Friday, February 25, 2011

Tiger in the Rain

Tiger Woods has been busily competing in golf tournaments - seventeen of them - for the last fifteen months without winning one of them. If any other athlete had suffered a slump for a comparable amount of time, he would, at a minimum, have been obliged to go on an extended hiatus from the game.

Yet Tiger shows no sign of slowing down. He continues to be invited to compete in tournaments all over the world. And his amazing slide is documented on television and online with unusual enthusiasm. When the results of every round of every golf tournaments that Woods appears in are announced, people still want to know how he did.

His fall is fascinating, and doesn't appear to be reaching the bottom any time soon. It fits Malcolm Gladwell's definition of "choking" perfectly: under pressure, the greatest player in the world will sometimes correct a mistake by thinking too much and by ignoring his instincts, making further mistakes until he starts to look like a beginner.

What some people don't know is that Woods is getting paid large sums of money simply by appearing in tournaments. His mere presence on the golf course attracts attention from viewers who aren't usually interested in the sport. In the recent Dubai Desert Classic, in which Woods finished in a tie for 20th place, he was reportedly paid $2.8M to play - and lose. Apparently more people can be expected to show up or tune in to watch Woods lose than would ever have been around to watch someone else win. And the other players must be aware of this.

The reasons for his fall, which everyone knows by now, would appear to be effecting his ability to perform at his customary level. Evidently a deeply shy person, Woods found in golf a means of becoming world famous and wealthy without being required to talk about it much. But now that some sensitive aspects of his private life have become so disgustingly public, his appearances in public - on the golf course - are freighted with emotions that are affecting his game. No matter how many high profile coaches Woods hires to help him with his putt or his drive, when he takes center stage and he knows everyone is watching, he chokes. Tiger Woods' problem isn't in his swing but in his head.

What makes people want to watch him choke is one of the elements of sports that enthusiasts don't like to talk about. When people watch a boxing match, one of the reasons they watch is the sadistic desire to see the boxers - athletes is superb physical form - reduce each other in a matter of minutes to bloody helplessness. Gladwell goes further: "We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail." The emphasis in sports on winning is one of the reasons I can't take it seriously. But when people take a greater interest in losing, it becomes clear that there is something we can learn from sports. Losing sometimes bestows nobility. When Mark Twain published Ulysses S. Grant's autobiography at his own expense, he discovered that people were far more interested in the autobiography of Robert E. Lee.

Woods is one of those athletes, like Wilt Chamberlain and Serena Williams, who have been so dominant that they transformed their sport. The trouble is that, as the level of play changes, other athletes make the adjustments required to win. So Chamberlain, Williams, and Tiger Woods saw declines in their dominance as the general level of play in their respective sports was raised to their level. The end of Woods' dominance in golf was inevitable, but his mistakes off the green have accelerated his end. How much longer will people find his swan song - or swan dive - worth watching?

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