Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer in this generation and perhaps the most recognizable current athlete on the planet, has never truly had a rival. Sure Phil Mickelson has his followers, Vijay Singh had his run-ins with Woods, and Rory McIlroy may be the next thing. But Tiger Woods has never had that one person who could consistently challenge him on the course, draw the best out of him, and occasionally beat him head to head while looking him in the eye. Palmer had Nicklaus, Nicklaus had Watson, and Woods has... Bob May? Y.E. Yang?
While never being able to best him on the course, Sergio Garcia has been the closest thing Woods has had to a rival off the course. The two golfers have never been close and Garcia's exuberance and emotion, especially seen during intense Ryder Cup matches with the two on different sides, paints a completely different portrait compared to Woods' stoicism. The differences between Woods and Garcia reportedly date back to the made-for-TV Battle at Bighorn in 2000 when Garcia beat Woods in a match play event and celebrated his victory a little too much for Woods' liking. Over the years, resentment grew and came to a boiling point at this year's Players Championship.
With Woods and Garcia paired together on Saturday in the final group, Garcia accused Woods of disrupting his swing by pulling a club out of his bag, causing the crowd to cheer. After the day's action was done, Garcia was quoted as saying:
"I'm not going to lie, he's not my favorite guy to play with. He's not the nicest guy on tour.''
"It's good for both of us. We don't enjoy each other's company. You don't have to be a rocket engineer to figure that out.''
Woods responded by dismissing Garcia as "always complaining about something."
Suddenly, The Players Championship had more drama and intrigue than any other non-major in several years. Nothing sells in individual sports quite like personal rivalry, and even though most of us knew what was coming - Garcia dumping two balls in the water at the island green 17th in a McAvoyan display of Greek tragedy - it was some of the most compelling theater golf has seen in years. There was something personal, there was something to invest in, not just another tournament, and not even just another Tiger Woods victory. There was an added spice that sports like golf, NASCAR, tennis, etc. are always searching to find.
Monday, the two continued to trade barbs through the media. In his first comments since The Players, Garcia took a personal shot at Woods and elaborated on the feud. Via Golf.com:
"He called me a whiner. He's probably right," Garcia said Monday at Wentworth, England, at the start of the week of the BMW PGA Championship. "But that's also probably the first thing he's told you guys that's true in 15 years. I know what he's like. You guys are finding out."
"First of all, I don't have his number. And secondly, I did nothing wrong and don't have anything to say to him. And he wouldn't pick up the phone anyway. But that's OK; I don't need him as a friend. I don't need him in my life to be happy and that's fine. It's as simple as that. Like I have always said, I try to be as truthful as possible," Garcia said. "That's why I think sometimes most of the people love me and some hate me. I understand that but I'm not going to change. That's what makes me who I am and that's what makes me happy. And that's what makes the people I care about happy because they know they can trust me. Tiger doesn't make a difference to my life. And I know that I don't make a difference to his life."
Asked Monday whether he planned on burying the hatchet with Sergio, Woods' reply was somewhat less loquacious.
And then just as we were dreaming of the two being paired for the US Open and the continuation of Tiger vs Sergio... Garcia brought the ugly-but-fun feud to a level that was just plain ugly-ugly. In taking a page from the Fuzzy Zoeller Playbook, Garcia made an off-color, racially charged joke at a European Tour dinner Tuesday night when asked if he'd ever have Woods over for a meal:
"We'll have him around every night. We will serve fried chicken.''
And end scene.
Garcia apologized profusely for the offensive joke at a news conference today and Woods tweeted his thoughts, hoping to finally move beyond the controversy after engaging in the back and forth with Garcia for the last week.
The comment that was made wasn’t silly. It was wrong, hurtful and clearly inappropriate...— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) May 22, 2013
I’m confident that there is real regret that the remark was made.— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) May 22, 2013
The Players ended nearly two weeks ago and it’s long past time to move on and talk about golf.— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) May 22, 2013
And just like that, golf's most interesting public rivalry in years has come to a crashing, shameful end and Garcia has committed a stumble worse than any tee shot in a water hazard or major championship loss combined. The tongue can be a dangerous thing and just one comment can cause an athlete's public reputation to crumble. Even though Garcia had more than his fair share of victim mentality moments, there was still a spark present within him that harkened back to the teenager that leaped out of the trees at Medinah all those years ago. Someone who wasn't afraid of the spotlight and someone who wasn't afraid to mix it up with Woods when others in golf had shied away. Now, Garcia will have to work to repair the damage while being in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. A sincere apology and an end to his feud with Woods is a start.
In reflecting on his errant attempt at humor, Garcia strangely claimed ignorance of Fuzzy Zoeller's racially offensive comments in 1997. It's unfortunate for everyone involved to see the same headlines and the same controversy play out 17 years later. Instead of looking forward, golf is now stuck looking backwards.