The Earthling

Me and Tiger Woods 

With the Masters now underway at Augusta National, it is a good time to address the long-simmering question of why Tiger Woods is a better golfer than, say, me—or than anyone else in the world.

As for the “me” part: Athletic ability may have something to do with it. But as for why Woods is the best in the world—and probably the best ever—we need a deeper answer, one that distinguishes him from all the other great athletes who have played golf. Here’s my theory: Woods manages to combine two elements that are generally incompatible: a fire-breathing, Gen. Patton-level competitiveness and a Gandhi-like equanimity.

In football, hockey, and other sports of open aggression, getting riled can be productive. Plenty of excellent players have been a bit on the mercurial side. In golf, mercurial is bad. I speak from experience. All golfers have lost balls, but I once lost a club—a pitching wedge, which, after a duffed approach shot, I hurled into a distant patch of reeds. (I was young.) This tantrum led only to a further decline in performance—and not just because I now lacked a pitching wedge.

Contrast this with Woods’ play at yesterday’s opening round of the Masters. On the 12th hole he triple-bogeyed. (For you non-golfers: A triple-bogey—three over par for the hole—is bad even for me. For Woods it’s nearly unheard of, and yesterday it appreciably dimmed his chances of winning his second Masters.) So what did he do next? Throw his club into a patch of reeds? No. He followed the triple-bogey with a birdie on the 13th (one under par—about as good as it gets, especially at Augusta).

Don’t get me wrong. Woods does have the club-hurling impulse. In fact, he features more displays of temper than most pro golfers. Once, after a bad drive, he fiercely thwacked his club into the ground in disgust—a sight so rare on the PGA tour that it later drew a gentle reprimand from Arnold Palmer. But with Woods, peace of mind seems to follow anger almost immediately. So he gets the best of both worlds—a desire to win that is second to none without the downside of an emotional roller coaster.

It’s easy to test my hypothesis that for normal, mortal golfers, competitiveness often brings performance-degrading bouts of anger and angst. Just anesthetize your competitive sensibility: Go out and play a round in the absence of any rivals (ideally, play alone) and, above all, don’t keep score—not even in your head. I contend that, once you’re not focusing on what your total will be at the end of the day, you’ll relax and play better. Early blunders, lacking enduring consequence, will fail to unhinge you. And your refreshingly low level of anxiety may make early blunders less likely to begin with.

Of course, if you keep this up, you may find that one side effect of the new, mellow you is a dampened desire to practice. And that’s a luxury Tiger Woods can’t afford. In fact, the main use of his competitive urge isn’t in the tournaments themselves, it’s when he is practicing maniacally, honing the unprecedented repertoire of creative shots that TV analysts are always marveling at. You only work that hard if you are driven—driven by what Woods himself recently said is his goal of being the best who ever played the game.

I have to admit that I found this quote a bit eerie. It’s almost exactly what Roy Hobbs says in Bernard Malamud’s The Natural—and a downfall then ensues that, in the book, unlike the Robert Redford movie, is unrelenting. Then again, my whole thesis about Tiger Woods is that he can somehow get away with saying such things, and with feeling them. Most pro golfers have a standard rap downplaying their ambitions—hey, if they win, it’s great, but if they don’t, the world will survive. And often this isn’t just a media pose. It’s therapy—it’s what they have to tell themselves in order to keep their competitiveness from swamping their equanimity. (Sometimes it doesn’t work. Witness Greg Norman.) Tiger Woods alone can fully indulge a preternatural competitive fury while entirely controlling it.

Why is Woods different? I don’t know. His mother, who is from Thailand, supposedly steeped him in Buddhist philosophy, an experience that his father says gave him “inner peace.” And occasionally, while waiting for his turn, Woods closes his eyes as if meditating. All I know for sure is that I’m not like Tiger Woods. And neither is the average human being. For most people, the rule of thumb is—and I hereby add this observation to the long list of ways in which golf has been compared to life—you do better if you don’t keep score.