Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Legend of Tiger Woods

I loathe golf. I'm only engaging in mild hyperbole in saying that I would rather wrestle an alligator, blind-folded, than play 18 holes of golf. At least with the alligator it's over quickly. When I want to take a nap on a weekend afternoon, I turn on golf -- it puts me right to sleep.

Yet I can't help but watch Tiger Woods whenever he is playing in a tournament. There's the obvious element of watching the man who will one day (and that day may be now) considered the greatest golfer to ever play the game. But it's more than that.

When Tiger is playing, even when he is playing badly, he is different than every other man on the course. It's his focus, the toughness of his mind. He won this US Open with a knee that was recently operated on and was nowhere near 100%. A couple of times he nearly collapsed after a tee shot, the pain was that bad.

But he gutted it out on a course that is not in any way forgiving of weakness. And he hung around despite Rocco Mediate having the tournament of his life. And on the 19th hole of a playoff, he won. As everyone knew he would.

Going into the final round of a major with a lead or a share of the lead, Tiger has never lost. Never.

David Brooks' column today looks at the icon that is Tiger Woods. While showing some reverence, I think he misses the point. He muses on the fact that Woods is an advertiser's dream come true, that he might be a little obsessive about his game. So what?

This section seems almost jealous, rather than respectful of his talents:

In a period that has brought us instant messaging, multitasking, wireless distractions and attention deficit disorder, Woods has become the exemplar of mental discipline. After watching Woods walk stone-faced through a roaring crowd, the science writer Steven Johnson, in a typical comment, wrote: “I have never in my life seen a wider chasm between the look in someone’s eye and the surrounding environment.”

The coverage of him often centers upon this question: How did this creature come about? The articles inevitably mention his precocity (at age 3, he shot a 48 on the front nine of a regulation course) and provide examples of his athletic prowess: Once Woods tried out four drivers that Nike was experimenting with and told the lab guys that he preferred the heavier one. The researchers thought the clubs were the same weight, but they measured and Woods was right. The club he’d selected was heavier by the equivalent of two cotton balls.

But inevitably, it is his ability to enter the cocoon of concentration that is written about and admired most. Writers describe the way Earl Woods, his lieutenant colonel father, dropped his golf bag while Tiger was swinging to toughen his mind. They describe his mother’s iron discipline at home. “Old man is soft,” Kultida Woods once said of her husband. “He cry. He forgive people. Not me. I don’t forgive anybody.”

Tiger was the one dragging them out on the course to practice. At age 6 months, he was put in a baby chair and had the ability, his father claimed, to watch golf for two hours without losing focus.

As an adult, he is famously self-controlled. His press conferences are a string of carefully modulated banalities. His lifestyle is meticulously tidy. His style of play is actuarial. He calculates odds and avoids unnecessary risks like the accounting major he once planned on being. “I am, by nature, a control freak,” he once told John Garrity of Sports Illustrated, as Garrity resisted the temptation to reply, “You think?

He says that as though it's a bad thing. And I think he might be confusing Woods' public persona and competitive self with who he is away from the game and the cameras. There is undoubtedly a difference -- and he likes to keep the two parts of his life separate.

As much as I often like Brooks, I think he doesn't quite get it -- Woods is THAT good, he is THAT much better than the rest of us when it comes to willpower and focus.
In Slate, Robert Wright only semi-facetiously compared Woods to Gandhi, for his ability to live in the present and achieve transcendent awareness. Analysts inevitably bring up his mother’s Buddhism, his experiments in meditation. They describe his match-mentality in the phrases one might use to describe a guru achieving nirvana. He achieves, they say, perfect clarity, tranquility and flow. We’re talking about somebody who is the primary spokesman for Buick, and much of the commentary about him is on the subject of his elevated spiritual capacities.

And here we’re getting to the nub of what’s so remarkable about the “Be A Tiger” phenomenon: He’s become the beau ideal for golf-loving corporate America, the personification of mental fortitude.

The ancients were familiar with physical courage and the priests with moral courage, but in this over-communicated age when mortals feel perpetually addled, Woods is the symbol of mental willpower. He is, in addition, competitive, ruthless, unsatisfied by success and honest about his own failings. (Twice, he risked his career to retool his swing.)

During the broadcast of Monday’s playoff round, Nike ran an ad that had Earl Woods’s voice running over images of his son: “I’d say, ‘Tiger, I promise you that you’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life.’ And he hasn’t. And he never will.”

You can like this model or not. Either way, the legend grows.

The fact that Tiger is the pitchman for Buick has nothing to do with his skills and the legend he is creating as we watch. That's WHY he is the pitchman. Michael Jordan was just as ruthless, just as focused, just as competitive. That's the nature of greatness.

1 comment:

Jean said...

And speaking of Lance Armstrong, I'd say he's another one of those athletes who has that ability to laser beam focus.