Monday, June 16, 2008

The incomparable Tiger Woods

Normally, I don't root for the overdog (is there even such a word?). Some exceptions, though, do apply: the Beatles, Hank Aaron, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Earl Warren, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Coltrane, Bill Evans, the ultimate starting pitching triumvrate of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine during the Atlanta Braves 1990s run, Roy Haynes, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, for starters. There is something to admire about individuals who, no matter what their chosen field or occupation, are not content merely to get to the top. Once there, they maintain a determination to get better and better . . . not to defeat already defeated opponents, but to test themselves . . . to reach down into an inner-reserve that the rest of us don't have and keep mining their gifts of excellence through sheer determination. This is a lesson I try to impart to my students as they come through college: having a special gift will never mean as much as it can unless you work as hard as you can to maximize it. Having no special gifts of my own, I have always depended on determination and will rather than natural talent to get wherever it is I want (or have wanted) to go. My greatest frustration as a professor or youth coach comes when I have kids who want something for nothing, or look for shortcuts rather than invest in the work necessary to achieve a goal, or expect a parent or some other white knight to rescue them by attempting to bully me into making a decision that, I can guarantee you, I am not going to make unless it's something I want to do.

This is a (typically) long way of saying: let's add Tiger Woods to the list.

Sometimes it's hard to see in golf or any individual golfer the inspiration to do better or to tell a kid, "Do that!" I love the game, sport . . . whatever you want to call it. I used to play a fair amount in the B.C.-era (Before Children). Now, my golf outings are confined to an occasional trip to the practice range or, as is more usually the case, miniature golf on vacations. Even when I played semi-regularly, I always struggled with the privileged nature of the sport. I have never played a round of golf on a private course. I don't think I ever would, given my inherently hostile posture towards institutions of privilege, with country clubs near or at the top of the list. The golf tournaments I have attended over the years have simply reinforced my feelings. Golf clubs, by and large, pride themselves on their exclusiveness, and the people who belong to them tend to treat their guests as subservient house help who, for four days a year, are permitted to run the grounds, as long as they don't touch anything of value or come in the front door. I've never found much to identify with when I hear a golf announcer talk about how some khaki-clad country club boy endured the rough summers on exquisitely manicured grounds to "hone" his game, not coming home until he had holed 12 or 20 or 310 consecutive bunker shots. Hmmm . . . not quite the same as throwing a football through a tire, skating on ponds until dark, shooting hoops through wire baskets or attempting to beat out a double-play ball on a dusty field somewhere by sliding into second over and over again.

But watching Tiger Woods yesterday battle back to earn a playoff spot in the U.S. Open offered much more than just a great moment in sports. It should serve as a great inspiration to anyone who believes that good is just good enough. Here is an athlete with nothing to prove, who is, in my view, the greatest golfer ever, if not the most dominate athlete in any sport ever, determined to go to the mountain top . . . again. No one in the world can possibly dispute that Tiger is the greatest golfer since Tom Watson. The only real question is whether Tiger is his prime is better than Jack Nicklaus in his prime. Nostalgia among people my age (and older) is really the only force left to take Nicklaus over Tiger. Nicklaus had Arnold Palmer, Watson and Johnny Miller to push him. Tiger doesn't have anyone. And please don't say Phil Mickelson. Comparing Phil to Tiger is like comparing the Monkees to the Beatles . . . a manufactured media "rivalry" to maintain interest in a sport singularly dominated by one person.

Our whole family, including my father-in-law, who came to visit two months ago and now won't leave, watched Tiger's final nine holes. Time was pressing against my Sunday night hockey game, but I decided to wait until I thought the tournament was over to head out. After Tiger, who learned the game on military and public courses, one stroke down, drove his tee shot into a fairway bunker on the par 5 18th hole, I announced to my family, "Okay, that's it," and left. About an hour later, at the first-period intermission of my hockey game, our goalie, who was almost 10 minutes late, skated over and said, "Had I known we would play so well I would have stayed home and watched more golf." To which I responded, "So Rocco did it, huh?"

No.

Tiger birdies the 18th hole by making a 12 foot putt, a putt than everyone watching, including his playoff opponent, Rocco Mediate, knew he would make.

So I did the dumbest thing a sports fan . . . or really, someone who has always watched and admired greatness . . . could do: I counted Tiger Woods out by assuming he was just like everybody else.

He isn't. And yes, Tiger has more achievements, money and fame than the rest of us could ever aspire to in a 100 lifetimes. Shouldn't that be reason enough to root for someone else? Normally, yes. Tiger Woods, though, isn't normal. Hobbling around on a recently operated-on knee, making shots that would embarrass even a bad amateur golfer, grimacing after routine shots, Tiger played with a determination that wasn't directed towards his opponent. Rather, he continued to test himself, to see if there was anything else left to summon and give, to see if had extracted every ounce of will and skill from his inner-self. By making that putt on 18, he proved that he was still in his own universe as an athlete and competitor. But Tiger also demonstrated to everyone else that we all have our own bottomless reservoir of talent and drive. All that he's asking us to do is summon it. Imagine how much better off we would all be if we did?

ADDED: . . . and he wins the U.S. Open on the first sudden death hole after an 18 hole playoff round against Rocco Mediate, who had him on the ropes over the last 3 or 4 holes. Tiger is simply incredible. I just cannot remember an athlete who was just so much better than everyone else.

1 comment:

deacon blues said...

Well said. Tiger at the age of 32 has now won 65 major tournaments, placing him ahead of Ben Hogan, with whom before today he was tied for 4th place in PGA major wins. Now he is in 3rd place behind Sam Snead and The Golden Bear (Nicklaus). Read his Wiki if you need more stats, but within the next few years he will smash the few remaining records he does not already own in professional golf, all by the time he is 35. He is on track to be the first professional athlete to exceed $1B (with a "B") in earnings, all by 2010.

And, by all accounts, he seems to be a decent human being, a rare thing in such a fierce competitor.

I agree - comparing him to Lefty is an insult to Tiger, and I have nothing against Lefty. In fact, were it not for Tiger, Lefty would probably not be the golfer he is today.

Tiger's success is a testament to his phenomenal talent as harnessed by his loving yet relentlessly focused father, who as a retired Army officer, cultivated his son to be the best.