Monday, June 4, 2007

FROM MY SEAT: Getting the Shaft (Again)

Tiger Woods' continued snub of Memphis makes it easy to support his competition.

Posted By on Mon, Jun 4, 2007 at 4:00 AM

BY FRANK MURTAUGH | JUNE 4, 2007

Eldrick Woods (you know him better as “Tiger”) will not be playing in this year’s Stanford St. Jude Classic. For the 11th consecutive year since he turned pro, the greatest golfer of this generation has, in golf terms, given the shaft to Memphis.

Tournament director Phil Cannon takes a dignified stance each year — no surprise there — when asked about the absence of Woods. He tells anyone within earshot that the greatest golfers in the world “playing golf” this weekend will, indeed, be playing in Memphis. And he’s spot on. But Cannon, his professional colleagues, and the legion of volunteers who make the tournament hum deserve better from the preeminent personality in their sport.

As a journalist, I find myself objectively rationalizing Woods' continued absence. He has more money than anyone outside of Bill Gates’ accountant could manage. He’s all about winning majors, having won 12 before his 32nd birthday and chasing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 like Ahab did that pale whale. Tiger's handlers would tell you their money-maker is “resting up” for the U.S. Open (to be played next week at Oakmont, Pennsylvania). Which is like the Cleveland Cavaliers coming to town, and LeBron James staying home to “rest up” for the Cavs’ next game in Detroit. When the spotlight is brightest, says Woods, I’ll show up. And when convenient.

What Woods is forsaking in his continued dismissal of our local tournament is the very heritage — golf’s heritage, mind you — that makes him so famous and wealthy today. There would be no “major” PGA event were it not for the weekly tournaments that gave the tour weight in the middle of the last century.

The rise of Arnold Palmer’s “army” made golf a sport that could be embraced (and played!) by the hoi polloi. As public courses sprouted across the country, no longer was a country-club membership a prerequisite to swinging a two-iron with all your unrefined might. (Palmer, by the way, played in Memphis five times between 1958 and 1972.)

Growth in popularity, Woods well knows, means growth in sponsorship, television coverage, and yes, money. When the Memphis Open was first played in 1958, the total purse was $20,000. This week, the field at Southwind will split a cool $6 million. Find me another enterprise that — even allowing for inflation — grows 300-fold in a half century. Tiger is cashing the check that tournaments like ours in Memphis have made possible. And not so much as an appearance per decade to say thanks.

In a city with as large an African-American presence as Memphis, you think Woods spending a weekend here wouldn’t have some impact? When Venus Williams came to town last February and stormed to victory in the Cellular South Cup, she had the entire city wrapped around her media-friendly finger. It was an exchange of affection that will last years, whether or not Williams returns to The Racquet Club on an annual basis.

Woods, alas, is too culturally blind to see the impact — off the golf course — he might have in the Mid-South. If it’s not mere blindness, I’d argue, the annual snub is that much more damning.

Nicklaus won two majors the first year he played in Memphis (1963). He won his second Masters the same year he won the Memphis Invitational Open (1965). He won two more majors in 1967, and picked up $4,650 for finishing fourth in Memphis. However many majors Woods eventually accumulates, for Memphis fans he’ll never be able to match the Golden Bear. Matter of fact, he’s not even on the same course.

As Cannon would remind us, there will be some great golf played in Memphis this week by the likes of Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia, David Toms, Justin Leonard, and defending champ Jeff Maggert. Whether following them on the course or watching on TV in your living room, find one — or many — of these players to cheer.

Just remember, Memphis golf fans, to cheer them next week, too. And the week after that. Until Woods pays Memphis a visit, I’ll be cheering his competition along. And the only Tigers I’ll be backing are those wearing blue and gray.

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