Tiger's empty legacy
Woods need dose of Seve's warmth or he'll always be a stranger
Published 10/05/2011 | 05:00
As the world of golf bids a fond final farewell to Seve Ballesteros tomorrow, Tiger Woods would be well advised to pause for a moment's quiet reflection on his own legacy.
If greatness was measured only in silver and brass, the 14 Major titles and $1bn he has grossed since 1996 establish Woods as a rival to Jack Nicklaus as the foremost golfer of all time.
Yet Seve's passing reminds us there's a lot more to it than that.
At age 35, it's still possible for Tiger to win another five of those coveted Majors. No question, the knee and Achilles tendon problems which forced Woods to withdraw from Quail Hollow last week cast a frisson of doubt over his ability to regain and maintain his position at the top of the world game.
And whatever about the changes he's making to his swing with new coach Sean Foley, Tiger's loss of faith on the putting green doesn't augur well. The world will watch with interest as Woods casts off his surgical boot this week and returns to action in the Players Championship at Sawgrass.
Of course, no matter how much Tiger achieves on the golf course, he will never enjoy as warm a place in the public's affection as Seve.
Or Arnold Palmer and Walter Hagen -- two other men who became champions of the people because their talents were complemented by true charisma.
Never has golf experienced anything so exciting as Tiger's first Major championship win at the Masters in 1997. The way he played, Tiger made golf exciting even to the ordinary man or woman whose only access to places like Augusta National would have been through the tradesman's entrance.
TV ratings and prize money went through the roof as Woods stormed into the new century like a tornado, laying waste to the opposition and obliterating famed courses like Pebble Beach and St Andrews as he sucked up the US and British Open titles in the summer of 2000.
As he won the Masters in 2001 to become the only golfer to hold all four Major championship trophies at the same time, Tiger appeared utterly invincible ... and, for the most part, unapproachable.
He had an aura alright but it was intimidating, almost forbidding. Whereas charismatic men like Seve or Palmer or Lee Trevino seemed to embrace the public, Woods mostly was cold and aloof. The world was and is still kept at arm's length.
As Tiger cut a swathe through the sport, it didn't seem to matter if he had any personality beyond the anodyne, squeaky clean image his minders created for him -- until the entire façade came crashing down in November 2009.
When this bright, shining lie was exposed, even stunned fellow Tour players discovered they hadn't known Tiger at all, never mind the sordid realities of his private life.
If one can compare the warmth, charm and popularity of Seve to that of Muhammad Ali, then Tiger would equate with Mike Tyson (in boxing terms only, it must be stressed).
At his peak, Tyson was the most fearsome predator ever to step between the ropes, but his appeal, generated by the shock and awe of savage punches, was almost primeval. Ali won hearts with a mind as sharp as any of his dizzying combinations and a wit as quick as his famous shuffle. In short, the world found Tyson thrilling only for as long as he excelled, but fell head over heels in love with Ali.
Imagine if Tiger's 18 months without a victory stretched for another five years; that he failed to make the cut at any Major from now to 2017. Would multitudes still flock to the fairway ropes to watch him play? One suspects not.
Yet thousands trudged through mud and pouring rain to Druids Glen in 2002 to catch a glimpse of Ballesteros in action at the Seve Trophy, though he hadn't won a tournament in seven years. Their faith was rewarded as he conjured up a one-stroke win over opposing team captain Colin Montgomerie.
As he explored areas unfamiliar even to the course superintendent, Ballesteros produced a dazzling array of rescue shots to leave Monty shaking his head in bemusement.
Raw pride, strength of character and Seve's genius for making shots clinched that victory, but it was his charisma which drew the people and made the occasion.
Yes, Ballesteros was born and, for the most part, played in an age of innocence. One cannot be sure how he'd have survived if forced to take the same media scrutiny in his pomp as that endured by Tiger in this era of 'kiss and tell' celebrity.
While Sergio Garcia's talent has withered on the vine and we wait with bated breath to see if Rory McIlroy can become a serial winner on Tour, Woods remains the only golfer with the will, the heart and the game to dominate his sport.
Does anyone outside Tiger's immediate circle truly know if he has the wit or charm to melt hearts? You can't buy charisma or a personality.
Frankly, one would be greatly surprised if Woods was capable of exuding the same hair-standing electricity as Seve.
Yet he should at least try.
Last year, Woods vowed to show increased respect to the game and share himself more with the public. If he doesn't deliver on that promise, his only legacy will be a cold series of statistics in dusty record books.
Tiger must open up and engage with the rest of the human race or he'll forever remain a stranger.