It's Thanksgiving Day, 2009. Tiger Woods is happily married, he's everybody's favorite golfer, and he owns 14 major golf championships. It is pretty much assumed that at some point in the coming few years he will tie and surpass Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors, cementing himself as the greatest golfer in history.
That evening - and here the details are a bit fuzzy - but it seems that his wife Elin finally realizes that her devoted husband has been serial humping every cocktail waitress on five continents and in a fit of ... call it dismay, I guess ... attempts to neuter him with a 9 iron.
Let's review Tiger's competitive results since that moment:
2010 Masters T4 2010 US Open T4 2010 British Open T23 2010 PGA T28 2011 Masters T4 2011 US Open DNP 2011 British Open DNP 2011 PGA Missed Cut 2012 Masters T40 2012 US Open T21 2012 British Open T3 2012 PGA T11 2013 Masters T4 2013 US Open T32 2013 British Open T6 2013 PGA T40 2014 Masters DNP 2014 US Open DNP 2014 British Open 69
In sum, 19 majors have been played. Woods took part in 15 of them and has zero hunks of hardware to show for his trouble.
Over the weekend, as Rory McIlroy closed in on his first Open Championship and third major overall, I found myself listening to a lot of sports radio as I drove around running errands. As is always the case, the subject was as much Tiger as it was Rory. That's how it works: no matter who's winning, the subject is always Tiger. Specifically, a series of hosts and guests wanted to talk about the most important question in sports: will Tiger ever win another major?
The verdict was almost unanimously yes, and individual opinions ranged from sure, he'll probably he'll win another one to heck, he could win a bunch more. The reasoning centered primarily on his health and age. In short, he hasn't won any since Obama's inauguration due to injury, and he's still young enough, by golfer standards. Only a matter of time.
I respectfully disagree. Yes, Woods has battled injuries. And yes, a number of majors have been won by golfers older than he is right now. I have no problem with these arguments, per se.
But they're the wrong arguments. Tiger's losing streak isn't a function of physical issues, it's a function of his mental issues. He's lost the Eye of the Tiger, as it were, and if he doesn't get it back he's done. And he is unlikely to get it back.
Wait, you may be thinking. Tiger has won a lot of tournaments since the scandal. True - eight of them, I think. He was the PGA Player of the Year, the PGA Tour Player of the Year, the leading money winner and the Vardon Trophy winner just last year.
However - and this is key - no majors. And only majors count. Who says so? Tiger does.
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.
If that's the only standard that matters to him, who are we to argue?
Woods' historic successes arose as much from his psychology, his attitude, as they did from his athletic and technical skills. And that psychology wasn't just an on-the-course thing - it was the same psychology that drove him to hound-dogging every woman he laid eyes on.
Woods doesn't have a shot in his bag that dozens of other players on the tour don't have, but he had, once upon a time, a relentless confidence, a killer instinct and an unparalleled mental toughness that let him make those shots more consistently and under greater pressure, and in doing so this edge let him put his opponents under even greater pressure. All the true greats have/had it: Jordan, Rivera, Montana, Borg, Pelé, Gretzky. They were born for crunch time.
If you know sports, you understand that the difference between tenth and second is nowhere near as great as the difference between second and first. More often than not, at the highest levels of competition the gap between first and second is almost purely mental.
It's also true that psychology can be fragile. Athletes need to be in just the right zone to succeed. Sometimes that means the right system, the right position, the right coach, even the right city. There have been guys who were naturally comfortable in smaller markets who just couldn't hack it under the glaring lights of the big city. A superstar striker (like Red Bull star Thierry Henry) might languish if you move him outside (which happened when he left Arsenal for Barcelona a few years back).
Even weekend warriors know what I'm talking about. I had to be near the top of the order in baseball, for instance. If I wasn't hitting somewhere in the leadoff to cleanup range - preferably first or third - I felt like I was being punished. I'm not excusing my attitude, and I know that hitting 8th and hitting leadoff have a lot in common: it's the same pitcher, the same bat, the same ball, the same umpire, the same hard slider. But my lifetime average in the 6-9 slots was probably a good hundred points lower than it was when I was hitting 1-5. There was no reason but my own head.
The question I'm easing up on is the one none of the highly paid network or newspaper pundits seems interested in addressing: to wit, can a kinder, gentler Tiger Woods be successful the way that the appalling alpha-douchebag, 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 brothel: "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.
When the details of his sexcapades began trickling out - day by interminable day - it set up a fairly predictable chain of events, including the non-apology apology press conference, rehab (because cocktail waitresses are an addiction - I'm pretty sure it says so in DSM-V somewhere) and eventually a divorce that reportedly cost him more hundreds of millions of dollars than I have hundreds of dollars. The key in here was the rehab part, because it was critical that Tiger change. The werehound-on-a-Viagra-and-angel-dust-cocktail act had to change if he hoped to salvage his brand and his marriage (and let's not kid ourselves, it was in that order).
So he did rehab. He made an effort to be nicer to people (an effort that frankly looked liked it was painful for him), to acknowledge the existence of reporters and to limit the number of F-bombs dropped per round. All of which goes in service of the goal of making Tiger a better human being.
But to what extent did the process of building the nicer, cuddlier Tiger 2.0 neuter 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 reporters, regular people and other peasants like lepers and fucking every woman in sight? Can you significantly alter the man's fundamental essence without compromising the psychology that made him one of the two greatest golfers in history?
So far, the answer seems to be no.
I hate to be cynical, and I always like to believe the best of people, especially those working hard to do things the right way. I don't know Woods (don't really want to, truth be told), and I can't assess from personal experience his state of mind, his sincerity, and most importantly, his attempts to hitch his physical gifts to a psychology that's clearly alien to him. But we know that he was treated like a golden god from the time he was a toddler, and he has been pressured, since that fateful Thanksgiving night, to behave like, to be, something I don't believe he intuitively understands.
I have no idea how athletes at any level and in any sport can be expected to succeed if, in crunch time, they have to abandon their instincts and instead of being themselves, be their antiselves.
It's entirely possible that when all is said and done, the only road back to the top for Tiger Woods runs directly through a gauntlet of porn stars, high-priced professionals and cocktail waitresses. That's not a pretty picture to contemplate, I know, but humans are complex animals.
So are Tigers.