There's a (relatively) old joke that rooting for the Yankees is like pulling for the Empire in Star Wars, because they've traditionally been so dominant and arrogant about that dominance over the last century or so. It happens to any sports team that has an extended run of success--it's not cool to be a Patriots fan these days, and it's been fashionable to hate any NBA that had Shaquille O'Neal at center for the last decade and a half. We like the underdogs--perhaps it's an echo from our nation's forming, when a plucky band of upstarts took on the most powerful nation in the world and (with a lot of help from others) pulled off an upset for the ages.
But for some reason, Tiger Woods is this generation's exception to that phenomenon. He's easily the most dominant player of the last decade-plus, and yet he's not reviled. Yesterday, when he won a tight playoff in what should have been your average David-and-Goliath story, Tiger pulled close to the same amount, if not more fan backing than Rocco Mediate. How absurd is that?
Tiger Woods--now with 14 major championships, the only person other than Jack Nicklaus to win each of the 4 majors at least 3 times, 32 years old and now third on the all time PGA Tour wins list--versus Rocco Mediate, 45 years old, bad back, 150-something-th in the world rankings, who had to qualify to get to the Open in the first place, hasn't won on the Tour in six years and has never won a major. And Tiger's got people rooting for him? How?
Part of the difference has to be the individual nature of the game. Golf is one of those sports where you can picture yourself in the situation, and you can almost convince yourself that, given enough practice, you could pull off what most professionals do. Most anyone who has ever hacked it around a course has hit that one perfect shot that fools you into thinking you can do it again, and eventually, do it every time. It's not like baseball where you can be robbed by a stellar defensive play, or where no matter how fast your fastball, someone will catch up to it once in a while. No, it's just you and the course, a supreme individual test.
The difference is, with Woods, that there's no fooling ourselves. He does things with a golf club that just leave us shaking our heads saying "no matter how much I practice, I will never be able to do that." It's not that people root for Tiger so much as they're in awe of him, and they realize that, just as previous generations had athletic heroes who blew their minds--Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Babe Zaharias, Jack Nicklaus, Martina Navratilova--this is ours. We're seeing the golf version of a god among men, and rooting for him allows one to become vicariously a part of that. We are on the hero's side, as it were.
I couldn't quite bring myself to root for Tiger yesterday--I was pulling for Rocco, perhaps because he's closer to my age than Tiger is and I'm feeling the future slip away a bit--but I can understand why others did, and I can't say I blame them. You don't often get to see a person become a legend before your eyes.