I had resisted writing a blog post about this topic. It seemed almost too obvious. But as I watched this week’s promotion of the Quail Hollow Championship golf tournament in Charlotte, NC, and all of the renewed attention on Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, I couldn’t help but get sucked into weighing in on the Tiger vs Phil story, from a Nice Guy perspective, of course.
It’s not as if this Nice vs Nasty angle wasn’t covered during the prestigious Masters Tournament just a few weeks ago, where Tiger made his “comeback” following the tabloid revelations about his extramarital escapades. On the contrary, once Tiger had completed his first press conference and registered the much anticipated initial reaction from the fans, the media quickly turned to the best emerging story of the tournament. And that story pitted our friendly protagonist - the affable (and happily married) Phil Mickelson, who is beloved by fans everywhere for his genuine smile, courteous disposition and friendly connection to the gallery, against our not-so-friendly anatagonist – the stoic, steely-focused Tiger Woods, who is the undisputed king of the golf empire, and whose record-shattering results afford him fan forgiveness for his grumpy and impatient tone on the course.
The contrast in their personal styles has provided interesting window dressing for their golf rivalry for years. Tiger, ever the champion. Phil, always the also-ran. Tiger walks by galleries as if they didn’t exist, only acknowledging their presence when scolding someone for a camera click noise or an untimely cough. Phil strolls through the crowd with a smile and a wave of his cap, making eye contact and signing autographs. It’s the stuff of great sports stories, like bad-boy McEnroe versus cool and calm Borg, or loud-mouth Cassius Clay against the obscure Sonny Liston. The media loves it and the fans soak it all in.
But as if the consuming American public didn’t have enough to satiate themselves with the Tiger Woods “comeback” story, the Phil vs Tiger rivalry found yet another new dimension to their fascinating contrasts. While Tiger Woods was making his comeback from his infidelity and a series of deceitful sexual exploits, Phil Mickelson was enjoying a comeback of a different kind for himself; it was the return of his wife Amy who had not attended a single tournament since being diagnosed with breast cancer 11 months earlier. For years Amy had been a fixture of support at all of Phil’s tournaments until the cancer diagnosis and ensuing treatments rendered her attendance impossible. Finally, after the 11-month absence, Amy was able to return to be at her husband’s side. The dramatic circumstances of Amy’s illness and recovery added an irrisistably heart-warming dimension to the story, for both story teller and audience alike. The story flames were fanned by the fact that both Phil and Tiger were late-stage contenders for the tournament title. But in the end, the protagonist prevailed. Phil sunk the winning putt, walked over to find his wife amidst the crowd, and embraced her with a sincere hug and kiss. The emotion was palpable as cameras zoomed in on a tear rolling down Phil’s cheek during the embrace with Amy. The Nice Guy had finished first.
I have to admit, there’s a part of me that felt duped by that story. I can’t help but think that CBS television and the rest of the media exploited the Mickelson’s personal struggles and triumphs and purposely juxtaposed them against Tiger’s tabloid misadventures and running tally of his “sucks!” and “damn it!” exclamations. After all, I can think of many instances when sports coverage showed instant replays of amazing golf shots, incredible home runs and unbelievable goals. But this has to be the first time in sports history that a network showed a slow-motion instant replay of a tear rolling down an athletes cheek; and did so a dozen times.
But I also have to admit that there’s a bigger part of me that says, so what? I loved every minute of it. While the coverage may have been exploitative, the moment – and the message – was sincere. Call me a softy, call me a wimp (you’d probably be right), but we spend plenty of air time celebrating and reporting the exploits of Nastiness among top athletes and coaches. Why not throw a spot light on the other side of the story when we have the chance. I say, kudos to CBS!
This is not a commentary on Tiger Woods’ personal or professional antics. There are plenty of pundits who will render judgment on all of that. And the American public will continue to weigh in as they always do, and probably follow the usual pattern of reactions whenever these celebrity scandals get publicized: morbid curiosity, shock and outrage, rationalization and then forgiveness, or acceptance at the least. There’s plenty of precedent for it. Bill Clinton had sex in the Oval Office with an intern, and used a blue dress to redefine the term “DNA evidence.” Yet he now makes millions in speaker fees and has his own library. Marv Albert hired hookers, who had the bite marks to prove it. Yet he once again enjoys a successful sportscasting career. Martha Stewart’s insider trading lead her to instead practice insider knitting; inside a prison, that is. Yet she’s back on TV, making quiches and crafts. We celebrate the outrageous falls, and embrace the amazing comebacks. Tiger’s story will be no different.
What matters here is not whether the public welcomes Tiger back. They will and frankly already have. The issue is, while we continue to celebrate Tiger’s incredible winning ways, will we allow ourselves to believe that Tiger’s winning ways are not the only ways to win? Hopefully there will always be guys like Phil Mickelson to help us answer that question with a resounding yes. Either way, Phil’s crowd will be just as strong as Tiger’s, especially since Phil’s fans have a better chance of making eye contact with their man, and catching a warm smile and a friendly tip of his cap.