I have wanted to write a piece on this golfer for some time, not because I am a sports’ reporter or even an amateur golf pundit. My rating in the grand scale of those who know a thing or two about golf is well below par but I have always followed this golfer, not because I love him – that would be an overstatement – but because he fascinates me. He fascinates me in much the same way as a moth is drawn to the light: it’s a star-studded flight full of aerial acrobatics and displays but the watcher knows full well that the flight of the protagonist will only end in its own destruction no matter what the display, no matter what the outside interventions. The power to halt that flight and prevent its eventual outcome is not in the hands of the observer, nor does it appear to be in the hands of the perpetrator either. Like Icarus who didn’t heed his father’s warning to avoid complacency and hubris and flew too close to the sun, this player seems destined to have had, and lost, the golden gifted wings of golf. The man who constitutes the legend that is this golfer is called Tiger Woods.
And a legend in his own lifetime is exactly what he is. That he changed the game beyond anything that came before with his incredibly demanding fitness regime, his passion for practice, and a swing that he executed with such incredible speed and strength that made everyone sit up and take note is beyond dispute. He is credited with increasing the popularity of his game and the size of the prize money on offer. He was a leader from his first exiguous outings on the golf course and, even at a tender age, if others wanted to compete in his league, they had to up their game. That has been his game plan ever since and those skills, ingested in his young years, have translated positively into his professional career. The boy that was born to golf, coached by his single-handicapper father from a tender age, and raised a Buddhist by his mother has wisely used discipline, hard work, focus and competition to drive himself forward to achieve his vision and goals. He was a man possessed of the highest echelon of self-belief, an unstoppable mix of confidence blended with skill that carried him all the way to the top of his professional tree. And then, when all was within his grasp, he seemed to open that clenched fist of a lifetime of success and let it slip through his fingers like chaff in the wind.
Even his birth name seems to have singled him out for stardom and if the meaning of the names of a baby can be a portend of the life to come, then Eldrick Tont Woods was destined to impress. His parents, Earl and Kultida Woods, formed a unique name that began and ended with the initials of their first names, although there is a suggestion that the root of his name is to be found in the Old English Aildric, which means “old and wise leader”. His second name, Tont, reflects his mother’s Thai origins and means “serious-minded and mature”. However, his father appears to have alternated between the nicknames of Tiger and Sam, the former in homage of a Vietnam War colleague and friend and the latter simply because Earl thought his son looked like a Sam. Tiger named his own daughter Sam as a reverse tribute to his father.
As a clean-cut sportsman, he ignited opinion. When that carefully crafted exterior presented to the outside world came crashing down round a fire hydrant, he inflamed widespread interest. When he struggled with injuries, he amassed support and respect. When he tumbled from grace and the rankings, he made us groan in pain. Wittingly or unwittingly, there is one thing Tiger has never achieved with his fandom: he has never commandeered mass rejection. Despite his ups and downs, he incites a loyal following and, such is his halo effect that, upon announcing his long anticipated return to golf, television viewing and ticket sales have raced to a peak. Tiger does not attract the dedicated golf aficionado alone – he has the capacity to attract the journeyman fan, the wavering follower, and even the plain disinterested. He is alone and above the rest of his field in this achievement and has the equally rare distinction of achieving such a celebrity status that he is instantly and internationally recognisable by that single name of Tiger. It is a brand – like Madonna, Elvis or Bowie.
His life beyond the course revolves around his love for the Transformers and comic book heroes. He is an insomniac who reads books on physics and cosmology. When he is not texting friends deep in the small hours of the night, he is playing video games. His passion for the Navy SEALs is the stuff of boy hero-worship and stems from his fixation with his father’s profession, the military, and it is to the military he turned, and the SEALs in particular, as he struggled to come to terms with the death of his father in 2006 – a person he missed not only as a father but as the man himself who was his best friend and confidante. He has nursed a long-held desire to be a SEAL, training with them over a sustained period. That Tiger sustained many injuries is beyond doubt but much has been made of the power of his swing and driving the ball a country mile as the enemies of his body. Very little attention has been given to the idea that as much injury may have been sustained in the programmes of intense training he undertook with the Navy – carrying thirty pound ammunition boxes while running uphill, the regular four-mile timed stints of running in combat boots, the high weight, low reps weight-lifting and the body slamming, bruise-inducing training of CQD (Close Quarters Defence). In the end, golf won out and so did the physical and mental scars.
