The Masters golf tournament opened Thursday. It is, in some ways, like Passover. It falls sometime in April, matters a great deal to a small segment of the population, and everyone else kind of looks up and thinks, “Oh, right, it’s probably time to take off the snow tires.”
But in recent years The Masters has been a somewhat bigger blip on America’s socio-cultural calendar, and for one reason: 11 Aprils ago, a man of mixed race months out of college went out there to take on the world’s best golfers (on a course, it should be noted, that for decades hadn’t allowed black members) and coolly destroyed them. Destroyed. Them. And ever since Tiger Woods put up the biggest winning margin at one of golf’s majors in over a century on its grandest stage, the tournament and the game have never been the same. The history from there is known. Tiger became the face of the sport and its best player. There were Nike ad campaigns, higher television ratings, swarming hordes in the galleries, etc. Blah blah-de-blah.
History and greatness and underdogs-cum-superstars attract eyes.
That’s old news, and has been the case in entertainment, sports, politics, and culture for the better part of forever. In everything there’s a pecking order. Bill Clinton will always draw a bigger crowd and a higher fee than Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile, that French lady who won the Best Actress Oscar this year will be forgotten by six months after THIS year’s telecast; Lindsay Lohan, with zero awards to her name, is roughly 20,000 times more famous. Just the way it is. And we like it that way.
But what’s interesting this particular week is not The Cult of the Superstar. It’s The Cult of the Narrative. It’s often said that we build up our heroes only to tear them down. And to justify the claim we hold up to the examples of Britney Spears and Eliot Spitzer and all the rest. But I think it’s only part of the story. It isn’t the downfall we crave - it’s the Grand Story. We are a culture of Fabulists and Fictionalists and Dreamers and Absolutists. Our mediasphere behaves accordingly. Sure, sometimes the Grand Story is a bit more tangled and harder to pinpoint (what is it, for instance, we eventually want Hillary to represent in the end, win or lose?), but most of the time we get a handle on it early and fit the facts to it.
Tiger Woods has failed to win four of the past five Masters tournaments. This, of course, does nothing to diminish his deserved status as the world’s best at what he does. But his superstar status doesn’t alone quite explain why 90% of the coverage and attention is devoted to him again this year. Yes, we get it, he has an exponentially better chance to win than any other single golfer, but somehow Las Vegas puts him “only” at about even odds to take the thing. Surely there must be some worthy stories out there among the dozens and dozens in the field?
In 2007, an unknown named Zach Johnson came from nowhere to win the thing. Catnip for a country that loves an underdog, right? Well, 12 months later, I think even Zach Johnson’s family is probably more interested in The Grand Tiger Narrative than they are in young Zach’s chances to repeat. And it’s because we like big, shiny, lasting arcs that we can take with us from one season to the next.
We like the Narrative. We like curling up and having ESPN (or Access Hollywood, MSNBC, you choose) filter out all those annoying subplots and details, the Zach Johnsons and the Marion Cotillards.
It’s the Narrative that is at work this weekend in Augusta, not the Known Superstar. And there aren’t many nuanced alternatives. Downfall is one, like what we’ve chosen for Britney. Glory is another, and it is Tiger’s at our behest. Some we build to tear down. But some we build to keep building and building and building.