It's not always the games that get you. Sometimes, it's the filler.
As memorable as Tiger Woods' performance was at St. Andrews last weekend, it's his latest Nike ad that you're still thinking about four days later.
You've seen the spot half-a-dozen times now: A very young Tiger, from the old "Michael Douglas Show" days, has been mapped onto the fairways and greens of the Old Course, crushing 3-woods and sinking putts (there's a second commercial that also features a post-tourney interview).
Robert Zemeckis pulled this kind of trick with Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump," and adidas did a similar thing in ads with Muhammad and Laila Ali squaring off in a fictional fight last year. The results are always striking; a blend of the fresh and the familiar, with brave new world technology delivering a sweet dose of the good old days. You can't not watch.
What you see with the Tiger bit is joy. And you melt a little when you see it, the way you do when any cute kid flashes a precocious grin. You're not impressed and you're not in awe -- you're simply charmed by this Tiger. His game, even with the pressures, the cameras, and the dollars, is just that -- a game.
There's comfort in this. The larger-than-life superstar, the Jordanesque corporate entity, the player who's so good he's taken the fun out of things, is having fun. The 30-second ad is a feel-good moment that cuts against the cynical grain of your post-heroic feel for the modern athlete, and maybe echoes your own experiences -- not as a golfer necessarily, but as a kid, doing whatever you loved to do.
But of course, despite what an earlier Nike ad once claimed, you aren't Tiger Woods. He's Tiger Woods. He's the man who, even as a boy, was crushing 3-woods and sinking putts. He's the freakish Mozartian prodigy with 10 career majors and 20 career major top-10s before his 30th birthday. He's the best golfer of his generation, making a run at becoming the best golfer of all time.
In light of this, the ad starts to do other things. On the one hand it demystifies Woods by making him a cute kid, but on the other it only underscores his legend, reminding you that he's been special, very special, from the moment he could first hold a club. So even as this little charmer is scampering over the grass, doing the funky celebration walk, and tugging at your heartstrings, he's also always already moving in some world you'll only ever dream of, some sphere you can't quite imagine, where the opponent isn't the playing partner or the course, but history, the records, and the other guys (Jack, Arnie, Ben) with just one name. This is the Tiger you root for or revile. This is the one who inspires.
And you watch this, and maybe it's on your second or third viewing that you wonder: What's the relationship between Tiger then and Tiger now, between the boy and the man, between the game and The Game? Is his fire and single-mindedness always infused with that little guy's sense of fun? Or has he, like Paul in the letter to Corinthians, "put away childish things"? Is there a blend of joy and determination in what he does now, or does the cutthroat competitor inevitably overwhelm whatever sense of play the kid might once have had?
Maybe more to the point, and more to the poignant, has he been able to hold on to, is it possible to hold on to, that young boy's enthusiasm and delight in a sports world full of critics who, as much as they admire his play, have sometimes found him too corporate, not warm enough, too single-minded, and not political enough. Has young Tiger the player, you wonder, survived the evolution into adult Tiger, the cultural icon?
The commercial's sound track inspires such wondering. That tune you can't stop humming (which last made a pop-culture appearance during the closing credits of Wes Anderson's sorely underrated "Rushmore") is The Faces' "Ooh La La" (first released on an album of the same title in 1973), and for all its jangly lilt, it's actually a melancholic ditty, the lament of a man burned by lovers and love. He should have listened to his old granddad, who warned him, "They'll trap you when they use you before you even know." He should have hidden himself away, shouldn't have "ever let it show." Replace lovers and love with fame and glory, with fans and media, and you've got a sorrowful something at work here: "I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger."
Now maybe you're too jaded to give a damn about the problems of a millionaire athlete, and maybe Tiger's never been your cup of tea. But maybe, too, at the intersection of this tune and these pictures of the boy wonder, you feel the icon slipping away and the human being coming to the surface. Maybe now you're not just identifying with him (Who hasn't felt the sting of disappointment? Who doesn't long, in his own idiosyncratic way, for the innocence of days gone by?), but you're also empathizing with him, respecting the demands and uncertainties of leading so public a life, understanding how, even if he loves it, even if he wants it, it might come with a price, might have a sad, nostalgic sort of undertow to it.
You wouldn't buy this from him if he told you straight out it was true. You wouldn't give it a second thought. You'd be all, yeah, yeah, yeah, Claret Jug, Green Jacket, blah, blah, blah, Elin Nordegren, Buicks for life, the almighty Swoosh, yadda yadda yadda.
But sometimes, when it's done well, it's the filler that gets you.
Eric Neel is a Page 2 columnist.