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Dan Bickley

So many people dislike Tiger Woods and golf – Why is this so compelling?

Tiger Woods walks off the 18th green after making a birdie during the final round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Bellerive Country Club, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Tiger Woods never cared about you. His ruthless indifference is exactly how most casual fans feel about professional golf.

But pair them together on a Sunday afternoon, and everything changes.

The PGA Tour cannonballs into our living rooms, swimming in the mainstream, and nothing else seems to matter. No other athlete has lifted a sport to such heights on presence alone, even though Woods hasn’t won a major tournament in 10 years.

So what is happening here? If so many people dislike Woods and the sport he once dominated, what are we cheering? What is so compelling?

Maybe it’s our desire for domination, and the nod we give athletes who make it happen, the ones who spark our imagination with feats we’ve never seen before.

Woods’ performance on Sunday felt like history in the making. He electrified the audience with fist pumps, flashes of anger and moments that turned back the clock. He shot a 64 and finished in second place.

He also spent most of the afternoon scrambling, battling moments of vulnerability and weakness.

A poor drive prompted a brief tee box tantrum. A pivotal putt stopped on the edge of the cup and refused to budge, a moment full of symbolism and struggle. It brought viewers to the edge of their seat, waiting for the ball to drop, just like it did at the Masters so long ago.

Not this time.

American fandom claims to love nothing more than a good comeback story. But that explanation is too simple and self-glorifying, reflecting the kind of heart and compassion we think we possess but rarely display. Woods is a hardly a beloved icon, and most have no interest in his personal well-being.

That became clear after Woods made a delicious run at the British Open championship in July. He took sole possession of the leaderboard in the final round, only to fade down the stretch, shriveling in his return to the ultimate spotlight. Afterward, he was a stew of emotions, exhilarated by the forgotten taste of championship golf; disappointed in his lack of clutch on a Sunday afternoon; and moved to tears by the hugs he received from his children after the round.

“I told them I tried,” Woods said with a lump in his throat. “And I said, ‘Hopefully, you’re proud of your pops for trying as hard as I did.’ They gave me some … it’s pretty emotional because they gave me some pretty significant hugs there, and squeezed. I know that they know how much this championship means to me and how much it feels good to be back playing again.

“To me, it’s just so special to have them aware because I’ve won a lot of tournaments in my career, but they don’t remember any of them. The only thing they’ve seen are my struggles and the pain I was going through.”

Woods has fallen harder than any sporting icon in history. He’s endured tabloid ridicule, a nasty divorce, rehab for a sex addiction and dependence on painkillers. He’s dealt with knee and back issues that have threatened his career. He once seemed like a sure bet to surpass Jack Nicklaus as the greatest golfer of all time, only to stall in the prime of his career.

But his show of vulnerability after the British Open didn’t seem to move the meter. It’s because we don’t want Woods to be human. We just want him to be great once again, spooking the field the way Mike Tyson once intimidated fellow boxers. We want him to mock and rock the sport of golf with transcendent talent and unnerving ambition. We don’t want to remember the guy who showed up at the Waste Management Phoenix Open with the yips, butchering shots around the green.

Woods is now 42 years old. He’s getting close to his old form, and his time in purgatory has blessed him with new perspective. He’s also dealing with a deep field of extremely talented golfers, a new generation that never had reason to fear a Tiger in their midst.

But they felt it on Sunday. So did the viewing audience. We all sense an epic triumph is coming, and where we’ll be when Woods reclaims his greatness.

On the couch. Watching golf. A sport that goes dark without his presence.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com.  Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier