Legends watch admire Tiger Woods

By Randall MellApril 6, 2009, 4:00 pm
Late in his life, when times ruthless pull finally separated all the sweet magic from his once majestic swing, Sam Snead found some solace living vicariously through another stars exploits.
 
He found it watching Tiger Woods.
 
In his late 80s, with macular degeneration damaging his eyesight, Snead would ease himself into a chair in the living room of his home in Fort Pierce, Fla., and scoot close to his big screen TV when Woods was playing.
 
Tiger Woods and Nick Faldo
Tiger Woods has been at the Champions Dinner since winning the Masters in 1997. (Getty Images)
Sam could barely see then, said Bob Goalby, the 1968 Masters champion and close friend to Snead. He had this chair with wheels on it, and he would wheel it so he was about 4 feet from his TV. Sam was an avid Tiger Woods fans. He was so intrigued by him. He loved the way Tiger played.
 
Before his death seven years ago, Snead was something of a student of Woods, with special interest in the mechanics of his swing, his short game and putting, and his overall approach to the game. Among golfs icons, Snead wasnt unusual in that way.
 
With the Masters set to begin this week, many of the games greatest champions will return to Augusta National.
 
On Tuesday night, as is Masters custom, the Champions Dinner will reunite past Masters winners.
 
Heres what you might not know about this night.
 
Many of golfs legends are unabashed Tiger Woods fans.
 
In this elite gathering, where fierce wills, large egos and strong opinion are so often the bone and sinew of a champions makeup, these giants can be unusually giddy in their admiration of Woods.
 
Im a big Tiger Woods fan, said Gary Player, 73, a three-time Masters champion. When he was gone, after his injury last summer, I missed him as much as everyone else missed him. Im glad hes back.
 
After missing eight months recuperating from reconstructive left knee surgery, Woods will be making his first major championship appearance at this weeks Masters since winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. After mixed results in his return to the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and the WGC-CA Championship at Doral, Woods returned to his winning ways with his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
 
Goalbys eager to see if Woods can put it all together to win his fifth green jacket this week. Hes practically a Tiger groupie.
 
Im a Tiger Woods nut, Goalby said.
 
Goalby said late in Sneads life, they would still play golf together, but the game began to frustrate Snead.
 
Sam just couldnt see very well anymore, said Goalby, one of four speakers to give the eulogy at Sneads funeral. He would hit a shot and ask me where it went. Id tell him he hit 10 yards over the green, and hed get mad. Hed tell me I gave him the wrong yardage, but then hed invite me over to watch Tiger with him.
 
Goalby said Snead had two obsessions late in life: Tiger and Ben Hogan.
 
Snead won 11 tournaments in 1950, but Hogan, winning the U.S. Open in an emotional comeback from the automobile accident that nearly killed him, was named Player of the Year.
 
Sam would talk about losing out to Hogan for Player of the Year all the time, Goalby said. That bugged Sam until the day he died.
 
Woods, though, stirred lighter emotions in Snead.
 
You could see how Sam felt about Tiger when they were together at the Champions Dinner, Goalby said.
 
Goalby said you can see the admiration of Woods in other champions, too.
 
Doug Ford, the 1957 Masters champion, arrived at last years Champions Dinner with marching orders. Fords friend, Al Besselink, a seven-time PGA Tour winner from Miami Beach, fought his way through security to meet Woods at the CA Championship in 2008. Two artificial knees, a bad shoulder and a weepy glass eye couldnt stop Besselink from fighting past a guard and into the media bullpen around the scoring area at Doral. Besselinks meeting with Woods was captured in a photograph that Besselink treasures. He sent the photo with Ford to the Masters with orders to get Woods to autograph it.
 
I hand the photograph to Tiger, and he says, `Bessie, what a great guy, and he was happy to sign it, Ford said.
 
Goalby said Woods respect for the games past champions has endeared him to a lot of these players.
 
When Tiger came to his first Champions Dinner after winning, I introduced myself as Bob Goalby, and he stops me and says, `I know who you are Bob, you won in San Diego and at the Los Angeles Open in 68 where I grew up. He did his homework before that dinner. He knew where he was going and who was going to be in that room.
 
Goalby said Ford got the same reaction when he met Woods.
 
I played with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, and I would have loved to have seen Tiger somehow play against those guys, Ford said. There are no words to describe what hes doing.
 
The Champions Dinner will open with two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw serving as the emcee. He typically gives players some entertaining historical perspective on the Masters and guides the nights event. The evening will include a welcome from Masters Chairman Billy Payne and, of course, a speech by the reigning champion, Trevor Immelman, who also is responsible for setting the menu, which he has only revealed as having a distinct South African flavor. The champions will all be adorned in their green jackets.
 
Tiger fits in great, said Larry Mize, the 1987 Masters champion. Its hard for us not to be Tiger Woods fans.
 
Tom Watson, the two-time Masters champion, was as curious to see Woods rebound from reconstructive knee surgery as the average fan was. In fact, Watsons television viewing habits mirror the sports TV ratings.
 
I watch more when Tigers playing, just like everyone else, Watson said. Hes the draw, the stud, the marquee player. Hes the dude and without him theres a vacuum.
 
Whats Watson most like about Woods?
 
He has the full package: the strength; the short game; the imagination and the intestinal fortitude; the guts; everything, he said.
 
Watson believes theres probably no stopping Woods from surpassing Jack Nicklaus 18 major championship titles.
 
Early in Tigers career, people speculated what might stop him, eight-time major championship winner Watson said. They thought maybe having a family would do it. We havent seen that. He has two children now. They thought maybe complacency, that money or something else might corrupt his desire. We havent seen that, either. They also thought maybe injury would thwart him.
 
Lee Trevino never won the Masters, but the six-time major championship winner might be more devoted to following Woods than any champion.
 
I dont watch a lot of golf, Trevino said. Late at night, when theres nothing going on, Ill put on the Golf Channel, but when Tigers playing, Im watching. As soon as I get home from wherever Ive been, I turn on the television to see how hes doing. Ive done that ever since he started playing his first year as a pro. I think we all miss Tiger. I think television misses him, I think all fans miss him, whether they like him or not.
 
Trevino appreciates what others dont see, the work Woods puts into being a champion.
 
I like the dedication and determination, Trevino said. He wants to win, and he wants to win every day. Theres no such thing as `Im tired. Theres no such thing as `I cant play this course or `I cant play in the rain, or `I cant play in the mud. If he tees it up, hes disappointed if he doesnt win, and hell be at the range Monday morning at 7 trying to figure out why he didnt win. Thats why I like him.
 
Andy North didnt win the Masters either, but the two-time U.S. Open winner counts himself among past champs fascinated by Woods.
 
Its fun to see a person dominate his business, whatever business youre in, North said. I love watching people do things well, and Tiger definitely does the golf thing pretty well. I think the neatest thing about Tiger is that while everyone talks about the fact that hes made a billion dollars, he could care less. Hes trying to win, and hes trying to get better every day, and hes so driven to keep improving. Not many people would have made the changes hes made over his career because they would have been content where they were.
 
Its very hard to keep that ambition. In any business, its hard to go to the office or golf course every single day and want to be better, particularly when you are the best already.
 
The games best appreciate that most about Woods.
 
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    Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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    More bulletin board material, too.

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