The loss of his father was a huge body blow to Tiger. It was a new experience for him to deal with loss and grief, even death itself. They were factors over which he had no control and Tiger displays all the hallmarks of someone who lives by the dictum of control to achieve the ultimate state of perfection. The one man he could always turn to for mentoring and guidance had gone. Earl accompanied Tiger to many tournaments, often not setting foot on the golf course, but electing to stay behind at the accommodation just to be on hand for his son. The death of his father left Tiger alone and with a problem he had to work out for himself. And in this, Tiger, the intensely private man, the nerdy man, the bookish, boorish man, failed. He had no precedent to measure this experience against. The painful reminders of his father’s absence on the range or on the golf course were hazards he needed to avoid but his very career hung on the need to expose himself to those measures on a daily basis. It was not only the requirement of his professional career but literally all he had known from his toddler years onwards. In grieving for his deceased parent, Tiger was caught between a rock and a hard place. His futile attempts to escape – the Navy bonding sessions, the extra-marital affairs, the partying – turned into distractions that ultimately wrecked his marriage and his career and did not fill the empty hollow of loneliness. Earl truly believed his son was destined to change the course of humanity as the Chosen One. His mother called him the Universal Child who could bind all races together but the golden-winged Icarus flew too close to the sun and all his life exploded round him while the man himself imploded. For the first time, this perfectionist had to face his imperfections and shortcomings.
But Tiger is back with an adapted swing of reduced force. On his first outing at the Hero World Challenge, he scored more birdies than anybody; he also scored more bogeys. The desire to win is still alive but it remains to be seen if he is riding the crest of an assured comeback and if the supreme self-belief has returned. Despite the hype and the increase in television ratings and the surge of interest, he appears as a shadow of his former glory – more mortal, more vulnerable, less assured. He knows it’s his last outing. His close friend, Notah Begay, says so. His road of mourning has been an unconventional one, permitted to be so by privilege and prestige and celebrity status. It is a road that many could not afford to pursue but, in the end, he paid the ultimate price.
The armchair psychologists have been out in force too, dialling in on their ability to diagnose from afar. Some are plain whacky or funny and some seem to show well-deduced and logical conclusions. The diagnosis taking centre stage appears to be Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, a disorder characteristic of personalities who are intellectual, emotionally distant, perfectionists, who display tight control of their environment, and are extremely sharp at using logic to explain behaviours and thoughts. This is Tiger in a nutshell. The corollary to that, according to the armchair psychologists, is to accept that emotional vulnerabilities are normal aspects of everyday life and to realize that, in letting go of his perfectionist, obsessive streak, he can gain even greater control of his game and his life. Be that as it may, who has considered that if Tiger were to vent his frustration on the course, he would be lambasted by the highest and lowest of opinions for bringing the “gentlemanly” game of golf into disrepute with his puerile behaviour? You need only look at some of the mild antics of Speith and McIlroy – a club flung here or there, a sulky face at a missed shot, a slightly sullen interview or imperfect body language – and you can see why Tiger, an introvert by nature, would not want to display a single emotion in public. His status in the game would release a firestorm of media opinion at the slightest emotional reaction. Michael Bamberger wrote a book – “Men in Green” – and in that book, he quotes Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson. They all say the same thing in their own individual way: they would never trade places with Tiger Woods for all the money in the world.
Perhaps it is not the combined forces of the other professional golfers in the field that are Tiger’s opponents. Perhaps that award goes to the conflict within him and to the demons that haunt him. This is Planet Tiger and the corrosive nature of fame – and how much he has dealt with those demons is a question none of us know the undiluted answer to. At best, we are left with a guesstimate. Life with Tiger is one long question without much by way of a definitive answer but, as Tiger himself has come to acknowledge, the question is sometimes the only answer.
Meanwhile, I shall continue to watch, fascinated. My instinct tells me he will never achieve another major. He is done. His records to date are his final score. My heart wants much more for him: to equal or break Jack Nicklaus’ record, to achieve peace, happiness and fulfilment in his personal and professional life, and to carry on being the ambassador – no matter how unwillingly – he has been for golf. It is then my head kicks in. It is then I think of his ambassadorial role in the wider context of his life, the women, the gambling, the cheating, the carefully crafted image, the public persona, the duplicity, the Team Tiger cover-ups, the conspiracy of silence, the lying, the buying of his way out of indiscretions, the buying of his way into privileged experiences and then I think, “Who cares?” There is only one way a moth to the light can end. Fascinating or what?