Tiger Woods Recaptured The Innocence of Sport

Though pundits and television announcers have tried to capture the essence of the Tiger Woods story, it eludes description. It reaches beyond his youth, his origins, and the calm precision of his golf strokes.

When someone catches the imagination of America, he catches more than the rewards we dream of achieving. This young golfer of soft color and radiant smile has captured far more than he might imagine.

For me, this larger dream goes back a few years to the game America loved when I was a boy - the game of baseball.

We grew up cheering for Stan Musial and, much later when the game had begun to lose its charm, George Brett. Along that line beginning with Babe Ruth, baseball had given us Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and great pitchers like Robin Roberts, Sandy Koufax, and Bob Gibson.

Summer was not complete without at least one night at the ball park. My brother and I sat behind home plate watching Bob Gibson throw fast strikes when the Cardinals defeated the Red Sox and won the 1967 World Series.

We were living in Kansas City when our sons were old enough to appreciate a night at the ball park. We went as often as we wanted to watch George Brett from the right field bleachers.

Between batting practice and the start of one of those Royals games, I realized what I loved most about baseball. It came to me on one of those beautiful, early-summer evenings, a slight breeze lifting the flags above center field, the light clean, the ball park full of promise, the infield raked and smooth, the grass trimmed and lush green, the foul lines white and straight all the way to the corners of right and left field.

The National Anthem. One pitcher. One baseball. One batter.

And then the game begins.

Baseball was our sanctuary: a simple game of beauty, when played well, on a field I now saw as the wonderful illusion of order in lives full of increasing chaos and uncertainty. Here, the rules of the game were well understood, and the plays of the game well practiced. Within this sanctuary of certainty, the players could thrill the fans with the possibilities of the game, and we could root for our favorite teams.

Nothing lasts forever, especially innocence. During the NCAA championships, one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball said, ever so politely, the greatest change he had seen was the emphasis on the ability of individual athletes, at the expense of what once was the sport of teams.

The games we love are too often spoiled by a brawl, a player shoving a referee, or a player spitting in an umpire's face. So what if the NBA's best rebounder is a violent clown? So what if a great shortstop spits in an umpire's face? So what if innocence is lost?

ON Sunday afternoon, April 13, 1997, America caught a glimpse of innocence again, and the professional integrity real champions bring to any game. Anyone who has tried to play golf knows the inner challenges of the game.

Perhaps this young American champion arrives in our lives at a perfect time, a time when Americans are beginning to realize that individual integrity, discipline, and responsibility are missing in the games that once were a sanctuary from the uncertainties of everyday life.

Perhaps this young champion will remind us that happiness and success demand the same kind of integrity and discipline we watched him display to win the Masters tournament.

Perhaps this humble young man with the radiant smile will show our children and our grandchildren the real treasure of all games well played.

* John M. Hall, a former reporter for the Kansas City Star and the Associated Press, is a corporate communications consultant living in St. Augustine, Fla.

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