Hype and hope. If they’re not siblings, they are at least first cousins, separated only by a vowel, but otherwise indistinguishable in the case of Tiger Woods, 2019.
There are no metrics to measure hype, so with Tiger preparing to make his calendar year debut at the Farmers Insurance Open this week, his first tour start since winning the Tour Championship, we are left to gauge it with the ear test. And what we’re hearing sounds not altogether different than it did in 1998.
Former Golf World editor Jaime Diaz, in a cover story he wrote for Sports Illustrated in advance of the 1998 Masters, accurately described it as “the most anticipated encore in the history of golf …”
The Tiger hype likely has not achieved those decibels in 2019, but social media, notably Twitter, tends to amplify even a minor happening, creating hysteria rivaling the Beatles coming ashore in 1964.
So we’ll call it a draw on the hype front.
This is where hope makes its appearance. In 1998, expectations were heightened by Woods’ 1997 performance on the heels of his startling introduction to professional golf in the fall of ’96. In ’97, his first full season on the PGA Tour, Woods, only 21, won four times, including his record 12-stroke victory in the Masters.
Whatever anyone expected in 1998 was justified by this transcendent star captivating not only the golf world, but the sports world and even the news world, with his appearance on the cover of Newsweek magazine.
In 2019, the hype, though elevated, more closely resembles hope from Tiger’s legions of fans, that if all goes according to plan …
"If" is a big word for only two letters. As an unrelated tweet noted last week regarding the word and quoting Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, “if worms had machine guns, birds would be scared of them.”
But back to 1998. The hype knew no bounds. At the same time the Nissan Open (now the Genesis Open) was being played at Valencia Country Club outside Los Angeles, next door at Vista Valencia Golf Course scenes were being filmed for a Showtime Original Movie, “The Tiger Woods Story” (disclosure: It was loosely based on my book, “Tiger: A Biography of Tiger Woods,”). The film was directed by LeVar Burton, best known for his Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Kunte Kinta in the remarkable ABC television mini-series “Roots.”
The Nissan Open (and maybe the movie; reviews weren’t good) set the tone for a year that by any measure was a letdown, though in Tiger’s defense he was undergoing a swing change, the first of several in his career. Woods lost in a playoff to Billy Mayfair, who as a result became a trivia question, or, more precisely, a Trivial Pursuit question.
“In Trivial Pursuit, there’s a question, ‘Who’s the only player on the PGA Tour to beat Tiger Woods in a playoff?’” Mayfair told Sean Martin of PGATour.com. “And my name is on there. I had some people come and tell me that they played the game and the card was in there. I guess I’m kind of known for that more than anything else, which is fine by me, trust me.”
Woods went on to tie for eighth in the Masters. In his next start, at the BellSouth Classic a month later, he won, his only PGA Tour victory of 1998, though he had also won the Asian Tour’s Johnnie Walker Open in Thailand in January.
By his own reckoning, it was not a disappointing year. “I’ve played a lot better this year, there’s no doubt about it,” he said at the end of the season. “I’m more consistent. I’ve hit the ball better. Short game is a lot better than it ever was. Overall, I’m a much better player. My finishes reflect that consistently. I believe it’s 13 top-10 finishes out of 19.
“I’m very pleased at the strides I’ve made. Expectations obviously have diminished compared to what it was after I won the Masters last year. That’s fine. That’s all good. But I still get hassled just as much.”
Woods counts victories, actual ones rather than the moral variety, though it seemed as though he was claiming the latter in defense of his performance. Yet he went from fourth in greens in regulation in ’97 to 30th in ’98, from 97th to 116th in driving accuracy and 60th to 147th in putting average.
The year would prove to be an aberration, at any rate, and Tiger mania soon would hit a fever pitch again.
And again. Remember the thousands at East Lake Golf Club amassing behind Woods as he made his way toward the 18th green and a victory in the Tour Championship in September, his first win in more than five years?
The hope among those on the hype bandwagon is that this was not an aberration of another sort, that what followed was the anomaly—his 0-4 record in the Ryder Cup, his anemic effort in the Match with Phil Mickelson, his finishing 17th in an 18-player field at his own Hero World Challenge. It clearly was not enough to tamp down the frenzy that will resume this week at Torrey Pines and every week he plays leading to Augusta and the Masters.
Expectations again have been heightened. They’re always high anyway at Torrey Pines, where he has won nine times, seven in in this event, once in the U.S. Open and once in the Junior World Championship.
But already he is a co-favorite in the Masters, 12 to 1, along with Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose, according to Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker for Las Vegas’ Westgate SuperBook.
And here are some recent headlines:
“10 places where Tiger Woods can win in 2019 (including Torrey Pines)”
“On his 43rd birthday, 43 reasons why Tiger Woods will win another major title”
“As Tiger Woods Turns 43, Could He Regain Golf's No. 1 Ranking In 2019?”
The suggestion here, no doubt likely to be ignored, is that maybe expectations ought to be tempered some. If this is Tiger Woods, the Sequel, will it be “The Godfather Part II” or “Caddyshack II”? The most likely scenario is that it will fall somewhere in between.
However it plays out, it will be newsworthy, but brace yourself. It won’t be the end of golf as we know it if it plays out modestly.