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Time For Tiger Woods To Mind His Manners?

The golf world is focused this week on Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota, the site of the PGA Championship — the final major tournament of the year in men's golf and an event some are calling "Tiger's last chance."

Tiger Woods, the world's No. 1-ranked golfer, has won five tour events this year, but no majors, which have become Woods' measure of success. At last month's British Open, he didn't even qualify for the final two rounds. Woods' poor play in Scotland was punctuated by angry outbursts, which have become a Tiger trademark. For some, they've also become a tired act.

Terrible Twos

Woods turned pro as a 20-year-old, and over the past 13 years, we have watched him grow into a man who is master of his craft. But part of him has always been stuck in the "terrible twos." Golf announcers and fans have learned to cringe through Woods' profanity and thrown clubs when he makes mistakes, just as they've learned to marvel at his miracles.

So why wonder now whether it's time for Tiger to tame the tantrums?

Blame Tom Watson.

Last month's memorable British Open ended after the 59-year-old Watson missed a short putt that would have clinched the title. He lost in an ensuing playoff. After all the disappointment that day, Watson still managed to smile.

"It was fun out there," he said. "It was fun to be in the mix of it again, and having the kids, who were my kids' age out there, look up at you [and say], 'What are you doing out there, doing this?' and say, 'All right! Nice going!' "

The last image of Woods in Scotland was a bad tee shot in the second round, followed by a slammed club and profanity. The contrast with Watson's grace in defeat was too great for some journalists to ignore. ESPN's Rick Reilly wrote: "In every other case, I think Tiger Woods has been an A-plus role model. But this punk act on the golf course has got to stop."

In his story on the British Open, Sports Illustrated golf writer Michael Bamberger described the Woods outburst, but without judgment.

"As a reporter, I'm just trying to identify what he's like on the golf course," Bamberger says, "and it is very different from [Jack] Nicklaus and Tom Watson."

But not very different, Bamberger continues, from the legendary Bobby Jones when he was a young man.

"He was a club thrower of the highest order!" says Bamberger.

Jones eventually stopped throwing tantrums. Maybe Woods will, too, with age. But should he? Bamberger doesn't think it'll hurt Woods' legacy if he doesn't. Because, Bamberger says, the hissy fits are a byproduct of being one of the greatest athletes of any sport in the history of sport.

Woods, he says, is "an unbelievably driven person. I can't think of another golfer in which you see it to that degree."

But what about all those little Tiger wannabes out there? Doesn't a hands-off attitude toward Woods' behavior guarantee a generation of kids hurling F-bombs on the links?

Joe Lenac, a sports psychologist in St. Louis, doesn't exactly endorse Woods' bad language and thrown clubs, but he thinks Woods' sporadic meltdowns actually can be a teaching tool for controlled behavior. Part of his job is working with athletes on issues of sportsmanship and how to manage outbursts during competition.

"Most athletes would just melt down for the rest of the round," says Lenac, adding, "Tiger is so good. He blows up. He might slam the club, but then, on he goes, and he's back in the round. It's incredible."

Lenac also believes the angry explosions help humanize Woods, making him more like the average golfer who certainly feels rage at times playing such a vexing game. So as we watch Woods try to win his 15th major title this week at the PGA, maybe it's the critics who need to change — and accept Woods in those flashes when he morphs from the wildly wealthy and iconic "Tiger Inc." into Joe Six-Iron.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Tomorrow marks the start of the PGA championship, or as some are calling it, Tiger's last chance. It is the final major tournament of the year in men's golf. Woods is ranked number one in the world and he's had some wins this season, but no majors, which have become his measure of success. And at last month's British Open, his poor play was punctuated by angry outbursts, profanity included.

Those outbursts have become a Tiger trademark; and for some, a tired act, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: He turned pro as a 20-year-old. And over the last 13 years, we have watched Tiger Woods grow into a man who is master of his craft. But part of him always has been stuck in the terrible twos.

Mr. TIGER WOODS (Professional Golfer): Six, I meant to say. God damn you (Beep).

Unidentified Man #1: Oh. Well…

Unidentified Man #2: Well…

Unidentified Man #1: …no more commentary necessary.

Unidentified Man #2: That made my commentary look pretty mild.

GOLDMAN: Golf announcers and fans have learned to cringe through Woods' salty language and thrown clubs as they've learned to marvel at his miracles. So why upset the balance now and wonder whether it's time for Tiger to tame the tantrums? Blame Tom Watson.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #3: Watson bogies the 72nd hole in a zero confidence putt.

GOLDMAN: After 59-year-old Watson blew his chance to win last month's British Open, heard here on ABC TV, he still managed a smile.

Mr. TOM WATSON (Professional Golfer): It was fun out there. It was fun to be in the mix of it again and having the kids, who were my kids' age out there, just look up at you: What he doing out there, doing this, they'd say? All right. Nice going.

GOLDMAN: The lasting image of Tiger Woods in Scotland was an errant tee shot in the second round followed by a slammed club and profanity. The contrast with Watson's grace in defeat was too great for some journalists to ignore.

ESPN's Rick Reilly wrote: In every other case, I think Tiger Woods has been an A-plus role model. But this punk act on the golf course has got to stop.

In his story on the British Open, Sports Illustrated golf writer Michael Bamberger described the Woods outburst but without judgment.

Mr. MICHAEL BAMBERGER (Golf Writer, Sports Illustrated): As a reporter, I'm just trying to identify what he's like on the golf course. And it is very different from Nicklaus and Tom Watson.

GOLDMAN: Not very different, however, from the legendary Bobby Jones when he was a young man.

Mr. BAMBERGER: Oh, he was a club thrower of the highest order.

GOLDMAN: Jones eventually stopped; maybe Woods will with age. But should he? Bamberger doesn't think it'll hurt Woods' legacy if Woods doesn't because, Bamberger says, the hissy fits are a byproduct of being one of the greatest athletes of any sport in the history of sport.

Mr. BAMBERGER: An unbelievably driven person. I can't think of another golfer in which you see it to that degree.

GOLDMAN: But what about all those little Tiger wannabes out there? Doesn't a hands-off attitude toward Woods' behavior ensure a generation of kids hurling F-bombs on the links? I turn to a man whose job it is to help kids be better sports.

So when you see Tiger and his meltdowns, you don't think to yourself professionally, boy, what I could with that guy if I got him in my office?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. JOE LENAC (Sports Psychologist): No, I think I'd leave him completely alone.

GOLDMAN: Joe Lenac is a sports psychologist in St. Louis. He doesn't exactly endorse the bad language and hurled clubs, but Lenac thinks Woods' sporadic meltdowns actually can be a teaching tool for controlled behavior.

Dr. LENAC: Most athletes would just melt down for the rest of the round. Tiger is so good. He blows up. He might slam the club, but then on he goes, and he's back in the round. It's incredible.

GOLDMAN: The problem of being wildly wealthy and talented and iconic is that you're not often thought of as human. The angry explosions, says psychologist Joe Lenac, help humanize Woods because what golfer out there hasn't felt rage on the course?

So, as we watch Tiger try to win his 15th major this week at the PGA, it is perhaps the critics who need to change not Woods, and accept him for those flashes.

Mr. WOODS: God damn you, (Beep).

GOLDMAN: …when he morphs from Tiger Inc. into Joe Six-Iron.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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