By Michael WIlliams
GolfWRX Staff Writer
An interesting phenomenon is sports, is that the greats often have styles of play that match their personalities. In team sports it is more truism than truth; the example that comes to mind is Larry Bird. Off the court, the man had all the personality of a bowl of oatmeal. But on the court he was a brazen, daring star who carried his team to victory on the shoulders of his outsized alter ego, Larry Legend.
But on tournament golf’s individual stage, where there are no teammates to stand behind or in front of, the axiom is proven time and time again. The player must not only craft a method for playing this devil of a game, he or she must also develop a personality to allow the method to function. If the swing is the lifeblood of a player’s success, it is the personality that provides the rock ribs necessary to attain success and the thick skin crucial surviving the stinging disappointments that are a part of the journey.
The way the player walks, talks, stands and even blinks are evidence of he player’s personality, and with no helmet or shoulder pads to provide confidence or camouflage the player’s character is on full display. Walter Hagen brought a sense of style and adventure to a gentleman’s game approaching his wardrobe and his approaches with equal flair. Ben Hogan practiced in a solitary world that he constructed for himself, locking others out while he searched for The Secret with OCD-like fervor. In the end, he found what he was looking for inside the perfectly controlled confines of his psyche. He drew millions close to him with the results his perfectionism; ironically, that same iron will created a wall that kept those adoring masses at a distance whether he truly wanted it or not. In sharp contrast is the unbridled charisma of Arnold Palmer. Win lose or draw, it was Arnie’s world and he knew it. The world bent to Palmer’s personal gravity in the same way that courses relented to his powerful draw. And is there any doubt that Seve Ballesteros was the original “Most Interesting Man in the World”? He smiled in the face of his self-made catastrophes and extricated himself from them with the same bootlegger’s grin.
Today’s tour provides more exhibits of the game/personality connection. Bubba Watson is a self-made man, simple and complex all at once. The same is true of his game; his holler-wallop swings producing parabolas seldom seen outside a NASA proving ground. Watson draws a unique path through the course, just as he does through life. Rory McIlroy is the baby-faced assassin, playing the game few in that prodigious style of someone who has never known anything except being exceptional. But his maturity at his tender age is what served him best, allowing him to shake off the disaster at Augusta and produce a gem at Congressional in the one tournament that requires equal part patience and performance.
Amid these constructions, Tiger Woods stands as a monument. For more than a decade he seemed to be a magical experiment that combined both the game and personality characteristics of golf’s greatest players into one anointed player. Nicklaus’ distance and ambition, Palmer’s strength and flair, Hogan’s determination and work ethic were all in display as Tiger’s star hurtled across the sky. He was even paid a king’s ransom to accept credit for characteristics that we weren’t even sure he possessed, all so that a corporate sponsor could apply those characteristics to their products by the transitive property (Tiger has integrity, we pay Tiger, therefore we have integrity).
The personal crash that Woods experienced led to exposition and seismic changes. The King was deposed, tried, convicted and publicly flayed. And then, there was change. We saw Tiger apologize. We saw him beaten. And a couple of inglorious times, it seemed as if we saw him surrender.
Entering the second act of his life and career, Tiger is piecing together a new way to play and a new way to live. At the Media Day for the AT&T National tournament that he will host at Congressional in late June, the talk was of Tiger’s calm and considered demeanor. The hubris was virtually gone. In its place was a quiet confidence and a genuine belief that the event was more about supporting the kids in his foundation than as a stepping stone to his return to the top. Tiger patiently sat for the media, spent time with kids form his foundation and had a 10-year old Down’s Syndrome boy he had befriended at a tournament last year sit next to him during the press conference. He even deigned to participate in a promotional chipping contest with local amateurs. We do not see or hear much about Tiger’s private life, but what we do know is that he has dived into role as a father with relish. He is still focused on Jack in the distance, but is not willing to leave his loved ones behind to reach him.
They say that getting chicken pox in adulthood is much worse that getting it as a child. In the same way, it is much harder to grow up when you’re an adult than it is to do it as a child. Tiger Woods maturation began at 34, in full view of half the planet. As the Memorial begins this week, Woods is also searching for a game to match a personality that is in flux. He needs to decide if he will be a cannon or a sniper rifle, a jazz riff or a metronome. But as he searches for the combination that works, he will be aided by one wonderful thing that is happening off the course; he is becoming more of a man. And the golf world is hoping that eventually it will lead to him becoming more of a golfer.
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