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Golf Writers from the Heart

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Why Woods getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom at this time in his life disses Arnie, Jack and Charlie

All right. So I waited a few weeks to see if my initial feelings about the big news following the conclusion of the Masters remained as strong and as fervent as they did then.

To be clear, I’m not referring to the news that Tiger Woods won a 15th major. My preference for several years for the fallen star has been that in tournament play I’m fine with him lurking and lingering among the leaders to create interest, especially at the big events—such as he did in the 2018 majors—but not be crowned the winner. No, the news I had a strong reaction to was the premature and haphazard decision by Donald Trump that Woods should receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As most if not all of Trump’s comments are, this one was a knee-jerk, ill-conceived, shoot-from-the-mouth-I-didn’t-think-this-through remark that plain just doesn’t make sense—at least not at this moment in time. If that’s not strong enough, how about this: Trump’s announcement was also an insult to Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Charles Sifford. That, however, is not likely something Trump gives a hoot about since he is, after all, Donald Trump. He’s not going to worry about taking anything away from the shine of three golf icons who are universally liked and admired much more than he will ever be as White House resident. If Trump has shown anything consistently since he got his way into the White House, it’s that he doesn’t know history. It was probably his worst subject in school. He doesn’t believe anything ever came before he was born, or for sure since he became president. The braggart and ego in him go hand in hand with promoting himself and his family.

What has me peeved is not that Tiger Woods should ever receive the honor. I’m sure, given time, that if he doesn’t harm his reputation anymore and maintains the path he is on now, especially with his philanthropic work, that he would warrant such an honor. And that’s the key element: time.

Everything Donald Trump does in his role as president is tinged with suspicion. For instance, his love for the Russians and his defense of all the nefarious deeds they have done, not just with U.S. democracy but all the meddling in foreign affairs, should be a concern for every American. He doesn’t want to harm his business interests with Russia. And by not being tough with Vladimir Putin, he comes across as Putin’s Puppet. Americans should be furious that their president is viewed as weak with Russia.

In terms of awarding Woods a medal, it’s an ideal scenario for Trump because it will serve as a h-u-g-e photo op for himself and fits in with most everything he does as a way to promote himself. When he tried but failed to make peace with North Korea, he said he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Trump as president is about himself and gaining notoriety. Hence, he’s always mislabeling everything he does as the “greatest this” or “greatest that” of any U.S. president even when he is clearly shown to be in error and re-imagining the facts.

Since this honor falls into the sports category, I looked at the history of the Presidential Medal of Freedom as given to sports figures. Every time it was given, the honoree was at the end of their career or peak of life or twilight of their career and now resting on their laurels. Some had already passed away. Palmer was 75 when given the honor by George W. Bush in 2004. Bush put the medal around Nicklaus’ neck in 2005 when Jack was 65. Charles Sifford was 92 when Barack Obama named him to get the medal in 2014.

Woods is 43. He is a good 20 to 30 years away from being in the stage of life when this should be awarded him. Leave it to Trump to throw ritual and tradition out the door and give an honor so he can be in a photo that will be shown around the world. By foregoing the normal process, Trump is dissing previous medal recipients—including golfers Arnie, Jack and Charlie—who worked a full lifetime to be worthy of an honor given to people for their “especially meritorious contribution to [either] the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Nicklaus, as the lone living medal honoree from golf, is in a difficult position to share the same feeling I have on this, but I hope he would feel the same. He sometimes comes off not caring about things like this, but it must bother him some since he knows his golf history and his place in it and who came before him. I would be surprised if he truly didn’t care that Woods is getting an honor that’s meant for recipients late in life when they can look back and comment on the life they led. Nicklaus has been remarkable in his comments about Woods chasing his record of major victories. He has been reserved and logical in his remarks. One of his main points is that he himself never had a specific number of major victories to chase and hence had he had the foresight to know a Tiger Woods would come along, he wishes now he had pushed himself harder to set a higher bar. Nicklaus also honestly responds when asked if it would bother him to have his record broken. He, of course, doesn’t want to see it happen, just as no one would want to have their accomplishments eclipsed if they are the all-time leader. For anyone to quibble with how Jack has handled Woods questions over the years, they are just being purposely antagonistic.

If Nicklaus also feels it is a couple decades too early to give Woods an honor that he, Palmer and Sifford took much longer to get into their Social Security years, he’s likely not going to utter it for fear of getting blasted. But I would hope his honest assessment is that the honor is very premature and that Woods is on the right course for it when the right time arrives.

Which leads to Tiger Woods himself. If he feels anything about being much too young to receive this, he should politely decline. What a marvelous gesture that would be, as well as a welcome action by someone to finally not just go along with a bad Trump comment and decision. Our country would be less divided right now if people in Trump’s political party would stand up to him (such as Senate majority “leader” Mitch McConnell) and tell him he needs to be honest and be a leader for every American.

Sadly, as we head toward the appointed hour that’s been set for the medal to be given to Woods, there is nothing coming forth about Tiger declining the honor. But this, too, goes with his own custom of not making a statement or taking a stand at a moment when to do so would cause controversy or in some way hurt his name or brand even if it’s the right thing to do. Tiger has not taken a stand on social or political issues as his father said he would back when he turned pro, only on education. But it’s not like a recipient can’t refuse an honor. Another golf great with TW initials who went to Stanford—Tom Watson—declined entering the PGA of America Hall of Fame because he thought former PGA president Ted Bishop was dishonorably taken out of office in 2014 and Watson passed on the honor in protest.

So when Trump revels in standing with Tiger Woods in the next couple days and says his reasons Woods should get the medal, he will do so ignorant of the history, tradition, protocol and respect of the honor, the very elements that make golf the greatest game on the planet.

Cliff Schrock