The eye of the Tiger: does Woods have to choose between being a great golfer and a good human being?

Tiger Woods wrapped up the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews tied for 23rd and 13 strokes off the pace, “his worst finish at a major in which he completed 72 holes since a tie for 24th at the 2004 PGA.” You might remember that Woods had a little domestic dustup last November, and since then he hasn’t exactly been his old competitive self. For instance, have a look at his post-Tigergate results:

  • Masters: Tied for 4th
  • Quail Hollow: missed cut
  • Players: withdrew (injury)
  • Memorial: Tied for 19th
  • US Open: Tied for 4th
  • AT&T National: Tied for 46th
  • JP McManus Invitational Pro-Am: Tied for 24th
  • British Open: Tied for 23rd

Excuses are easy to come by: long layoff, off-course distractions, injury, etc. A lot of people would be 0-fer under these circumstances, but a lot of people aren’t Tiger. With Woods, there are two outcomes: first is first and second is last. So the question, at this stage, has to be whether what we’re seeing from Woods this year is a) a momentary diversion in an inexorable march toward Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, or b) the new normal. Exception or rule? Bump in the road or end of the road?

At a glance, the easy answer might look like (a. After all, he’s got the same awesome skill set, right? He’s still in his prime physical years. He’s had slumps before – every great athlete does. So why panic – it’s just a matter of time.

Maybe. But it’s also true that psychology is critical to success at the highest levels of sport (or business, or art, or you name it). There’s a fine line between dropping that pressure putt and lipping it out. Call it the “Eye of the Tiger,” if you will. Woods doesn’t have a shot in his bag that dozens of other players on the tour don’t have, but he has – or had – a relentless confidence, a killer instinct and an unparalleled mental toughness that lets him make those shots more consistently and under greater pressure, and in doing so this edge lets him put his opponents under even greater pressure. All the true greats have/had it: Jordan, Rivera, Montana, Borg, Armstrong, Pelé, Gretzky. They were born for crunch time.

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 the newest Red Bull, Thierry Henry) might languish if you move him outside (as he did when he switched to Barcelona a few years back). And let’s not even talk about what happens when you ask a 4-3 prima donna like Albert Haynesworth to transition to a 3-4 set where he won’t be the one making the big plays.

I was the same way in baseball. If I wasn’t hitting at the top of the order 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 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.

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’s reportedly going to cost him several hundred million 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 (in that order).

So he did rehab. He’s been making an effort to be nicer to people, 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 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.

So are Tigers.

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    I have not seen Tiger play in person but always great to watch him on TV.

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