By Michael Williams
Special to GolfWRX
Seemingly on the brink of regaining the form that propelled him to greatness, Tiger’s Achilles’ heel turned out to be his Achilles heel. Last week, Woods dominated the story line by posting his career Sunday low on the course; he was close to setting a career low off of it when he refused to stand before the press after withdrew from the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship.
At the time he withdrew, he was having a difficult round, and in the spirit of an event hosted by a car company, he changed tires (shoes, actually) at the start of the back nine in an attempt to gain some traction. He showed some signs of physical discomfort on the 10th hole after hitting his approach into the water. After hitting his longest drive of the day on the 12th hole, he followed it with two even longer drives; the drive in a cart back to his car, and the drive back to his Fortress of Solitude in nearby Jupiter Beach. Woods was 3 over through 11 holes, essentially playing himself out of contention early in the day. His chances of winning disappeared and he did likewise, pausing only to chuck bag and caddie into the Caddy. The MetLife blimp, appropriately named Snoopy, followed Woods’ car from the air for several minutes, a scene eerily reminiscent of a certain running back in a white Ford Bronco. It seemed that at any moment Al Cowlings was going to call Johnny Miller from the car and say, “I’m in the car with Tiger. He has $100,000, a passport and icepack. But he’s OK, so just stay back!”
These events upstaged the results of the tournament, including eventual winner Justin Rose and hard-luck runner-up Bubba Watson, and put once again the career arcs of Tiger and Rory into juxtaposition. Both had disappointing weekday rounds and came into Sunday needing to put up a low number just to have a chance. Rory did just that, shooting a 67 that could just as easily have been the 64 that would have won him the tournament. Tiger never seemed to be comfortable, suffering through the distance control problems with his irons that had seemed to be ironed-out with last week’s 62. McIlroy is clearly golf’s Sunday best. He is always in contention if he makes the cut because he is always a threat to post the low round of the day. With every passing week his game and his confidence are growing and the sports world is anxiously anticipating his return to Augusta to see if he will exorcise his demons born on the back nine in last year’s Masters. When it comes to Woods, there is a lingering pattern of having more disappointing Sundays than a missionary in Vegas.
I grow tired of making the connection between mental and physical in golf; surely the long-suffering reader is tired of having it made. The only person that doesn’t seem to get it is Tiger Woods. After all that has happened, how can he not understand that a person who is brittle and petulant in the press room will be brittle and petulant on the course? How can he not be aware that if he is not willing to give answers to the simplest requests that are asked of any performer, then the media and the public will replace information with speculation? How can he not see that the ability to handle your emotions is directly connected to the ability to control performance?
Since Woods gave only a terse written statement to the press, we are once again left to speculate about whether the withdrawal was due to injury or frustration. It was likely some of both, but it is inexplicable that a man who had the physical and mental toughness to play 18 holes on a broken leg to win a major championship doesn’t have the Nike One’s to stand in front a microphone and explain the situation to the fans and sponsors that want him back at golf’s pinnacle. There has rarely been an athlete who has displayed such a yawning gap between the ability to produce sporting heroics and the inability to produce personal courage. The only one that comes to mind is Woods’ erstwhile mentor Michael Jordan, but that is anther story for another day. To those that feel Tiger owes nothing to the press or the public, I say that each side has benefited and each side deserves respect. Compared to the rest of the entertainment media, the golf press is a wet noodle. Providing the few details and cascade of clichés that it is able to whip into a feature piece should be child’s play, but Woods is a child who seems never to have learned to play nice with others.
The Bible says “Be angry, but sin not,” positing that it is not the emotion that is the transgression, rather how it is expressed. Tiger Woods used to understand anger and how to use it. His anger was controllable and not an imminent threat because it was publicly directed only at a golf ball or at himself. He used anger to his advantage. Now, that anger seems to have corroded the vessel that carried it. He was always intense on the course; now he is joyless. He was always dismissive of reporters; now, he is rude and even threatening. He pretends not to care what anyone thinks, but he is trapped inside a cage of public scrutiny.
But Woods holds the key to that cage, and that key is the same media that he so despises. He doesn’t understand that the media can be used to his advantage. He can manage outcomes and expectations by simply telling the truth. If he is still hurting, why not say so? It’s not a sign of weakness to be injured and even Tiger in his current mental state can’t be addled enough to think otherwise. The whole issue comes down to one simple fact; when he leaves room for speculation, speculation will come. And if you truly don’t care about the media, stop getting angry anytime an unscripted question is asked. Whether he’s open or closed, he should be honest and consistent.
It is pointless to resist comparing Woods and McIlroy. At this juncture in their respective careers they are linked in time, in talent and in the imagination. Rory is carefree for now, but he has not had his life opened up with the rib-spreader of long-term life in the spotlight. Tiger has not only worn down the tissues of his body in his march across golf’s landscape; he has also badly frayed the mental cartilage so important to the game of golf and to the game of life. As the Masters and the rest of the majors approach, the big questions are whether the body will heal, and, if the mind doesn’t heal, does it really matter about the body?
These are questions that even Tiger cannot answer … not that he would if he could.
Michael Williams is the contributing editor of Newschannel8 Capital Golf Weekly and Bunkershot.com, as well as a member of the Golf Writers Association of America.
You can follow Michael on twitter — @Michaelontv