Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The golf season is built around four big events, the majors, and the first is decided starting tomorrow in Augusta, Georgia, home of the Masters. Commentator Frank Deford would like you to know that more than one person will be playing.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: Hearing about golf these last couple of years has turned into some sort of dual universe. On the one hand there is the real world, like Smith and Jones tied for lead in Cat Food Open. But then, in more detail, the larger shadow story reads: Tiger putter falters, trails by 12 strokes.

Golf has become like Fantasy Football or Rotisserie Baseball, only imagine if everybody has the same guy, Tiger Woods, on their team. No other golfers seem to exist, except possibly The Ghost of Jack Nicklaus.

This is what I call The Dreaded Mike Tyson Syndrome, which is what happened to boxing when Tyson couldn't win anymore, but yet he continued to dominate news of boxing. Before Tiger, The Dreaded Mike Tyson Syndrome was most visible in IndyCar racing, when nobody cared about who was winning the races, but only about where Danica Patrick was back in the pack.

By contrast now, men's tennis is the ideal. All you hear about are the actual winners - Djokovic, Nadal and Federer - who not only win but are all very distinct personalities. Perfect.

Golf first experienced The Dreaded Mike Tyson Syndrome years ago, when fans kept rooting for Arnold Palmer, even though he couldn't win a major championship anymore. But while Arnie's Army kept up hope, Palmer had a genuine superstar replacement in Jack Nicklaus. So the loser couldn't continue to absolutely dominate the golf news the way Tiger does today, when no single younger challenger has assumed his stardom.

Of course, the other thing about Tiger, vis-a-vis the beloved Palmer, is that many fans don't care for Mr. Woods. So the sport's attention is not only diverted to an also-ran but also to someone who is unloved.

Now, as the Masters begins tomorrow, Tiger is playing better than he has since that spectacular eruption of his personal life. With his tournament win two weeks ago, he's certainly rebounded to a point where I think we can upgrade him to be the male Maria Sharapova, who continues to get inordinate publicity without ever quite getting another Grand Slam victory.

In this context, it's worth noting that while Palmer took his last major at the age of 34, he won a very impressive 17 more PGA tournaments over the next nine years, teasing his fans and success; but never took another of the four big ones.

Yes. Yes, maybe Tiger can actually get back on top of the actual golf universe again. He's 36 now and Nicklaus won four majors after he reached that age. As long as Tiger doesn't win though, but remains the focus of his sport, golf suffers. An individual sport thrives when its meal ticket is triumph and celebrity joined as one.

INSKEEP: Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford