Golf: the gentleman’s game. The sport of whispers and tucked-in polos and tiny claps and putting tips from fellow competitors that transform the short game of the former No. 1 player to help him regain the title of No. 1 player. Now, Tiger Woods is primed to win a 15th major, and there’s talk of Tiger not only beating Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors, but capturing 20.
Last month at the World Golf Championships at Doral, fellow PGA Tour player Steve Stricker gave Tiger Woods the most famous free putting lesson in history. Stricker suggested that Woods — a long-time friend — make a slight adjustment in his setup over the ball on the green. They reportedly worked together for 45 minutes, possibly an hour. Tiger went on to win the tournament. Stricker finished second. Two weeks later, Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational to regain the world’s No. 1 ranking for the first time since 2010.
Stricker’s lesson isn’t the only episode of altruism shown to Tiger on his long road back. As reported by Sports Illustrated last week, in 2010 Woods asked fellow competitor Sean O’Hair for the phone number of his former swing coach Sean Foley. While Tiger almost certainly could’ve gotten Foley’s contact info without going to another PGA Tour player, O’Hair happily obliged. Since then, Woods’ swing has gotten simpler, more compact and more repeatable. And he’s won six times on Tour since he started working with Foley.
These two episodes – two of Tiger’s competitors gladly helping and even going out of their way to help him improve his game – seems much rarer in other sports. Is LeBron James giving free throw lessons to Dwight Howard? Is Albert Pujols offering batting tips to Miguel Cabrera? If such altruism takes place, it’s rarely publicized.
Golf, however, is just different. In fact, back in 2009, the roles were reversed for Woods and O’Hair. Tiger noticed something funny in O’Hair’s backstroke on the greens during a practice round at the Tour Championship. So Tiger spoke up. “It’s very simple; you always help your friends,” Woods said at the time. “Sean is a friend of mine, and like all my friends, you always try to make their life better somehow. … Sean has been struggling a little bit on the greens this year, and I thought I could offer a little bit of help and insight to how he could change that.”
Friends or not, the tips and advice from player to player is more a reflection of the game than anything. This is the sport that has its own Rules of Etiquette, where being quiet is considered truer to the spirit of the game than cheering, where players get “honors” on the tee if they won the previous hole, where players are supposed to actually dress up. The first rules of golf were supposedly written by a group called the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith in 1744.
This week more than any other, that uniqueness is on display. The Masters, the first major of the year, is also the most tradition-laden, the most courteous, the most gentlemanly. Walking through Augusta National’s galleries feel like a trip to a southern hospitality school, where proper decorum and manners are held in the highest esteem. This is the tournament in which former champions help new champions don their green jacket, where tournament officials allow the previous champion to choose dinner for all the other champions. (For this year’s meal, Masters champ Bubba Watson chose grilled chicken and mac and cheese). Just take a look at some guidelines for Augusta National patrons:
“The Masters Tournament is an international competition and the contestants are considered invited guests. Everyone should be treated with courtesy and respect. Patrons are expected to behave with the utmost dignity and consideration at all time. In exchange for the privilege of viewing one of golf’s greatest spectacles it is anticipated that you will act courteously and display equal encouragement to all participants. Bad manners will not be tolerated.”
Or give a read of what Bobby Jones, who co-founded the Masters, wrote in 1967: “In golf, customs of etiquette and decorum are just as important as rules governing play. It is appropriate for spectators to applaud successful strokes in proportion to difficulty but excessive demonstrations by a player or his partisans are not proper because of this possible effect upon other competitors.”
Some of those manners were already on display this week by none other than Tiger himself. Woods played a practice round with 14-year-old Guan Tianlang, who will become the youngest player to ever compete in the Masters this week, and Woods reportedly gave him some advice about how to play Augusta National.
Tiger might win his 15th major this year, and it might come this week at Augusta. His swing is consistent. His putting stroke appears solid. And he’s beginning to look like the old Tiger everyone remembers from his prime. If he does win, he should go out of his way to personally thank some of his friends who helped him along the way. Proper etiquette demands it.