Bruised, battered, broken, and beaten, Tiger Woods is a shell of his former self. He’s still the No. 1 golfer in the world and the reigning PGA Player of the Year, but that’s not good enough for him or any of us … and when you take the time to examine it, isn’t that unsettling?
OVER the course of the last two decades, Eldrick Tont Woods* has undisputedly been the best human being in the world at the career he chose to pursue.
That may seem like a weighty statement, one that needs no further contextualization, but given the amount of criticism and ridicule that fellow sporting supernovas like Sidney Crosby, LeBron James, and Peyton Manning have dealt with over the course of their careers, I think such talent can be (and has been) taken for granted.
For those who participated in a sport back in high school, you were probably satisfied if you were the best player on your team. You were definitely happy if you were the best in the district at that activity, and you would have been treated as some kind of deity if you were the best in the state. I seriously doubt you’re reading this if you were ever the best in the country at something, but if you were, well, good for you. I’m sure you were happy about that.
But there are roughly 7.2 billion people inhabiting planet Earth at the moment. Tiger is the best golfer among that sample. 7,199,999,999 humans are not as good at golf as he is. That’s a lot of commas.
His crown is finally up for grabs, though, and this latest slip feels more permanent than the temporary challenges from Vijay Singh and Rory McIlroy to Tiger’s place at the pinnacle of the sport. News broke last Tuesday that Woods had back surgery to repair a pinched nerve and would miss the Masters (and probably the other three majors). With Tiger tamed on the bench, Adam Scott or Henrik Stenson will almost certainly attain the No. 1 ranking after the weekend is over.
Woods won five times on tour last year, the most victories by a golfer in a single season since — you guessed it — Tiger Woods (in 2006), but he was off to an admittedly terrible start in 2014. It will remain unknown how much of those struggles were due to injury and how much was just old fashioned sucking, but the inarguable takeaway from recent events is that the quest to top Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major victories — already becoming more daunting with every passing year — just dove deeper into the metaphorical sand trap.
Tiger isn’t happy now, and few would blame him for it. With a competitive streak as reputed as his Nike endorsements and affinity for Denny’s waitresses, even fewer would say they don’t understand it. But I don’t think Tiger has ever been truly happy as an athlete or satisfied as a competitor, and for that I am appalled … but also helplessly fascinated.
TIGER wasn’t born for greatness; he was programmed for it.
A child prodigy that first broke 80 at the age of eight, Woods’ father made breaking Nicklaus’ records a goal for his son by the time he had become a teenager. As a prospective lawyer, this would be akin to my dad saying 13-year-old Brandon would need to one-up Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro before his litigation days were through. No biggie.
Sports’ brightest stars often show glimpses of their talent very early on, almost in a prescient, jaw-dropping manner of what was to become staple in their careers; Allen Iverson, Bo Jackson, and Andruw Jones serve as historical examples of this ethereal ability, while recent stars like Jose Fernandez, Nathan MacKinnon, and McKayla Maroney have all provided spurts of excellence that none in their classes have matched. Tiger’s first six years as a pro were essentially one prolonged heat check of such moments, beginning with a 12-stroke win in the Masters when he was barely legal to drink and peaking in 2000 after posting the greatest statistical season in the history of golf. No one has shone more brilliantly and no one has shone more often than Woods in his twenties. With 14 majors under his belt before his thirty-third birthday, passing Nicklaus had simply become a question of “When?” rather than the once-tantalizing “If”.
And then came the injuries and the collapse of Tiger’s personal life, punctuated with dramatic breakups in both his private and professional spheres. He ran away with the PGA Player of the Year award last season, but Woods has not won a major since encountering those obstacles. His torrid pace has slowed to a crawl.
Unlike past titans such as Babe Ruth and Brett Favre, who gradually slipped from dominance to an age-induced nadir, mortality hit Tiger in an unceremoniously swift fashion. There has been nothing graceful about it, and it doesn’t help that this hollowed-out version of Tiger is still expected to carry the sport commercially. Woods is not allowed to decline in skill or status.
But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
As clinically insane as the expectations are that Tiger faces — he is the only player in the world that is considered a disappointment if he does not outright win a tournament among a field of hundreds of competitors — he expects even more of himself. Winning is both an addiction and an antidote, a mandatory meal for his programming.
