Why I'm hooked on Tiger's semantic antics

HEARING ANDY RODDICK’S pithy kitchen-sink summary after the men’s Wimbledon final last weekend, I felt an atavistic urge. I wrote it down. Since listening to sportsmen is no longer my job, there was no practical reason for me to make a note, but I don’t know, it was a remark of such excellence that it just demanded to be recorded. “I threw the kitchen sink at him (Roger Federer),” Roddick quipped, “but he went to the bathroom and got the bath tub.”

“A spot-on metaphor,” I sighed. “Delivered with wit and originality,” I added. “And pith,” I appended as a dreamy afterthought. The first thing you notice as a sportswriter, you see, is that sportsmen don’t come up with sparkling gold-dust very often. And although a tendency towards heavy linguistic river-sludge shouldn’t really be held against people who speak so eloquently with foot, club or bat, I must admit that I grew to hate Alan Shearer over a four-year period as much for his staunch refusal to say anything remotely noteworthy as for his strange idea that you should walk, not run, at key England striker moments in international football tournaments.

But there was one person it was always worth listening to, and that was Tiger Woods — despite all his conspicuous efforts to be the blandest interviewee in the history of the world. “I played pretty good out there,” may be the smilingly, shruggingly upbeat Tiger response at the end of each day, regardless of whether he’s gone round in 66 or 82. But when he is pressed to describe his bogey on the 12th, he just can’t help himself. Weird descriptive gifts kick in, willy-nilly.

“I’m on this sandy lie,” he reflects, “so I’m thinking, well, I could play this ball in the water so I kind of fatted it up on the green and yipped the putt to the right.” At which point, seasoned hacks in the interview room exchange panicky looks (“Fatted?” “Yipped?”), and decide to wait for the official transcript to check they weren’t imagining things.

The stuff this man comes out with! He lands shots “on the window”. His downhill chip is “greasy”. Personally, I think he’s having a laugh. What better self-amusement for a person whose every word is treated as holy writ than to invent new terminology in the bath each night and see whether anyone challenges him to dictionaries at dawn. “I blistered that drive,” he says. “That was a high bleeder. I really hit good shots, yes, but they were not stoning. They were not kick-ins. I played safe, say, little chunk-and-run. Played a flop-shot down there to about ten feet. I squirted that one. It was a quick duck, a quacker. That drive was . . . blue.”

Now there are two ways of looking at this. First, just as furry-hooded polar dwellers are supposed to develop specialist vocabulary for the varieties of frozen precipitation, so a golfer of brilliance surely starts to become dissatisfied with words such as “hook” and “fade”. Ultimately he will reach for metaphor and onomatopoeia. When Tiger says he “rips” his shots, nobody struggles with the meaning, after all. “Fat” may not usually be taken for a transitive verb, but — as people have often pointed out to me recently — language is dynamic and must always be allowed to move on.

Unfortunately, since Tiger is the only chap in the world of golf to come up with this stuff, this first explanation does not hold. In which case, it is down to Tiger’s personal psychology, which is generally resistant to amateur analysis but does reveal itself in his press conferences in one interesting aspect — viz, in the way he talks about his golf as coolly as if he’s talking about someone else. I am not the first person to notice this Tiger bifurcation, by the way. A Harvard psychologist, Dr Stephen M. Kosslyn, has studied Woods and noticed his ability to comment on his own golf as if standing outside it. Spooky, eh? But it explains a lot. He is half-player, half-wordsmith. Half-man, half critic. And you have to feel sorry for him, actually. His inner Tiger Woods wrestles with his inner Stuart Hall. It really doesn’t bear thinking about.

How will Tiger fare this week? Having failed to win each of the past eight major tournaments, he has not adapted his demeanour noticeably. He still puts a positive gloss on things. And so long as he continues to shave his shots, or chunk-and-run, the golf correspondents will write it down.

Whether he will ever come up with something to match the brilliance of Roddick’s kitchen-sink analogy remains to be seen. But it’s comforting to know that, even if he doesn’t, the cool exterior of Tiger hides some sort of struggle within.