But not everybody is happy to see him.
Back in my Monday qualifying days, I grew close to a number of guys out there. But none more so than Larry Filippi from Chicago and Lee Van Dover from St. Louis. Filippi played part-time as an adjunct to his architectural firm’s work and Van Dover was a retired club pro who had a sweet swing and disposition to match. And they both had in common the mid-West sensibilities and personalities that we all immediately recognize as the salt of the earth. You just always wanted to be around them.
We would play practice rounds together. We would hit balls together. We became well-known fixtures out there.
Then one day in Chicago, Butch Brooks, that week’s lead Tour official, paired the three of us together. I remember my glee when I first laid eyes on the pairing sheet; this was fantastic!
When we arrived on the first tee Monday morning, Butch was there and I remember teasing him, “Hey Butch! Watch out! I feel three 66s coming on!” joking about the possible collusion his thoughtful pairing had set up. We all four had a good laugh about it…and then got down to the day’s business.
So I’m guessing Tiger Woods had the same reaction when he looked at the pairing sheet for Firestone and found out that he was going to be paired with his good friend, Darren Clarke, this year’s British Open Champion. These guys have been friends forever dating back, no doubt, to their convivial post-Ryder Cup team parties. As anyone can plainly see from his gleaming eyes and permanent grin, Northern Ireland’s, Darren Clarke is nothing if not convivial.
But one writer is miffed that the PGA Tour has granted Woods this comfort. Writing at the Golf Channel, in “Advantage Tiger,” Jason Sobel takes the Tour to task:
When Tiger Woods returned to competitive golf at last year’s Masters Tournament after a lengthy self-imposed hiatus, it was speculated that the lords of Augusta National would ease him back into competition by grouping him with a few buddies.
Maybe old pals like Mark O’Meara and Fred Couples. Perhaps newer allies in Sean O’Hair and Hunter Mahan.
Instead, tournament officials gave him exactly what the situation called for, placing him in a threesome with Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi – two players with little extenuating prior relationships with Woods, meaning they were neither great friends nor were they competitive enemies.
Too bad the PGA Tour didn’t learn from that decision.
In his subsequent, poorly-drawn argument, Sobel goes on to explain that with “featured groups” this year, the Tour has moved away from its computer generated pairings based on each player’s pecking order in the hierarchy. He should have stopped there. It would have explained everything and we all could have enjoyed the anticipation of watching the two friends play.
Instead, Sobel devolved into an insistence that Tiger should have been placed “in a pairing that serves no competitive advantage nor disadvantage; one that would be neither socially acceptable nor unacceptable from Tiger himself.”
“The way it is now, it appears as if there’s been a wink-wink, nod-nod agreement in place. As a way of basically thanking Woods for returning at one of its premier events, he was offered a cozy pairing that should help his comfortability level.”
It is a great leap of logic that there had been any quid pro quo between Tiger and the Tour. He has won on the Firestone course 7 times, it is a big-deal tournament in which to get back in the saddle, there is no cut and he is in desperate need of FedEx Cup points to get himself into the playoffs. If he went straight into the PGA Championship next week, a major, without any competitive rounds under his belt, everyone would have second-guessed him for not playing Firestone.
Aside from that, it was the pettiness of this argument that struck me most. Rather than causing me any resentment that Tiger had “pulled something” over on the rest of the field, it made me wonder what Sobel’s history is with Tiger that he would go to this length to actually put in writing what he was feeling.
Woods and Clarke is just another in the Tour’s very successful “featured pairings,” and the insistence of the article makes one wonder what’s really behind it. Yes, Tiger behaved abhorrently a year and a half ago, but he’s admitted his mistakes, apologized to everyone he could think of and done his penance.
And yes, from his lofty position as the No. 1 golfer in all of galactic history, he was less than forthcoming with an ever-prying media, he was curt and did not suffer fools gladly and he did not do nearly enough at the rope line when signing autographs. He was also loudly profane on television and in the presence of children and he couldn’t seem to stop himself from spitting on greens the rest of the field had to walk on too.
But none of those things are reason enough to ban him to a perpetual purgatory of colorless, lifeless pairings. I have been in those kinds of pairings and they are joyless. But they were all random and it happens sometimes. But to intentionally inflict that kind of joylessness on two good friends as brilliant as Tiger and congenial as Clarke is to deny the world of golf—oh, yes, the whole world will be watching—the sublime pleasure of witnessing what the game of golf should always be about.