A scant amount of long-lasting happiness was observable in prime Woods when he took home another Green Jacket or Open Trophy; he was already thinking about the next major, the next kingdom to conquer in his impossibly difficult goal he’d accepted as his destiny since adolescence. When you set your bar at “Greatest of All Time”, it is difficult to ruminate too long on a single victory when 19 of them are required.
That is purely conjecture on my part, of course, but it has long been agreed upon that Tiger exhibits a level of competitiveness that toes the line between admirable and unhealthy. His drive rivals that of Manning or Jordan, the former having studied enough film to become the first football-playing cyborg and the latter still shit-talking through half of his Hall of Fame induction speech**, but Woods’ expectations from the masses even drown out theirs. Peyton and MJ were fortunate to play in sports where there was no consensus GOAT to chase down when they entered their respective leagues. Nicklaus is unanimously seen as the most accomplished golfer in history, and Tiger has been pursuing a lone light at the end of the tunnel since the late ‘90s. He only has one purpose when swinging a club.
The criticism is deafening these days when he falls short at a major, missing a crucial step forward in that messianic journey. But does this say more about Woods or us?
Us … the raving, ravenous public, that is. The ones who give the media the power to levy first-or-worst scenarios on an activity that has never experienced more parity. Is a desire for perfection justifiable when the subject himself is a perfectionist, or are such lofty expectations an unfortunate mutation of an increasingly unrealistic peanut gallery? Tiger already gave the world a decade of memories and countless highlights that will be replayed for generations; if his reign is truly over, what more does he owe the game of golf?
But again, he asked for this pressure. Woods welcomes it. You and I were happy with a 91 on any college exam; Tiger would wonder what the hell his professor marked him off for. In stark contrast to the amicable rivalry between legends like Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Woods remains the lone wolf he was engineered to be, refusing to make friends with his peers*** while burning bridges with an assortment of swing coaches. It’s been a lonely ride to the top.
AND this is where I recently had an epiphany — I would never want to be Tiger Woods.
Even with all the talent and money in the world (along with your choice of Swedish supermodels), I do not possess the mental fortitude to base my life around being the best to ever do something, especially not in an activity as stressful and individually exposing as golf. Whereas Tiger — an alpha male of alpha males — cares only for the big-game hunt and his fleeting white whale, I enjoy the small victories that spring up when least expected. Woods doesn’t care about his eight wins at Bridgestone or four-straight triumphs at Bay Hill in the early aughts; those were just warm-ups. Trial runs. Glorified exercises for the majors. The psychology of it all is both enthralling and horrifying, and I don’t want to know what goes on daily in Tiger’s brain. Who wants to live a life without satisfaction?
I don’t think we created that beast, but we certainly fed it whenever possible. It harks back to the theme of my Namath piece — why can’t the public accept greatness for what it is and not make it into a narrative-driven contest? The Tiger-Jack debate spans a half-century of tournaments and traverse radical changes to the sport in media coverage, course difficulty, club technology, and depth of the fields; any comparisons basically begin and end at the numbers 18 and 14 … along with both being the unquestioned best in history. Context is disregarded, clichés are inserted.
Tiger remains my favorite golfer for his talent and dedication to his craft, but he will always serve as a reminder of why I enjoy viewing my athletes from the comfort of my couch instead of up close and personal. Woods’ entire worldview is superhuman, which is both good and bad as a descriptor — complimentary in the sense that his commitment to success throws the curve of what normal people should be graded on, but condemning when realizing that such persistence can be hazardous. In the increasingly likely event that he falls short of Nicklaus’ record, what does that mean for Tiger? How will he cope? Can he transfer that competitiveness into something productive when his body finally fails him?
Woods seems like the least suited athlete for retirement, but that time will eventually come. I hope it ends with him winning number 19 in the not-too-distant future, but if it doesn’t, that scenario may be just as interesting to watch unfold.
* You know him better as “Tiger”.
** Most called Jordan arrogant, but I prefer to describe him as a man who is literally unable to turn off the switch. If he can’t kick your ass on the court anymore, he’ll do it with his words.
*** Woods and Steve Stricker are the closest thing to bros as Tiger will allow, but major-less Steve has never really been his peer.
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.