Tiger’s New Stripes

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Thomas Paine made this point during the trying, early days of the American Revolution. His call seems prescient today for the world’s top golfer and America’s most famous athlete. Tiger Woods’ life changed irrevocably over the last six months. Tabloid revelations, internet gossip, and a sex scandal sent Tiger into rehab and kept him off the fairways for six months. Many believed Woods’ would answer skeptics and return to “normal” living after returning to professional competition. This fantasy turned into a nightmare after that first week in Augusta. After three tournaments back, Tiger seems like a shell of his former self. He missed several short putts, popped up drives like a twenty handicapper, and failed to cash checks in two straight tournaments. Clearly, something is amiss with Tiger the professional. Questions linger for Tiger the man as well as Tiger the athlete. The world has turned upside down for him in 2010. His image shattered into a million pieces in the aftermath of his scandal. Now, he must craft a new one. It is time for Tiger to paint new stripes; this period offers Woods an opportunity to create a different identity. He can now become an existential hero.

What does it mean to be an existential hero? First off, one must acknowledge the absurdity of the world. Man seeks meaning in a world completely devoid of it (meaning). This leads man to despair; for what, can one do in such a world? Philosophers suggest that man take a leap of faith. One must accept the world in which one lives, and, in doing so, one fully live. Recognition of the absurd liberates man. Once one understands the world in which one lives, the individual becomes free to live for himself. He can establish his own meaning and develop an individual purpose.

Life is about the journey, not the destination. For thirty years, Tiger has focused his mind, channeled his energies, and patterned his behavior in the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s eighteen professional major titles. At thirty-four years of age, Woods sits four victories shy of this total. Throughout the first thirty-three years and eleven months, life seemed like pure bliss to those who watched Woods. He was a prodigy: as a boy, he won three consecutive junior amateur titles, as a teenager, he captured three consecutive U.S. amateurs, at twenty, he turned professional and won two events during his rookie season (1996). The next spring, he won his first major championship that he entered as a professional (1997 Masters). He did more than win; he brought Augusta National to its knees; his drives routinely measured 300 plus yards; he hit wedges into 500 yard holes and he never had a three putt on those treacherous greens. By week’s end, he captured the tournament scoring record and became an American superstar. Sustained professional excellence followed. He has won ninety-seven times around the world. In 2009, he became the world’s first billion dollar athlete. His personal life seemed just as magnificent. He married the stunning Swedish blonde, Elin Nordgen, in 2004 and has two lovely children. The press documented a supporting family who encouraged Woods and gave him the stability and fulfillment to continue chasing Nicklaus’ record.  Things seemed perfect. Yet, for all the professional success, for all the domestic bliss, things clearly weren’t peachy for Tiger. He needed an outlet. He found it in women (numerous affairs) and gambling. Revelations of this secret life destroyed the icon that was Tiger. For years, Woods’ management crafted an image that wooed corporate America, won over millions of fans, and made Tiger the number one athlete in the world. It all focused on the destination. It highlighted Tiger the competitor and the gifted sportsman.

International Management Group (IMG) developed the Tiger persona over twenty five years. When Tiger was a kid, the company employed his father Earl as a golf “scout.” This loose title meant that the company had eyes on the golfing prodigy and planned to move him into their stable when he became a professional. They did. Since 1996, Woods has been the company’s top athlete. His golfing success, his big smile, and his marketability (he is a Cablinasion—part white, part black, and part Asian make him attractive to a vast group of people along different racial and socio-economic lines) made him one of the world’s most lucrative pitch men. IMG lined up contracts for sports drinks (Gatorade), for luxury watches (Tag Heur), for automobiles (Buick),for apparel and sporting equipment (Nike), for hygiene (Gillete), for video games (E.A. Sports), and for the business/corporate world (Accenture). The advertisements spoke volumes. They said, in short, join Tiger. Woods represented performance, quality, durability, and excellence. For nearly fifteen years, Woods remained squeaky clean. His biggest offense was a penchant to slam clubs, and occasionally, to utter profanity in moments of frustration. Some in the golf world criticized Woods for his childlike behavior. The vast majority forgave him these infractions. Sustained excellence on the course made these events pale in comparison to the joy Woods showed when he flashed his big, toothy smile. This often accompanied a fist pump and occurred moments before he picked up a victory trophy on Sunday afternoon. Over time, this became routine. Smile, fist pump, grab a trophy. Woods represented the American dream. He rose from a respectable middle class family and became the world’s top grossing athlete. Millions watched him—and latched on their hopes, dreams, and morals to him.

Woods rode this gravy train of good will until the vehicle came to a sudden halt in the aftermath of his scandal. Now, that aura of invincility, of athletic prowess, of god-like status has withered away. The public now question Tiger Woods. They first questioned his private life. After months of remaining hidden from public view, Woods has answered those embarrassing questions. But, his poor play over the last two tournaments he played in has brought up a whole new set of queries.

What’s wrong with Tiger the athlete? Has he lost his magical touch? Why did he part ways with coach Hank Haney? What exactly did Dr. Galea, the toxic Canadian physician who’s been associated with performance enhancing drugs; do with Woods when the golfer rehabilitated his knee during 2008?

