Question of sporting courage
I usually hope that Tiger Woods loses when he plays in a major. It's not that I don't admire the man's genius, it's just that I'm an inveterate rooter for the underdog. And, in golf, everyone else is an underdog when Tiger is on the course.
So, just as I always hope someone can find a way to stop Roger Federer, that the monopoly of the Premier League's big four on the Champions League slots will be broken and that we'll see All-Ireland champions whose name doesn't begin with the letter K, I normally like to see Tiger coming up short in the big events. It doesn't help any sport to be made predictable by the dominance of one player or team.
It's going to be different this week. This time around I want Tiger to win the Masters. In fact, I want him to win it as badly as I've wanted someone to win a sports event in a long time. A win for Tiger would be good not just for golf, but for sport in general and for real sports fans, the ones who switch the channel or throw away the paper when they see the latest set of prurient disclosures about Tiger or Joe Calzaghe or Ashley Cole, Wayne Bitch and John Terrible.
It's extremely unlikely that Tiger will win. A long lay-off from competitive golf is hardly ideal preparation for the Masters and he wouldn't be human if the events of the past few months haven't taken a lot out of him. Chances are that the pressure will tell and Tiger will finish well down the field.
All the same it's worth hoping that he'll win in Augusta for the fifth time. For one thing it would temporarily silence the chorus of jackals and hyenas who have persecuted the man ever since it turned out his private life didn't live up to the high standards demanded by those uniquely moral people who populate the journalistic profession. Some of the spring would go out of their collective step should it transpire that they have failed to diminish Tiger where it really matters, on the golf course.
Should he play badly on the other hand, the pursuit will be undertaken with renewed zest. Hacks who like to portray everything as a kind of tabloid morality play will be encouraged to think that their revelations have broken Tiger. The sneering and crowing will be awful to contemplate. And if the greatest golfer of all time misses the cut, it might be good idea to avoid all media outlets next week.
There is a collective madness at work in the pursuit of Tiger, the kind of frenzy you see as the villagers troop up the hill to Castle Frankenstein, blazing torches in hand. The combination of lip-licking moral outrage with vicious malice is not unlike what you might have seen a few decades back down the road from Augusta when they were stringing men the same colour as Tiger from the cottonwood trees. What delirious joy there is in being a righteous member of the lynch mob.
How else can you explain nonsensical articles like that written by a poor unfortunate by the name of John Hopkins in last week's Times where he expressed the hope that "one journalist will have the professional courage to risk being ejected from the press conference by asking Woods non-golf questions."
And what, pray, would such questions be? "Hey Tiger, what's with all the riding, like?" perhaps. Or, "Seeing as you have had sex outside marriage, would you like to fall on your knees and beg forgiveness from the press corps?" Seriously, what question is there that the "professionally courageous" journalist could ask which would not advertise his membership of the gutter press? In a world where the recently departed American President okayed the torture of prisoners and the former British Prime Minister led his country into a war under false pretences, there are plenty of stories which demand good investigative journalism. The question of how often and with whom Tiger Woods had sex is hardly one of them.
Anyway, a sports journalist is no good on a story like this. What you need is one of those columnists who inhabit the world in which such questions are of paramount importance. A world in which the typical story arc is "Jade Goody is stupid, Jade Goody is racist scum, Jade Goody is a national disgrace, hang on a minute, Jade Goody has cancer, Jade Goody is dead, Jade Goody touched all our hearts, hold my notebook while I weep on her grave."
It's important to the tabloid rat pack that their victims suffer and are seen to be suffering. By winning the Masters, Tiger would show that he is immune to their depredations. They would continue to hound him but there would be a certain amount of backing off. His tormentors would move on to easier victims. Jackals, after all, prefer to prey on dead meat. There is also the fact that most journalists like to be on the winning side. A triumphant Tiger would be a much less tempting target. He would once more be defined by what he does on the golf course rather than how he behaves off it. His victory would become the new story.
ESPN's Bill Simmons was widely ridiculed for saying that Tiger's comeback would be more difficult than Muhammad Ali's in 1970. Hang on a second, said journalists eager to demolish the straw man they had been presented with, Ali lost his world heavyweight title on a point of principle, how dare you place the fornicator Woods in the same bracket.
Implicit in this position was the idea that had those journalists been around when Ali was stripped of his title, they'd all have been pulling for him. We're all against the Vietnam War now. But the fact remains that at the time most of the mainstream media came out against Ali, describing him as a black racist and accusing him of letting down his country, betraying his flag and so on.
In a few years, the attacks on Tiger Woods because of his involvement in consenting sexual behaviour among adults will seem just as ludicrous as those on Ali because of his refusal to go to Vietnam. But the time to be on the right side is not in the future, it's in the present.
That's why everyone who genuinely loves sport should be hoping that the greatest golfer in history wins his 15th major this day next week. And if you're one of those people who wish the man ill, I'll just say one thing. Sport is wasted on you.