I'll be cheering on Tiger Woods at the Open—and so will youby Benjamin Markovits / July 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
I was talking to my mom in Texas when my dad came on the line and said, “Tiger just birdied the 15th. He’s two up with three to play.” For some reason, this counted as breaking news, so I turned on the television and watched the end.
As Woods lined up the final two-foot putt for the championship you could see him almost physically restraining the emotional build-up—like holding something on a leash, you have to keep still. His first modest fist-pump, after the ball rolled in, was a product of that self-restraint. It might have been just another two-footer. Then he picked the ball out of the cup and lifted his arms with the club held high and shouted. Whatever had been held in was now released. Afterwards, before embracing his caddy, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and pulled off his cap and looked suddenly like what he was, a balding unbelievably happy middle-aged man.
Why did I want him to win? Why did my dad (who used to be a scratch golfer himself, in high school) interrupt the conversation to let me know he was about to? The romance of the underdog doesn’t need much explanation but there is also a romance of the overdog.
They may be less fashionable to root for but we do it anyway; there’s a reason you see so many Manchester United and New York Yankee caps bobbing around. Part of the appeal is just narrative drive—the overdog is often the guy you’ve heard of. When Serena Williams loses, especially if you’re only a part-time follower of the sport, the player who replaces her in the draw is probably the equivalent of a character actor, the kind who isn’t supposed to survive until the end.
The star occupies the role of protagonist; other players, the circumstances themselves, should arrange themselves around her. Which is why there’s something weirdly upsetting about watching Serena fail, even though, what does she need another major for?
Economists talk about marginal utility—a unit of value is worth more to people who have less. Yet even for people who care about inequality in more important areas of life, I’m not sure how much their sporting preferences can be explained by marginal utility. Just listen to the crowds cheer Roger Federer at…