By Jim McCabe
Could it be that some in the media want Tiger Woods back competing more than he desires it?
Certainly, it wouldn’t be the first time that sports writers showed the fan in them and had a tough time letting go of an icon. Consider the prelude to the first Masters when logic dictated that Bobby Jones was a long shot, given that he hadn’t played competitively in nearly four years.
Yet Grantland Rice and Alan Gould, premier sports writers back then, both wrote in advance of the 1934 Masters that Jones was favored.
Jones finished T-13, 10 strokes back, then didn’t play competitively again until the 1935 Masters. Yet, Gould wrote in his preview of the 1935 Masters that it was Jones “against the field.” Why? “His name still has the same appeal of former days when he rated with Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey.”
Jones finished 15 back in ’35, tied for 25th.
Rice also suggested that Ruth, at 40, still had plenty left in the tank when he signed in February of 1935 with the Boston Braves. “I’ll hit better and I’ll play better this year,” Rice quoted Ruth as saying. To continue the positive tone, “Granny” said he put The Babe on a scale and reported it at 232, Ruth’s prime-time weight.
Turns out, that was 51 higher than his .181 average as The Babe played in just 28 games for a Braves team that won a MLB-low 38 times.
Rice and Gould, like fans, wanted Jones to shine and Ruth to smash away for one more season, no matter that cold reality said otherwise. It wasn’t much different in 1973 when Willie Mays, 41, decided in spring training to give it one more go, and New York columnist Dick Young agreed.
“Now the Mets are elated he has decided to play. Not for image. Not for inspiration. For his bat,” wrote Young.
Mays played in just 66 games, hit .211, and infamously fell chasing a fly ball in a World Series game against Oakland. “Growing old,” said Mays, “is just a helpless hurt.”
And letting go of a belief that an icon still has some magic left isn’t easy, either.
For instance, in those latter days of 1980 before 38-year-old Muhammad Ali took on Larry Holmes there were efforts to soften this perceived mismatch. Wrote Billy Reed of The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal: “Nobody has to explain to Holmes about the mystique of Muhammad Ali. This is the superman who has risen, Phoenix-like, from the ashes twice.”
But not a third time because Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, mercifully waved the towel in the 10th round.
There are no signs of surrender from the Woods camp. He missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open, withdrew after 18 holes in Dubai, then pulled out of the Genesis Open and Honda Classic, citing back spasms. That leaves his status for the Masters in doubt. But in true sports-writing fashion, signs of hope for his return aren’t hard to find.
Jim McCabe has covered golf for his hometown Boston Globe and Golfweek. He can be found on Twitter @JimMcCabeGolf or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org