79 and done…

While golf’s chattering class fixates on technical issues that no-one cares about, like the bounce on Tiger’s wedges, the definition of the ‘yips’, and now, how best to activate one’s glutes, it is much more interesting to look at Tiger’s demise in comparison to the other greats of the sport.

But before doing that, let’s first all accept that it’s over. If the history of this game has taught us anything, it’s that once the ability to score is gone, it’s gone. It doesn’t come back, regardless of the age, health, or desire of the participant. Tiger can spend the next 18 months doing nothing but chipping and driving – and for that matter can head back up to Isleworth and shoot 62 every week with Cookie and Arjun and the rest of that crowd – and it won’t make an iota of difference. This is crystal clear to everyone outside of his biggest sycophants – you know, Phil Knight, Steiny, everyone in the golf media not named Dan Jenkins – and arguments you hear otherwise are a distraction. Tiger may have a swan song – although it’s increasingly looking like the 2013 Players was just that – but he is not winning 19 professional majors, and even Sam Snead is sleeping safer now.

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In just about every other sport, it’s simple. The hero ages, loses a step, fights an injury, struggles to hang on, and cries when he says goodbye. Jeter was the last to go through this, Peyton will be the next.

But golf… is different. Tom Watson more or less stopped winning at 34. Snead, an outlier, was a threat into his 50s. People like to fawn over the ’86 Masters, but Jack was done as a consistent winner more than six years before, in his late 30s. Arnold and Trevino just a bit later, in their early 40s. And then, most intriguingly, you have those that wake up one day and find they can no longer hit a golf ball during competition, the most prominent being Seve, but lesser players such as David Duval and Ian Baker Finch fit here too.

Jack Nicklaus, in a moment of rare insight – presumably all those legendary interviews he gave to Dave Anderson and Jenkins were off the record – once quipped that his biggest advantage over the field was that he didn’t drink. But it wasn’t a joke; alcohol certainly derailed, or at least suppressed, many a career, perhaps most notably Watson’s. Tiger may imbibe at times, but I sincerely doubt alcohol is his problem. If it is, his enablers have done a heroic job of hiding it.

Earl Woods – who predicted Tiger would stall at 14 majors, by the way – famously said that only a bad back or marriage would scuttle Tiger’s career.

You could say that both did in Jack, although everyone accepts that it was the appeal of family life that dulled his interest in competing. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate though; it seems to me that Jack was more interested in becoming a titan of industry – perhaps not dissimilar from Hogan – and being recognized as the smartest guy in the room, something he couldn’t do by winning a few additional Andy Williams San Diego Opens. I also think losing repeatedly to Watson and Trevino on the biggest stages in the 70s damaged his ego irreparably, but again, I wasn’t sitting in on all those annual Winter caucuses with the press in West Palm, so I don’t know.

But back to Tiger. It’s not his back (or knee, or achilles, or glutes, or anything else related to his body.) He’s recovered from his few serious injuries – let’s remember, five wins in 2013 – and the rest have always carried a whiff of self-protection or ego inflation. It is no secret why the fastest men in the world inevitably clutch at their hamstrings once beaten, and it’s hard to think of any golfer that didn’t have to deal with some type of back issue.

So that leaves Elin. And while I do think Tiger’s breakup is ultimately to blame for the turn his career has taken, it hasn’t unfolded in the manner Earl, or most, would have predicted.

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Jack once explained – maybe he is the best interview of all time – that Gladwell’s excellence theory doesn’t hold with putting, that a golfer inevitably becomes worse over time, irrespective of practice, because one needs to be sure in order to putt. And, of course, the aging process is synonymous with creeping doubt.

Callahan’s book, the best ever written on Tiger, makes two things clear. First, Tiger has been coddled from day one and as a result is permanently immature and insecure. We’re not talking as a competitor here, but as a human being. The ridiculous behavior he exhibits – the insufferable entitlement, the tipping, the big timing, the inability to take any joke, the mentality that made it ok to stiff the widows of Jackie Robinson and Payne Stewart – that riles up the Jenkins types so much, is a self-defense mechanism. Tiger, if nothing else, is the anti-Arnold, never comfortable in his own skin.

The second thing that comes out of Callahan’s book, and some of Diaz’s stuff, is that Tiger surprisingly is not a bad person. He loved his Dad. He respected his parents. And, he’s often felt the sting of loneliness.

The problem is that, for most, there really is only one way to become the best in the world at anything. Have you ever looked at Lance Armstrong? Or Justine Henin? Stacy Lewis? Really looked at them? While they were winning? These are not people you’d ever want to rely on for a favor. Don’t think you’d ever want to share an elevator or cab with them either.

In this vein, Tiger’s personal life wasn’t an aberration. It wasn’t a distraction either. It gave him confidence, fed his ego, quieted his insecurity. And it was of a piece for a man who must have realized at a very young age, perhaps somewhere around the time of the first junior amateur, that if he was going to approach the expectations already hardening, that he would need to be ruthlessly selfish.

Thanksgiving evening 2009 upended Tiger’s world. Any certainty he had, about who he was, and how he lived, could only have been shattered. He was embarrassed and ridiculed on a level never seen before, for behavior, quite frankly, ignored or even lauded in earlier generations. Tiger, who had always played the victim card, now actually had a reason to feel under attack.

But more importantly, maybe, for the first time, Tiger recoiled at who he’d become. Maybe, with Elin gone and two kids to raise he decided the old way was unsustainable. Maybe he realized the pursuit of excellence was the problem, at least the way he was going about it. Maybe he came to understand that the right way to win is not the right way to live. And maybe now, like Seve well before his illness, he is discovering there is no other way to win, at least for him, and “it”, whatever “it” is, is not coming back. Ever.

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9 thoughts on “79 and done…”

  1. Some, like Phil, say Tiger is just a few weeks from the next win. It seems more likely Tiger is firmly in the wilderness, though can he find his way out? Does he really want to?

  2. Stacy Lewis? Had to look that one up. I would probably add Michael Phelps to the list. This is top-notch stuff Frank. Better than the crap i just read on ESPN. It was a great run. I’m ready for his successor. I need something to fill the void. I need a demonstrative winner. The current crop is just not getting it done for me. The pinnacle for me was the hat spike at 18 on bay hill. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqJ4Zs5zKxg Now that was awesome and worth it all.

  3. Frank, since I’ve known you a while, I love how you relate the story back to other characters in sports that you’ve obsessed over. Poor Ian Baker Finch!

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