In this Washington Post column, noted author and columnist John Feinstein comments on Jack Nicklaus’ farewell to the British Open and, in so doing, observes that 2005 British Open champion Tiger Woods — while likely to break Nicklaus’ record of winning 18 major championships — has a much more difficult task ahead of him in equaling Nicklaus’ qualities as a champion:
Woods seems to think that Nicklaus’s legacy is only about numbers, that winning golf tournaments is the only thing that measures a champion. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in golf.
Woods already holds many records. One of them, which is unofficial, is that he has been fined for using profanity publicly more than any player in history. While using profanity in the crucible of competition is hardly a great crime, it is indicative of Woods’s attitude that, rather than try to curb his use of language, he has complained that he is being treated unfairly since there are always microphones following him when he plays. Last month, during the U.S. Open, Woods missed a putt and childishly dragged his putter across the green, damaging it as he did so. When he was asked about the incident later, he shrugged and said, “I was frustrated,” (no apology) as if he was the only player among 156 dealing with frustration. In recent years he has allowed his caddie, Steve Williams, to frequently treat spectators and members of the media rudely, not only defending him but also appearing to sanction his misbehavior.
Woods is extremely popular with the golfing public, in part because of his extraordinary play and in part because of a carefully crafted image built around a series of commercials that show him to be a funny and friendly guy. Sadly, that’s not the Woods most people encounter. He is the master of the TV sound bite, but he rarely shares any of his real thoughts with the public.
Someday, Tiger Woods will walk across the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th fairway at St. Andrews and say farewell the way Nicklaus did on Friday. No doubt he will be cheered for his greatness as a golfer, just as Nicklaus was. But those cheers — and the tears — were not just for a golfer, they were for a man; one who has always won and always lost with grace and dignity. As a golfer, Woods will no doubt continue to close the gap inexorably on Nicklaus’s records. He has a much longer road to travel to match him as a true champion.
What’s interesting about Feinstein’s comparison is that Nicklaus — while always acknowledged as the best golfer of his generation — has not always been a universally revered figure. Known as “Fat Jack” when he joined the tour in the early 1960’s, Nicklaus toiled during his first several years in the shadow of the more popular and personable Arnold Palmer. Despite the warm and fuzzy memories recalled this week at St. Andrews, Nicklaus and the Scottish crowd did not always get along so well. The first few times that Nicklaus first played the British Open, he criticized the dry courses and wondered publicly why the courses did not have sprinklers. On the other hand, the Scots criticized Nicklaus for playing too slow, which was a common criticism of Nicklaus on the PGA Tour for years. Even Nicklaus’ business practices in golf industry have resulted in criticism that he elevated personal interests over those of his shareholders.
However, Feinstein is correct that no one ever disputed that Nicklaus was a great golf champion, and it’s a growing blot on Woods’ golfing record that many are now questioning that quality in him.
By the way, the only time that I met Woods personally — which was back when Woods was in college and practicing at my club in Houston from time-to-time with my club’s former pro, Butch Harmon — Tiger was extremely courteous and personable, thanking me as a club member for allowing him to practice at our club. My impression was that his parents raised him well.