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What Red taught us: “A good columnist’s thinking doesn’t end until the event does”

The first six days of Masters week, the Yahoo!Sports columnist Dan Wetzel wrote on one theme and one theme only. "All Tiger, all the time," he said. He did nine such pieces, including a blog and video. There was no other story. This was the world’s most famous athlete ending a five-month disappearance precipitated by too many evenings spent in the company of women you wouldn’t bring home to Mom.

But on the seventh day, Wetzel did a good thing.

He didn’t mention Tiger.

You might think that was a mistake. How does Tiger go from being the only story to being no story? Despite the time away from competition, the bum still finished fourth. The Sunday 69 was one of his most bizarre rounds ever, his work so horrid and so freakin’ stupendous as to suggest it was done by a genius adrift on a sea of troubles. Even with all that to report, Wetzel ignored Tiger.

He could do it because he wasn’t writing a news story that demanded a full accounting of the day and the tournament. His job as a columnist was to express an opinion. In the Masters press room that day, the first opinion occurring to most of us was that Mickelson’s victory was sweet justice. In a perfect world, a devoted husband always defeats a pathetic philanderer, good conquers evil, payback is hell, and karma prevails. You could read all that at ESPN.com in a Rick Reilly column (along with brilliant descriptions of Mickelson’s play). At AOL, Jay Mariotti ruined good stuff by stepping on Tiger’s throat again and again. In the Kansas City Star, Jason Whitlock couldn’t resist the temptation to Tigerize. I am told that another Tiger-centric column was committed by Bill Simmons at ESPN.com, though readers with higher thresholds of pain than mine will have to attest to that.

Wetzel, in contrast, wrote only Mickelson.

It wasn’t that he got up that morning and decided, "Enough Tiger. Never again will that name be typed by these fingers." The decision evolved, beginning with Wetzel’s refusal to buy in to the day’s morality-play theme. He thought it too simplistic, obvious, and superficial. He has seen sportswriters build heroes out of clay. As the great sports editor Stanley Woodward told his new columnist, Red Smith, "Stop godding up the players." Wetzel said it this way: "The idea of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is just ridiculous. Tiger’s just a guy, Phil’s just a guy. These are all just guys."

So he had texted his editor saying he probably would write a column saying it was silly to connect Tiger’s travails and Mickelson’s triumph. "One had nothing to do with the other," he said.

But a good columnist’s thinking doesn’t end until the event does. The good ones are always turning the kaleidoscope to see more sparkle. Red Smith once said, "Never write anything that you could have written before you saw something happen." So when Mickelson finished his round, Wetzel went to the press area 15 feet behind the scorer’s shed at the 18th green. There he might see something happen.

There he saw grown men crying. He saw Jim (Bones) Mackay, Mickelson’s caddy, and Butch Harmon, once Tiger’s swing coach and now Mickelson’s. Hard-case professionals, golf lifers – crying. "The way Bones was sobbing," Wetzel said, "you couldn’t fake that for a camera."

Wetzel had found the right column.

He took his readers to a moment of joy in the lives of Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, who has undergone multiple surgeries for breast cancer and has been rendered weak by continuing medications. Now, Tiger didn’t matter at all; in fact, he no longer belonged in the column. "It wouldn’t have been fair to Amy and Phil," Wetzel said, "to bring Tiger in on top of them."

By way of trashing Tiger, the most common tool used was an exaggerated appreciation of Mickelson as a husband, father, and man. The truth is, we have no idea. A year ago, most of us believed Tiger had done life well. Now, to make our morality play work, we have to put our foot on his throat while godding up Mickelson – to which Wetzel asks the good question about the virtues suddenly attributed to the new Masters winner, "How could anyone possibly know?" It wasn’t long ago, remember, that some cynics with press credentials considered Mickelson a plastic man with a gambling jones who couldn’t beat a broken-legged Tiger. But now, because he won a Masters in a year when his wife has cancer, he’s considered to be flawless?

Better to think of him as a great golfer.

Like Wetzel, I wrote a lot of Tiger – not every day but three of the first six columns for Golfdigest.com. (Dirty work, yes, but we all had to do it.) Saturday afternoon, it was thrilling to see the Tiger Rehab Classic end and the Masters begin. Sunday, then, I could write a sports column, not a sermon.

I could do what Red taught us. Write what you see.

It turned out to be this.

Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295
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