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Not Fine by Us

So here we go again with Tiger Woods.

This time it isn’t an f-bomb or a thrown club or his vigilante caddie. This time he was clearly caught on-camera spitting on the 12th green on Sunday in Dubai. Not since Kramer and Newman claimed that Keith Hernandez spit on them during a “Seinfeld” episode has so much attention been paid to flying saliva.

Of course Woods, unlike Andre Agassi in the 1990 U.S. Open or about-to-be baseball Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar in the 1996 pennant race, didn’t spit AT anyone. He just watered the green and moved on to finish the frustrating final-round 75 that clearly left him, um, spitting mad.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods' on-course behavior has cost him more money than we will ever know. (Getty Images)

Honestly though, the real issue here isn’t that Woods did what he did. It was wrong and the European Tour was completely justified in fining him for his regression to behavior that most of us know isn’t acceptable by about the age of five. Of course that brings up the real problem: No one has ever really explained to Woods that there are certain things you don’t do on a golf course – especially when people have paid to watch you play or are watching you on television.

According to many on Tour, Tiger Woods has been fined more money than any player in golf history. He’s been fined for profanity, for club-throwing, for his caddie’s behavior and for generally behaving like a spoiled brat on many occasions when the golf course has refused to understand that it is supposed to yield nothing but red numbers when in the presence of Earl Woods’ son.

Earl isn’t without blame in this. For all the talk (quieted a good deal lately, no?) about all that Earl taught Tiger – Earl wrote not one, but two books on the subject – he clearly never got around to teaching him how to behave on a golf course. That’s not good. But here is what’s worse: The PGA Tour has failed just as miserably and one of its JOBS is to ensure that players behave properly on the golf course.

The irony in that is that the Tour is SO image-conscious it has allowed the image of its most important player to get hammered because his behavior at 35 isn’t much better than it was when he was 15. Maybe it’s worse.

The Tour fines players for more than most people think. Players can be fined not just for profanity or club-throwing on the golf course but for getting caught smoking; for not treating spectators with respect; for not being nice to pro-am partners or for criticizing fellow pros. Brad Faxon was fined in 1996 for ripping Scott Hoch after Hoch bragged about not playing in the British Open. The only reason anyone knew about Faxon’s fine was that Faxon talked about it. What’s remarkable is that he didn’t get fined for that.

The Tour treats fines as if they are a matter of national security. If you ask a Tour official if someone has gotten fined or might be fined he not only won’t answer the question he might walk away just in case someone might think he’s discussing the subject.

“It’s a matter of image,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has readily admitted when the subject has come up in the past. “I don’t think we need to have it out there every single time one of our players is fined for something. One of the things that has helped make our sport popular is the image of our players as being gentlemen. Most of the time they live up to that. On the rare occasions when they don’t, we don’t need to be pointing it out to the public.”

With all due respect, that’s exactly what they need to be doing. With the money that is being made on Tour today – there were 90 players who earned more than $1 million in prize money last year and 157 who earned at least $500,000 – most fines are a drop in the financial bucket. Even a major fine of, say, $25,000 for a multiple repeat offender is pocket money for most and chump change for Woods.

Even though he and his minions have complained repeatedly to the Tour through the years that he is more likely than others to be heard using profanity or seen behaving badly because he is always followed by cameras, microphones and a huge gallery, the fact is that all the fines haven’t deterred Woods. He’s still throwing clubs, he’s still using profanity and he’s spitting on greens.

Look, everyone gets frustrated on the golf course at times. But when players misbehave repeatedly, they need to be reined in. Having their agent write a check for what amounts to a token fine isn’t a deterrent but public embarrassment can be. You can bet if the Tour had announced every Woods fine over the years – the way the European Tour announced his fine on Monday – this behavior would have stopped by now.

Why? Because Woods is about as image-conscious as any athlete who has ever lived. Sponsors might be able to live with the acts of misbehavior – ‘oh, he’s just competitive,’ has been the apology for most of Woods’ career – but they would not have liked seeing that misbehavior put in the spotlight every Monday. And, as the dollar figures grew, so would the embarrassment and the pressure to cool the act. The only thing that ever stopped John McEnroe’s behavior was when his fines for the year got to the point where his next fine would bring about a suspension: all of a sudden McEnroe wouldn’t be quite so angry on the tennis court.

Of course if the Tour ever whispered the word, ‘suspension,’ in the same sentence with Woods, tournament directors and sponsors would become apoplectic. On Monday, one tournament director was asked if he would like to have Woods in his field even if it meant investing in spittoons for every tee box.

“I’d go out there and put them in myself,” he answered.

That’s funny, but it’s part of the problem. Until someone on Tour starts telling Tiger Woods it is time to act like a grown-up, he’ll continue to act like a child.

You want to know why? Because he can.