting the astonishing was rewarded by Woods delivering the goods.
Now, however, Woods is as likely to cough up a fur ball as he is to devour the field. Which has left the more flexible members of the press bending over to cover earlier pronouncements on the return of Tiger from his long, long slump in the majors. His 180-degree turn in play at the U.S. Open has produced some pretzel gyrations.
When Woods followed his win at the Memorial Tournament with two feisty rounds near the top of the U.S. Open scoreboard, the savants were in full hosanna mode. “How can you tell that Tiger Woods is back? The proof is in the tempo.” So said SI.com Golf. “Does Tiger regaining his tempo make him the favourite to win at Olympic? Yeah, it does. It makes him the favourite to win anywhere.”
ESPN analyst Paul Azinger, who captained Woods in the Ryder Cup, was bullish, too. “I think he’s back to where he once was,” Azinger told USA Today. “He’s swinging it great, he’s winning, and he just has that look he used to have. And who’s going to be more confident this week than Tiger Woods?”
The talking heads of NBC, Golf Channel and ESPN proclaimed that Woods’s confidence was back as he broke into the lead at the Open last Friday. Here’s one tweet. “@ReillyRick Write it down. At 2 p.m., PT, Friday, Tiger Woods took the Open lead and never looked back. ... Bet me.” (Wish we had). And another. “@jimrome @elkpga just told us he thinks the U.S. Open is already over. No one is running down Tiger Woods.”
But as Woods’s stumble Saturday turned into a collapse Sunday (he shot 75 and 73 on the weekend to finish 72 holes at seven over), the tone changed. On ESPN Radio, former U.S. Open champ Curtis Strange was carving Woods’s “paint by numbers” swing approach. Strange described a man wedded to mechanics, forgetting his natural swing. As a result, Strange liked Graeme McDowell or Jim Furyk, who have natural swings, to persevere in the Final Round.
In the NBC tower, analyst Johnny Miller was, as always, brutally honest as Woods [and Phil Mickelson] fell quickly off the lead in the final round. “Looks like Phil and Tiger are turning back the clock … to when they were 5.”
Ouch. Meanwhile, comedian Norm Macdonald was making a mockery of Tiger boosters. “@normmacdonald Rick Reilly just said Tiger Woods is in his prime. This is the single stupidest statement ever made in sports.”
Perhaps not the stupidest, but considering Woods’s erratic play at this time, lauding Woods is certainly the riskiest thing you can do for your reputation.
One thing that can’t be debated is Woods’s magnetic hold on the TV ratings for golf. Overnight results on NBC’s prime-time coverage from his implosion Saturday showed NBC winning the network battle for the night in the United States. It also dwarfed the 2011 total when Woods was injured. ESPN’s telecast last Thursday earned a 1.6 household coverage rating in the afternoon, while the 5p.m. to 10 p.m. telecast had a 1.5 rating. Both were up in viewership and ratings from the 2011 U.S. Open.
ESPN’s coverage Friday averaged 3.6 million viewers and a 2.9 household coverage rating, according to Nielsen Co. The audience was the fifth-largest ever for a golf telecast on cable.
Ames takes aim
Stephen Ames of Calgary made the cut at the U.S. Open, but his biggest impact wasn’t the score of the loquacious pro. Ames stumbled to an 18-over-par 298 and tie for 68th place on the weekend, but not before he let off this zinger about how the U.S. Open handles the Woods effect.
“Playing behind Tiger, it’s really tough,” Ames told reporters. “We stood up on the sixth hole, and we watched about 80 people trample up, all the way around the back edge of the green going to the next tee. Please. There are other people playing this event. And it is, in some respects, the USGA’s fault for allowing so many people to be following him.
“It’s a bunch of amateurs running a professional event. That’s what we’ve said for years. It’s always difficult that way.”
Shockingly, Ames wasn’t invited to the NBC tower to repeat his comments for the TV audience.