There's a fundamental intellectual issue involved in trying to make sense of the career of the most famous American athlete since Michael Jordan. It's always been obvious that much of the appeal of sports is as a test of masculinity, in the basic sense of muscularity. On the other hand, we also like to believe that sports are something more than just that: a test not just of masculinity / muscularity, but of manliness, a broader, nobler concept. The emerging evidence over the last generation that so many famous athletes were triumphing by buying more masculinity in a bottle is a little too reductionist even for my tastes. Fortunately, I could always point to golf as a sport where the guy with the biggest muscles didn't have a huge advantage. Sure, it's not a terribly masculine sport, but that allows manliness to play a larger role.
Or, at least that's what I thought, Well ...
Yesterday, Woods withdrew in pain after the first nine holes of the The Players' Championship, after shooting a 42 (hey, I've shot 42 for nine holes!). TPC is the fifth most important tournament of the year, so qutiting isn't something he takes lightly.
What's wrong with Tiger besides the wounds to his psyche? (Golf fans really do take respectability seriously, unlike NBA fans. For example, in 2001, Bill Clinton's feelers for membership at prestigious Westchester County golf clubs like Winged Foot were repeatedly rejected, in part because of Monica Lewinsky — he ended up at the Century , a Jewish club with a fine but not very famous course. For whatever reason, Jewish country clubs tend not to host big tournaments. Are they discriminated against by the very WASPy USGA, or do they not like to share? For the last 20 years, the USGA has required a quota system for membership of private clubs hosting USGA tournaments — all memberships must be integrated, e.g., have at least one black member — and perhaps Jewish clubs don't want to deal with quotas. I don't know. It's an interesting topic, but not one that is discussed much other than off-the-record out on the course.)
Tiger's body appears to be falling apart at an age, 35, when most golfers are in their primes. In early 2008, I had calculated that Woods was on track to smash Jack Nicklaus's career record of 18 pro major championships with a total of 26. Today, he's still stuck on 14. His last major championship victory was at age 32 in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he played in pain.
In contrast, the primes of other golfers appear to be getting longer on average. Vijay Singh, for example, won 12 tournaments before turning 40 in early 2003 and 22 in his forties, more than Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer did combined. Walking six miles per day on soft grass is not normally a physically debilitating lifestyle. It's like an ideal hunter-gatherer lifestyle — walk 200 yards and throw a spear at a rabbit — without the part where the woolly mammoth tries to toss you with his tusks.
In the Wall Street Journal, John Paul Newport comments:
Physically, after years of bodybuilding and exceedingly high-torque swinging, Woods is an old 35. Mentally, after decades of on-course domination and little in the way of comeuppance (golfwise, at least), he's an immature 35. He doesn't know how to adapt to decline.
If Woods wants to win again, given his increasingly apparent physical limitations, he doesn't need to reengineer his swing, as he has been trying to do with coach Sean Foley. He needs to reengineer himself, as a crafty veteran. With 71 PGA Tour victories and 14 majors under his belt, he's got more wile, experience and golf smarts at his disposal than anyone playing the game - way more than enough to win tournaments with imagination alone.In contrast, Phil Mickelson appears to be as big an idiot on the course as he is rumored to be off the course (colossal sports gambling debt, illegitimate child, etc etc — just rumors, of course).
Bubba Watson was right last week when he said, "I think Tiger is going the wrong way. I think he's so mental right now with his swing. Just go out there and play golf." If and when Tiger's body heals enough to start playing regularly again, he needs to let go of the search for a perfect swing and learn to play "old man" golf: put the ball out there somewhere in or near the fairway, and then let the wizard within take over.Ben Hogan won six major championships in his forties after a horrific car crash that left him permanently shuffling about. Lee Trevino was a 5'7" Mexican who got fried by lightning at age 35, permanently messing with his back, yet battled back to lead the Tour in stroke average in 1980 at age 40, win a last major at age 44, and then dominate over-50 Senior golf for a few years.
Golf isn't that hard, physically. Or at least it didn't used to be. On the other hand, perhaps improvements in clubs and balls have reduced the element of guile in the game, making it more of a test of whose body can hit the ball longest and straightest.
For example, Trevino in his prime was famous for playing a fade that curved left to right with some backspin. This sacrificed length but kept the ball from rolling into trouble. In his Senior Tour days, he switched to a draw that curves from right to length with some topspin to get more length after the ball hit the ground. But these days, most players have their driver and ball choice optimized by video and computer analysis to hit it long and straight. All that shaping the shot stuff sounds very 20th Century.