Even the most genuinely talented human beings have flaws. We look at the most gifted performers in our culture as heroes and role models, but we forgive their personal shortcomings as long as they remain successful in the arenas in which they have become known to the world.
Often we ignore the possibility that it could be because of – not in spite of – these flaws that these people are able to claim their spots on the highest of pedestals in the first place. Addiction is strange; it can destroy, but it can also impart an unshakable confidence in its victim.
As you probably know, Tiger Woods last won a major championship over three years ago. Since that time, personally and professionally, his life has gone through total upheaval. He was forced to undergo reconstructive knee surgery after that thrilling 2008 U.S. Open win, returned 8 months later and played fairly well, but left golf again in November 2009 after a history of being unfaithful to his wife became public.
Since then, Tiger has lost several endorsements, parted with his swing coach, Hank Haney, and his caddy of 12 years, Steve Williams. Clearly, Tiger Woods has not been Tiger Woods, brand name and PGA winning machine, for the better part of the last three years.
Several reasons have been presented as explanations for the downfall of what many consider the greatest golfer who ever lived. Perhaps his inability to get back into playing shape and remain healthy after the ACL tear in 2008 is the cause. Maybe it is the deterioration of his marriage and the effect of sharing custody of his children rather than being a full time presence in their lives. Some have gone as far as to suggest that Woods was a user of HGH until his doctor began being investigated for distributing performance-enhancing drugs.
I think there is another reason.
It might sound cliché, but golf is an incredible test of mental toughness and confidence. When a golfer loses the belief that they are the best, and that they will strike each ball perfectly, they are destined for failure. To succeed at the highest level of golf is to possess utter surety in your ability. It is necessary to block out all distractions and be able to overcome unforeseen obstacles. Tiger Woods’ biggest problem is not his health or his personal life being destroyed. It is his lack of confidence – in his game, yes, but also in his invincibility – that has made him free fall from his accustomed #1 world ranking to #28.
For years, Tiger was able to manipulate the world into thinking he was a quiet, boring man who happened to have an obsessive competitive streak and astonishing skills on the golf course. As we have learned, Woods’ life away from the course was anything but boring. Tiger’s power allowed him to conceal his scandalous personal life, and that, coupled with his dominance on the PGA Tour, allowed him to have a certain confidence that he could do anything without repercussions.
I think it is likely that Tiger’s bulletproof self-image is what propelled him to such heights on the course. In his mind, he should have won every time out. To his ultra-secure self, Tiger felt that nothing was going to stand in the way of what he wanted, be it victories, women, or claiming the title of the world’s richest athlete.
In many ways, Woods is like so many pop culture icons that have come and gone. The landscape of Hollywood and the music industry is littered with stars at their peaks of creativity and success at the same time living in the valleys of desperate, destructive abuse of drugs, alcohol, or other vices.
Eric Clapton made the best music of his life while on heroin, and after getting clean he fell precipitously. Ditto for Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots (his revitalization with Velvet Revolver was surrounded by accusations of relapsing). Eddie Van Halen, once considered the Hendrix of his generation, was a relentless partier. Once he got sober, the string of #1 albums stopped, and so did his reputation as the greatest guitarist in the world.
In Hollywood, Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, and Gary Busey were all talented and successful early in their careers, all while addicted to some sort of substance. They have all had resurgences sober, but there was a fairly long dormant period of flops and bad performances in between.
Whether the substance abuse had anything to do with these stars’ ascent to fame we can’t be sure, though I think that the attitude that those stars possessed had very much to do with their success. That attitude is one of indestructibility, and of the ultimate assurance that the art they produced would be great. Tiger was addicted to women, winning, and most importantly, the power of being the greatest living athlete on the planet.
One could argue that it would have been better if Tiger’s torn ACL had been the end of his career. It certainly would have left the door open for some very heated discussions. We could have debated Tiger’s place in history without having to see him labor through this disastrous patch. If he plays for the next 14 years and never reclaims his throne, he’ll be looked at more negatively than if he had been permanently injured at age 33. He would be have been talked about the way we talk about Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Sandy Koufax.
I’m not saying Tiger needs to go back to sleeping with massive quantities of women or icily shutting out the media (although he still does a pretty good job of that), but he does need to regain that confidence that he had for each of those 14 major championship wins. He needs to take the course steadfastly believing that he is the best golfer ever, and that he is the best golfer in the field every week.
If it takes him doing some unsavory things to get back to that place, is he willing to go there? Does he care about regaining that invincibility more than reforming his life? As much as we don’t want to admit it to ourselves, we want Tiger to go there – as long as it means he is winning again.