It’s okay to be melancholy at the news of Tiger Woods’s sabbatical. I feel it, too.
We were lucky to watch one of the greatest athletes of all time at the height of his powers. Now, Tiger Woods is stepping away to try to balance his chakras, or whatever it is he will be doing alone on the Medalist driving range. That’s right, the most dominant and ruthless golfer ever is crying uncle, and it’s easy to view this as the glummest development yet in his sad and shocking decline. Woods used to inspire awe in fans and fear in his competitors. No one ever expected he would need our pity.
But as dispiriting as it is for Woods to take his game into hiding, this may actually represent progress. As he surely learned during the recovery that followed his sex scandal, the first step in conquering a problem is to admit that it exists. Woods still reflexively obfuscates when it comes to his chip-yips—and his agent gave a laugh-out-loud statement saying Tiger is “chomping at the bit” to play even as he takes his leave—but in this case actions speak much more powerfully than words.
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Woods has never looked more vulnerable than he did at Phoenix and Torrey Pines. Continuing to suffer in front of the world was only going to create more emotional scar tissue. Woods is a man of immense pride and stubbornness, and so it took a certain amount of courage for him just to admit the obvious: it’s time to regroup.
But the dilemma Woods now faces is that the cure for what ails him is unlikely to be found on the driving range or practice green, or even in casual games with buddies. His woes have nothing to do with swing mechanics or the “release patterns” in his chipping. It goes much deeper than that, to the metaphysical. More than five years have passed since Woods plowed into a fire hydrant and lost control of his carefully-curated public life. What followed was the biggest tabloid scandal in sports history and the worst public shaming of the Internet age, and yet many observers now underrate the effect it had on Woods. In seeking to understand the problems in his golf game, all roads lead back to the scandal and its aftermath.
Part of what made Woods so great was a sense of entitlement. He loved to brag about his alarm clock going off at 5 a.m., about all his time pumping heavy metal, about the endless balls he hit on the range. The implication was that he deserved to win because he had worked harder than everybody else. There was some truth to that, of course, but that insatiability leaked into the rest of his life. The hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsement money, the endless parade of sexual conquests, the adulation of an adoring public and press—all of that fed the superiority complex that underpinned his competitive makeup.
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The belief that Woods can regain his old confidence fails to recognize that he is no longer the same person. His entire identity and sense of self was taken away by the scandal. Shame is among the most powerful and destructive of human emotions, and Woods has been marinating in it ever since. The need to reinvent himself, to start anew, led him to remake his swing under Sean Foley, an experiment that clearly failed. It is revealing that Woods is now looking for salvation in video clips from his youth. If only it were that easy to start over emotionally. During his heyday Woods could hit any shot and he putted better than anybody ever has, but what separated him from everyone else came from his heart and his head. His belief in himself was absolute, and unshakeable. Under pressure he was the clearest thinker and the most resilient. Success begat success. But all of that is gone now.
Woods’s five-win season in 2013 fooled us all. He appeared to be ramping up for another run at history, but now it looks increasingly like a last gasp, one final summoning of will and want from a proud champion. Even as Woods was prevailing on courses where he has so much institutional memory he still struggled at the major championships, the tournaments that mean everything to him and define his legacy. Those cracks in the façade continued to grow, to the point where now the entire edifice of his golf game has come crumbling down.
As Woods takes this time off it gives the rest of us a chance to reflect. There is no question that for more than a decade he played golf at a higher level than anyone ever has. Is the he the greatest of all time? Nicklaus will get the nod from most, based on longevity, consistency and his advantage in the ultimate measuring stick, major championship victories. For all of Woods’s incredible accomplishments, we are now left to wonder what might have been.