He isn’t the only one who thinks that, either. I once listened to a radio interview as the host tried to engage Tiger Woods on the topic of his legacy, with the general thrust being “what if you don’t break Jack Nicklaus’s record for most majors?” Repeatedly – as in six or seven questions in a row – Woods refused to even acknowledge the possibility. He just kept answering with one word: “Eighteen.” As in, the number of major tournament victories needed to equal Jack’s epic tally.
So in Tiger’s head, nothing matters in life past wins at the British, US Open, Masters and PGA. Other tournaments are nice, I’m sure, but they don’t really count and second in a major is last.
Woods today extended his string of last place finishes, posting a final round score of 74 (+3) to finish even with Hideki Matsuyama and Zach Johnson (unlike Woods, they were tied for sixth).
May the gods deliver me from the gleeful schadenfreude in my soul, but I can’t stop giggling. Once upon a time Woods was king of the world, not just winning everything in sight, but swaggering around the course, intimidating and even bullying his opponents with the ruthless transcendence of his game. If he was level going into Sunday, it was over. The rest of the field was playing for second. Or, in Tiger’s view, the privilege of being the best loser.
But then Thanksgiving 2009 rolled around and his wife discovered that being king of the world apparently involved balling every stripper, porn star, hooker and amateur hoochie within driving distance of a tour stop. One can’t help recalling this bit from Don Juan DeMarco:
DONA ANA: “I will accept that I am not the first (woman you made love to), if you will tell me, with the same honesty, how many others there have been.”
(VO: This would have been a very good time for me to lie, but truth is a terrible habit.)
JOHN: “Including you, there have been, exactly, one… thousand, five hundred and two.”
(VO: I could see that this was a sum substantially greater than the one she had in mind…)
Mrs. Woods then attempted delicate brain surgery on Tiger, using, we’re given to understand, a nine iron.
Now, I was clear from the get-go – I try to make no judgments on what happens inside other people’s marriages. I’ve had the misfortune to learn the hard way that nobody knows the truth of things except the two people involved, and sometimes not even them.
Still, if I learned that one of my friends was behaving in this fashion, it is very likely that he’d now be a former friend. It is one thing to not judge as an outsider, and another entirely to want that sort of person in your own life.
Since then we’ve all been treated to a twisted public drama, beginning with the most awkward press conference in recent memory, where Woods stood before family, friends and a lot of cameras and tried to act as though he had a soul. He went into counseling and emerged committed to being a kinder, gentler Tiger. But once he became publicly vulnerable, people who had kept their mouths shut (one supposes for fear of losing their access to the biggest name in the game) began leaking insider details about the real Eldrick Tont Woods. The picture that emerged was not a pretty one – he was a privileged, hateful douchenozzle whose behavior made me go so far as to wonder if he didn’t have at least a slight touch of sociopathy about him. I still wonder that, actually. I may be wrong, but I have a hard time imagining him tipping his waitress more than a dollar. Unless, you know, she’s really hot and wants to come up to his room for a little “bottle service,” if you get my drift.
When he finally returned to the course, it quickly became clear that he’d lost his mojo. Lots and lots of theories were tested out, and many sort of accepted that he needed to change his swing.
Blah blah blah. Listen, every golfer has to stay on top of the technique thing and over the course of a career, the physical skills evolve in ways that require fine tuning and even the occasional complete overhaul. But the thing I began wondering about wasn’t physical or technical. It was psychological. To wit: did his on-course success depend on his being an amoral, predatory asshole?
The question I’m easing up on is this: can a kinder, gentler Tiger Woods be successful the way that the appalling King of the World Tiger was? Let’s face it, that look in Tiger 1.0′s eye coming down the back nine on Sunday with a three-shot lead was the same look he probably had as he stared out past the velvet rope. On the course it was “hand me the 8-iron and watch me step on this bitch’s neck.” Off the course he was like Al Czervik in a whorehouse: “bring me the blonde, the redhead and three of the brunettes. I’ll have one of those, three of those, a box of these…. Hey, everybody, we’re gonna get laid!” Tiger 1.0 was a predator, on the course and off. And that was central to his identity. It was more than what he did. It was who he was.
But to what extent has the process of building the nicer, cuddlier Tiger 2.0 neutered the essential edge he needed to dominate the game of golf? If you’ll pardon me putting it this way, to what extent does his on-course success hinge on the F-bombs, treating people like lepers and fucking everything his eye surveys? Can you significantly alter the man’s fundamental essence without compromising the psychology that made him one of the two greatest golfers in history?
At present, the answer is “we don’t know.” But it’s not a question that can be dismissed. Maybe he just needs time to adjust to being the 2.0. Maybe it’s not about his psychology at all – maybe this is just a routine slump.
However, it’s also possible that when all is said and done, the only road back to the top runs directly through a gauntlet of porn stars, professionals and cocktail waitresses with low self-esteem and questionable moral character. That’s not a pretty picture to contemplate, I know, but humans are complex animals.
Tiger has every shot in the bag and he’s #1 in the world and at the absolute worst he’ll be remembered as the most dominant force in his era in golf and the second best of all time. But you know what, a lot of guys on the tour have every shot in the bag. When push comes to shove, the difference between second and tenth in a major is a lot narrower than the difference between first and second. Top ten is about being a great player and having a good week. But winning is about will. It’s about psychology and, if you’ll forgive the expression, the eye of the tiger. There was never any question that Woods could again win tournaments and be the world #1. But for a guy as good as him, that’s not the test. The test, in his own words, is can he win a major. When the chips are down on the grandest stage, as they were today in the final round of the most prestigious tournament in the sport, can he close?
For five years now – that’s 17 majors in a row in which he has competed – the answer has been a resounding no. 17 tries, 17 last place finishes.
While I’ve never met the guy, I’ve certainly read enough from those who do to feel comfortable suggesting that he’s not a very good human being. And I’m not going to lie – I like to see good people succeed and bad people fail. Our society too often rewards all the wrong qualities and in doing so makes clear to up and coming generations that it’s okay to be a stone cold psychopath, an abuser, a thug, a bully, a punk, a douchebag, so long as you win. That ideology makes us a worse culture and it sucks a little bit of the humanity out of us every time we cheer on a superstar that we wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) leave unattended in a room with our children.
So today, I’m celebrating. I know, the guy finished SIXTH, and how many golfers would give their left nard to do that at the Open? But in his mind, he failed, and he’s going to carry that mounting weight around on his back until the next major, when hopefully it will happen again.
I invite you to celebrate with me. It’s okay to hate what is worst in our culture and to rejoice when those who’d drag us down with them don’t succeed.