Thursday, April 19, 2007

Tiger Woods & the Life Hump

I think about Tiger Woods a lot. Not his near-win at the 2007 Masters, or at least not just about that. Not even his Swedish wife, Elin Nordgren, although her sunglasses seem remarkably similar (and not in a good way) to the ones the ophthamologist gave my mother after her cataract surgery. And not too much, I promise, about how their child will be a veritable United Nations of races all in one tiny bundle: African-American, Chinese, Native-American, Swedish, Thai, and WASP -- and that's leaving out any additional strands of Northern European DNA that Elin might be contributing. (I mean, she looks pure-bred Swedish, but there could be some rogue Danish or even -- gasp! -- Norwegian genes in there.)

And I don't think about Tiger Woods in a creepy, Oh-he's-so-awesome, way, either. (I currently save that throbbing for Bill Nighy, distinctive twitches and all.) I've been there done that with the bizarre crush thing. I actually wrote to Adam West back in his Batman-on-TV days (this must have been in 1967 or 68), and got a cheesy "signed" photo in return. I think I was expecting more, like he'd come and rescue me from my life. With or without the Batmobile; I wasn't going to be high-maintenance about it, you understand.

But then I met some "celebrities" and discovered that they have a private persona you don't always want to meet. They don't always look the way you think, either. I got a pass to the set of "All My Children" in 1982 and saw Susan Lucci up close & personal. Somehow, despite what you hear about the camera adding on bulk, her nose looked bigger in person. More like a real person's nose. Less perfect. Kind of reassuring, actually. (On the other hand, Isaac Asimov looked precisely like I expected when I encountered him in an elevator. I told him I recognized him from his sideburns.)

I don't really think I'd like Tiger Woods if we ever met each other. I'd probably think he seemed snooty, or too busy for me, or just focused somewhere else. He seems to have perfected that dichotomy where some people are in the circle, and the rest of the world is outside the circle. He's polite enough to us on the outside; he answers the questions honestly and openly, but he's not going to show emotion. This bothers some people, which is why when Tiger won the Open Championship last July and cried in his caddy's arms because it was the first major win after Earl Woods' death, journalists seemed to warm up a bit to Tiger.

And that's what I've been thinking about recently. My thoughts have been sparked by a Rick Reilly column in Sports Illustrated. He seems to be celebrating the fact that on Sunday of the Masters Tiger held the lead at one point and yet didn't win! Unheralded stuff. Worth celebrating, the way Reilly seems to do? I dunno -- I don't think so because it'll probably just make Tiger better somewhere down the line. But it struck me that wasn't the ending Reilly wants. He seems to want Tiger to be more human, more fallible, more -- well, more average.

Now, I like Rick Reilly's stuff -- very populist, very heart-warming, and very appropriate in sports where it's too easy to look only at the shotmakers, the home run kings, the diamond-wearing tennis queens, and the record-breakers and miss all the people who try, have a little success, and are happy with that, or even the ones who are happy just to play the game. So I get it that Tiger's accomplishments and skills can seem counter-productive to a sports analyst.

I see it differently. What interests me about Tiger is that he's the exemplar of the narrow-end. He's crazy gifted, but he works super hard to get better because at his skill-level it ought to be possible to do it all, have every shot shape imaginable, avoid all the hazards, sink all the putts and win all the majors. So what stops him? Well, not any of the other players. Sure, two players, each playing his best (sorry, I don't watch the LPGA -- but I will when Michelle Wie gets it in gear), will end up with the better player winning. But no one is better than Tiger, so for him every tournament is about how well he's playing at that moment. It seems like it should be controllable, but it's elusive. He struggles with a rarified form of what I struggle with: how can I get out of my own way? And he's right at the age where this should start to fall into place.

I have a theory about there being a life hump around age 30. See, in our teens we do what people tell us to do (or we don't, but it's still about what they say, and not about what we independently decide). Parents, school, peers, friends, boy/girlfriend. There's virtually no room for self-direction. In college (and I'm assuming a conventional middle-class life track here; your mileage may vary), the parents are less controlling, and the school has fewer rules, so there's more room for individual choices interleaving the social and academic structure. By the mid-20s, the external controls are really eroding, and yet where's all the good stuff? When I started work as a lawyer in the mid-90s, I was 40 but my colleagues were around 25, and they seemed really miffed that the law firm didn't supply a social life to go along with the 80 hour-a-week job.

So I started to look around me, and back to when I was that age, and I realized that around age 30, people start to get it: The only thing between them and what they want in life is themselves. Let me say that another way: The only barrier to getting the stuff I say I want is my own choices. No one is supplying what I want, but no one is stopping me from cleaning up my act and going for it. This ought to be a time when people lose their self-absorption and start to see that the world is not a theme park set up just for them. For me, it was a realization that the world wasn't actually trying to destroy me through criticism and rejection. Once I stopped seeing what I thought I was seeing, I became open to acceptance, compliments, etc. (I make that sound easy. Let's go with that illusion, shall we?)

Back to Tiger Woods. Sports-nuts and golf-purists will go on about his swing changes. Yeah, whatever. But I recall a moment at a recent Masters (2003? 2004?) when he hit his tee shot into something bad (water, presumably -- the rough at Augusta isn't that punitive) and he later blamed Steve Williams, his caddy, for the club selection. He then sort of backed off that statement, but it sounded like pre-life hump talk to me. These days, the talk seems a bit too far in the other direction. This year, Tiger bogeyed the final two holes on two rounds that were otherwise going well for him and blamed himself for losing the tournament because of those four strokes. He gets it that he's blocking his own accomplishment, and he's still learning how to get out of his own way.

My guess is that parenthood will make all this a lot easier for him. Think about it -- golf is unusual in that players perform best after they have peaked physically, usually in their 30s. Vijay Singh's success has been mostly in his 40s! They're husbands and fathers by that point. They're past the life hump, and if they thought they could be perfect and control it all, parenthood probably fixed that delusion. So how's Tiger -- who's done better in his 20s than most other players do in their 30s -- going to do when he too has a young family, the age, the maturity, the balance in his life? Well, personally, I think he'll win the grand slam. The real one, with all four majors in one calendar year. But not because it means more to him than ever before, but because it will mean less. He'll have gotten completely out the way of his own talent, and while all his concentration and mental toughness will be on the course, his heart will still be with him wife and child, as well as his mother, friends, and family.

I don't need Tiger Woods to be a heartwarming story. I don't need him to act like one of the guys. I need him to be what he is: the narrowest-end golfer of all time. I do want him to dominate the PGA, break all Jack Nicklaus's records, and inspire kids the way Jack inspired Tiger. I don't suppose I'll live to see someone come along and break Tiger's records, but I'd watch if that happened. But it doesn't have to be limited to golf. I think Tiger helps those of us with our own narrow-end issues in a way that Rick Reilly doesn't get. Which could be why I don't think much about Rick Reilly.

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