Monday, May 11, 2009

Tiger lurking; a 100 foot snake; and more adventures in Bad Sportswriting

Have you noticed? If Tiger Woods is within eight shots of the lead in any golf tournament--and he nearly always is--he's "lurking".
...Headline writers love to use the word. TV announcers love to say it, in hushed tones, always with a sense of drama. "Tiger's lurking! Just four back!" Golf writers haul it out with numbing regularity: After two rounds Woods was lurking two back...blah, blah, blah...
...And all of them have it wrong.
...It was on display again this weekend at the Tournament Players Championship, when, after three rounds, Woods stood five shots behind leader Alex Cejka. Woods lurking as Cejka leads TPC read the headline in The San Diego Union Tribune. Then there was this from the San Francisco Post-Chronicle, which has morphed into a digital paper: Alex Cejka Five Ahead In Florida But Tiger Woods Lurking

It got me wondering just how often Tiger lurks in the mind of newspaper editors, so I googled Tiger Woods lurking. Here is a sampling of what came up: Woods lurking in a familiar place (at the 2007 BMW championship)....Garcia shoots 65 at 'Car-Nicely,' Tiger lurking (at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie)....Tiger Woods lurking is good news to the Golf Channel and NBC for the weekend (at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, 2009) There was even an entire article devoted to the lurking of Tiger. Scott Fowler of the Charlotte News and Observor, began his story on the TPC this way: "This is what you want when Tiger comes to town.
You want him to be lurking on Sunday, his stripes blending in with the pine trees. Ready to pounce."...
...That sure sounds like Tiger, doesn't it? Blending into the pine trees. Going unnoticed. Stealthily, ominously sneaking up on the leader from behind when no one, no one, expects it...
...Because that's what lurking means. And there is an implication of malice or evil to the word. Thugs lurk in the shadows. Monsters lurk in the deep. Here's how my American Heritage Dictionary defines lurk: 1) To lie in wait, as in ambush. 2)To move furtively; to sneak; to slink 3)To exist unobserved or unsuspected; be concealed....
...So why, oh why, all this stuff about Tiger lurking? It's a shocking example of how carelessly sportswriters and sports announcers mangle the language. Tiger Woods has not been able to lurk on a golf course since he was three years old, when he'd already appeared on the Mike Douglas Show hitting golf balls. He has been the center of the golf world since he was a teenager. All eyes are on him all the time.

He could not ambush a fellow PGA player if he were swathed head to toe in bandages, like a mummy. They would recognize him by his biceps, by his swing, by his snarl. He does not sneak on a golf course except when trying to dodge the press for his practice rounds; he certainly does not slink during a tournament. He does not even slouch. And even when he is not entered in an event, his absence becomes bigger than the tournament itself. Woods is always at the center of all conversation relating to modern golf. Trust me on this: Tiger Woods does not now, has never, and never shall lurk on a golf course.

...I'll show you the proper use of the word "lurking." This is an actual headline from London's Daily Telegraph:

Photograph shows 'giant snake' lurking in Borneo river
Villagers living along the Baleh river in Borneo fear a 100-foot snake could be lurking in the murky waters.

...No one really knows if the snake is real, or if the aerial photograph above has been doctored. It's like the Loch Ness monster: another classic lurker. Mysterious, darkly frightening, and hidden: these are the qualities of those who lurk. So what should the headliners write, and the announcers say, when Tiger is four strokes back? He is stalking; he is tracking; he is shadowing; he is hunting; he is chasing; he is dogging; he is shadowing; he is in hot, naked pursuit. Not lurking. Got it?

....Okay, the winner of this week's Bad Sportswriting contest is...drumroll please...Michael Whitmer, a golf writer for the Boston Globe. This was his lead after Saturday's round, the day that Tiger was lurking: "Scores were tumbling so far and so fast yesterday, The Players Championship morphed into the U.S. Open, with players struggling to grab hold of anything that could stop an avalanche that spared few and made pars as coveted as a winning lottery ticket."
...Phew! The New Yorker used to run paragraphs like that as little nuggets to fill the blank space at the end of some of their articles under the headline: Block That Metaphor! Let's see: we have an avalanche and a winning lottery ticket in the opening sentence of a golf story. Not easy to do. We also have the curious suggestion that "scores were tumbling so far and so fast" is a bad thing in golf. I would love my golf scores to go tumbling. Unfortunately, they always seem to go up. Michael Whitmer was clearly suffering so badly from the heat he couldn't tell up from down.
...How do I know that? Well, from his lead on Monday, after the conclusion of the tournament. Sunday's lead may have been a little worse, but for really bad writing in back to back news stories, these two leads are tough to beat. "With an obscure European leading Tiger Woods and the rest of The Players Championship field by five shots heading into yesterday's final round, the possibility of late-hole drama this tournament frequently delivers seemed as guaranteed as the weeklong heat that hugged the grounds at TPC Sawgrass."
...I hardly know where to begin, except to say if there are any students out there, pretend you never read the mangled syntax of that sentence. The only way to save it is to blow it up. It seems to me Mr. Whitmer is trying to tell us a little too much in his opening sentence: 1) that the overnight leader is obscure; 2) that Tiger Woods was in pursuit; 3) that the tournament often provides a dramatic finish 4)that it was hot all week; 5) that it was played at TPC Sawgrass. My suggestion to him, and to any students who might be reading this: prioritize. Tell us one or two things per sentence, and tell us clearly. Stick to one subject per sentence. The weather. The leader. The pursuer. The location. Tell us as if every word were precious. Be precise.
....Don't let your prose lurk in the muddy waters of Borneo. Be a Tiger.


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  2. Great point of view. Sportwriters that misuses the word lurking. It confuses people and you are wandering why they used that kind of word in that context. Specially in that kind of sport.
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