Woods’ play began unraveling during the final round of this year’s Masters. Over three days, he wowed the crowds with splendid play. He positioned himself for a possible fifth Masters victory going into the final round. Then, things began unraveling. Popped up, two hundred yard drives replaced the trademark three hundred plus yard bombs. A wedge shot airmailed the green at the short par 4 third instead of landing softly near the cup. At the fourteenth hole, needing a birdie to stay near the lead, Woods inexplicably missed a tap in putt. This was the first time in memory the public viewed Tiger act so carelessly on a golf course.

Many disregarded these warning signs. After all, Woods finished fourth at the major championship in his first professional tournament in six months. Clearly, he was doing something right. Two weeks later, these misses became greatly exaggerated in his next start. Playing at the Quail Hallow Championship, Woods began the tournament with an over par opening round. He missed ten of fourteen fairways in his round of two over, 74. Many saw rust in Woods’ game but all assumed he’d find a way to bounce back and make the weekend. He’d only missed four cuts in his professional career. The next day, Woods caught everyone’s attention. For all the wrong reasons. He played abominably. He shot 79. His back nine included bogeys at three consecutive holes only to follow that up with back to back double bogeys. Ouch.

Six days later, Woods reappeared on the golfing scene at The Players Championship. He made the cut but stood several shots back of contention on Sunday morning. ON the seventh hole of that final day, Woods withdrew from the tournament citing a sore neck. For the first time in his career, he finished outside the money (meaning he failed to cash a check) two consecutive tournaments.

Throughout the Players week, rumors circulated that Woods had parted company with long time swing coach Hank Haney. After the most erratic week of his professional career at Quail Hallow, why wasn’t Haney on the range with Woods at Ponte Vedra Beach? A week later, Haney announced his resignation as Woods’ coach on the Golf Channel.

More troubling than the player/coach relationship is the ongoing question about Tiger’s involvement with Dr. Anthony Galea. The Canadian physician has come under fire over recent months as a noted supplier of performance enhancing drugs. The United States bars him from practicing in this country. Back in 2008 while Woods recuperated from season ending knee surgery, he called Galea to his Florida home to help him in a rehabilitation effort known as blood spinning. The technique speeds up recovery time from injury. Many wonder why Woods used Galea. After all, the world’s foremost practitioner of blood spinning graduated from Stanford (where Woods attended college). Why did Woods use Galea to help him?

Many want these questions answered. Woods will step to the microphone in the coming weeks. Inquiring minds might want to know what Tiger will do with his own self. What image will he craft? Has he accepted his existence?  Has he recognized the absurdity of his universe? An adoring public put Woods on a pedestal. They made him a hero. They paid tribute to his golfing exploits and lauded his professional successes. But, they didn’t make Woods happy. Nothing really did. Winning tournaments, especially majors, offered little solace. He had a smile, delivered a fist pump, offered a kind word, and collected another piece of hardware. But, his soul remained empty. What was missing?

Joy.

Woods focused on the destination throughout his life. His laser eye pointed to the eighteen major victories. His life became a quest to surpass that. But, over time, he has lost the passion and the enthusiasm for the game.

Golf isn’t work. It appears to be a struggle right now for Woods. Where is the enthusiasm? It looks like a grind.

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Vince Lombardi once postulated. Indeed, this mindset encapsulated Woods’ zeitgeist over the last few years. Inner turmoil, angst, injury, and frustration marked his life over the last two years. He failed to win a major during 2009 despite capturing six tour titles. He came up short this year in the Masters. All too often, Woods couldn’t convert pivotal putts that he poured in during past triumphs. It appeared, to this viewer, as if he pressed too much.

One plays their best with joy. Enthusiasm, not anger, provides the player with the best opportunity to play well.

Joy should replace this tension. The world now knows the real Tiger. The hidden life is gone. The old Tiger disappeared. Now, it’s time for Woods to paint new stripes and redefine himself. He should do that by emphasizing joy. Smile more. Take a breath. Appreciate the good things in life. Laugh at the absurd. There is no meaning in this world Tiger. Accept that and make your own meaning. Develop your own purpose.

Let bygones be bygones. You can’t change the past. You’ve apologized. Now, move on. Work each second towards your goal. Strive to make your meaning worthwhile.

Then, and only then, will you find peace.

Tough times don’t last forever. Happy days will return. Putts will drop in the future. Your wayward drives will find their way into the short grass. Just, take a deep breath and re-focus your energies.

The world watches in anticipation as Woods navigates these turbulent waters. Many wonder if these turbulent times will sink Tiger. I am not one of these observers. I know he will come back stronger than ever. He has the wherewithal to make it through this difficult period. He can take solace in knowing that two days after Thomas Paine lamented the trying times that “test men’s souls,” George Washington crossed the Delaware River, surprised the British army, and won a resounding victory at the battle of Trenton. This heroic effort lifted the spirits of an army on the ropes after suffering a series of humiliating defeats during the fall of 1776. It helped spark a continental resurgence.

Tiger needs a similar spark to change his woeful ways. Geography and past history offer him a great opportunity. This summer, the Opens return to Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. Woods has memorable victories at both venues. He ran away with the U.S. Open and won the tournament by fifteen shots in 2000. A month later, he completed the career grand slam by grabbing the Open Championship at St. Andrews.

These are difficult times for the world’s best golfer. But as Thomas Paine suggested: “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

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