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Friends in High Places
S.L. Price
August 17, 2009
Why have Woods and Federer become pals? Why wouldn't they?
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August 17, 2009

Friends In High Places

Why have Woods and Federer become pals? Why wouldn't they?

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The first hint that it might be more than just some marketing masterstroke—a Nike-inspired, Gillette-fostered, IMG-brokered pairing with about as much authenticity as a reality-show engagement—came in June. It's hard to say which of Tiger Woods's revelations in a press conference was more startling: The fact that he and Roger Federer text each other "every day" or that Woods actually calls him Fed. Daily communication is one thing, but for Woods the bestowing of a clunky nickname is the supreme sign of acceptance. If the guy ever tees it up with the President, he'll be calling him B.O. by the fourth green.

The second hint came five days later. While on the practice range at the AT&T National, Woods got wind that Federer had just won Wimbledon to break their tie of 14 majors apiece; sent Fed his now-famous "Great job. Now it's my turn" text; and then shot a 67 to win the tournament. By the time Woods next popped up in public, calling Federer "great" and "phenomenal" at the British Open, their symbiosis had sparked an Internet-fueled bedazzlement not seen since ultrahumans Brad and Angelina joined forces. Woods declared that "our texts back and forth have always been jabby—but also extremely supportive of one another—and that's what friends do," and what we had on our hands became clear.

Dude, it's a bromance. And though there's no precedent for the most dominant golfer and tennis player in history to engage in a mutual man crush, you can't say we haven't been asking for it. In the 40 years since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid gave hunks permission to hang out on-screen and Brian's Song gave jocks permission to cry, male bonding has become a cultural staple played out nightly in SportsCenter pairings, banter-crusted TV shows and dopey beer ads. It's no coincidence, of course, that such ads cluster around sporting events or that every studio panel (Charles! Ernie! Kenny!) strives for a locker room's crap-giving tone. Sports is the ultimate buddy flick.

Still, it took Woods a while to warm up. When the two first met, before Federer's 2006 U.S. Open win, there was a definite older-brother vibe in the air: Woods was 30 with 12 majors in hand—compared with the 25-year-old Federer's eight—and Fed broke prematch protocol by eagerly chatting up Woods minutes before taking the court, then played the final conscious of having "someone you really look up to" watching. When Woods asked, in the locker room afterward, about having a higher gear on-call, Federer felt an instant connection. "For me it's hard to describe to people how it really feels out there," Federer said. "With Tiger, I knew he knows exactly what I'm talking about."

But if not yet a meeting of equals, the uniting of Woods and Federer still seemed, well, profound. Their talent left so-called peers breathless; greatness had only further isolated both men atop their lonely games. Other players competed for tournament titles, but in Jack Nicklaus's alltime record of 18 major titles and Pete Sampras's 14, Woods and Federer battled history. Who else in the world could understand?

Sports has had crossover friendships before: Babe Ruth encouraged football star Red Grange; NFL great Jim Brown was in Cassius Clay's hotel room the night Clay resolved to become Muhammad Ali. But when Federer won the 2007 Australian Open and received his first scorekeeping taunt from Woods—a text reading, "12 to 10"—a wholly postmodern, public referendum took flight. "Keep up, buddy," Woods taunted in a Nike ad, and as each subsequent title fueled the unanswerable debate over who was the greater athlete, they appeared in one shaving-cream ad after another, cutting up like childhood chums.

The rub is that the aired ads have been, well, fake: None so far were filmed with the two men on the same continent; in the best exchange, when Federer strokes a startled Tiger's cheek and giggles, he's actually touching a stand-in. Which is perfect, when you realize how little time the two have actually spent together. Yes, Federer has walked the course a few times when Tiger played, and they've eaten dinner together at least once; word is Woods helped rebuild Federer's confidence during his darkest moments over the past year. But ... "friends?"

"A man must eat a peck of salt with his friend before he knows him," Cervantes wrote, and Federer and Woods have shared none of the usual male glue—never worked or schooled together, never survived poverty or pain together, never achieved together, never shared a bad bus ride—and haven't played any sport with or against each other. These arch-competitors have literally nothing to lose by being friendly, so their bond can never be as poetic as that between, say, the Williams sisters, who stalk each other with brutal intent while remaining ferociously loyal.

Yet, the idea of Federer and Woods forming a two-headed League of Extraordinary Gentlemen remains compelling, all the more so if Woods can equal Federer's mark of 15 majors this weekend at the PGA Championship. "Success, I guess," Federer said when asked at Wimbledon what they have in common. "When you talk about golf, you talk about Tiger; when you talk about tennis, you talk about me. We have something similar there: our mind-set, our approach. We're very driven. We try to dominate." The two made their career climbs solo, and when the clouds cleared, one was atop Everest and the other on K2. What man wouldn't shout and wave?

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