Tiger Woods and the game of life

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - BY THOMAS FRIED­MAN

Al­though my day job is writ­ing the for­eign af­fairs col­umn for The New York Times — more Persian Gulf than fair­way golf — think­ing about golf and playing as of­ten as I can is my all-con­sum­ing hobby. So like mil­lions of oth­ers, I was awed by Tiger Woods’ come­back for the ages by his win­ning the Mas­ters at 43 years old. What can be learned from it?

It’s hard for non­golfers to ap­pre­ci­ate the scope of Tiger’s phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal achievement, af­ter he went through four back surg­eries and the global tabloid ex­po­sure of his in­dus­trial-scale mar­i­tal cheat­ing.

If I think of the news I nor­mally cover, it would be as if Bill Clin­ton came back and de­feated Don­ald Trump for pres­i­dent in 2020. Or, in tech­nol­ogy, it’s the equiv­a­lent of Steve Jobs found­ing Ap­ple, los­ing Ap­ple and then com­ing back and win­ning all four “tech­nol­ogy ma­jors” — the iPhone, the iPad, the iMac and the Ap­ple Watch — with a re­born Ap­ple.

The big­gest take­away for me is the re­minder of the tru­ism that golf is the sport most like life, be­cause it is played on an un­even sur­face. Good and bad bounces are built into the game, and so much of suc­cess in golf is about how you re­act to those good and bad bounces. Do you quit? Do you throw your club? Do you cheat? Do you whine? Do you blame your cad­die?

Or do you say what the great golfers say when a bounce turns against them or their ball ends in a divot in the mid­dle of the fair­way and only a great shot will get them back into the hole? They all say to their cad­die the same two words: “Watch this.” And then they pull off a re­mark­able shot that winds through the trees, over the hill and past the sand trap, avoids the pond on the left and lands right in the mid­dle of the putting green — which is ex­actly the shot Tiger hit on the 11th hole out of the trees at Au­gusta Na­tional on Sun­day.

To do that un­der pres­sure is stun­ning, but it is not just luck or even pure phys­i­cal at­tributes. It is about prac­tice — hours and hours and hours. Gary Player liked to say, “The more I prac­tice the luck­ier I get.” And that is where, for me, the mean­ing of Tiger’s come­back begins: his will­ing­ness to com­mit to end­less hours of phys­i­cal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and then end­less hours of prac­tice. How many of us have that iron will? But the phys­i­cal part is the least of it.

Last year I wrote the fore­word to a golf in­struc­tion book by my teacher, in which I ar­gued that what makes golf so dif­fi­cult — but also so sat­is­fy­ing when you get it right — is that you have to com­bine four things: physics, ge­om­e­try, ge­og­ra­phy and psy­chol­ogy. Tiger’s ge­nius on Sun­day, and so of­ten through­out his ca­reer, is his abil­ity to mas­ter all four bet­ter than any­one else.

Tiger did that sev­eral times Sun­day, and you could feel the buzz, and none more in­tensely than on Au­gusta Na­tional’s per­ilous 16th hole, where he launched his ball on the per­fect arc over the wa­ter, softly curb­ing right to left with the ter­rain and then land­ing in the pre­cise 2-foot-di­am­e­ter cir­cle so that it would then roll 20 feet down the slope and stop 15 inches be­low the hole. Ge­og­ra­phy, ge­om­e­try, physics and psy­chol­ogy all work­ing in per­fect uni­son.

You can­not un­der­es­ti­mate the psy­cho­log­i­cal as­pect of that shot. Golf is such a head game, and if you are dis­tracted by some­thing, you’ll never put the ge­og­ra­phy, ge­om­e­try and physics to­gether at the level needed to win in pro­fes­sional golf. That’s why Tiger’s game de­te­ri­o­rated so far af­ter his in­fi­deli­ties had been broad­cast all over the world in 2009, and even be­fore his back gave out. You could ac­tu­ally see it when Tiger walked through a golf gallery back then. His eye never wanted to meet those of his fans, be­cause he knew that they knew that he knew that they knew that he’d been a first-class jerk.

What was in his head trans­lated into his hands, and it trans­lated into his scores. For the bet­ter part of a decade, he could not win a ma­jor un­til his back was healed and he got the mon­key of his own mis­deeds off his back — by be­com­ing a good fa­ther and a bet­ter per­son to his fans and his fel­low golfers.

And that leads to an­other way that golf is so much like life. Each and ev­ery round is a jour­ney, and, like all of life’s jour­neys, it’s never a straight line. It’s al­ways full of crazy bounces, self-in­flicted mis­takes and un­ex­pected de­tours, and there­fore al­ways a jour­ney of dis­cov­ery about your­self and your playing part­ners. And, if you love the game, it’s an everlasting jour­ney in search of self­im­prove­ment – al­ways try­ing to get your ge­og­ra­phy, ge­om­e­try, physics and psy­chol­ogy in per­fect align­ment.

And when you see it done at the high­est level, on the tough­est ter­rain, un­der the most in­tense spot­light by some­one who had it, lost it and then got it back, you can only say: “What a priv­i­lege! I saw Tiger make his come­back and win the Mas­ters at age 43. What a crazy, won­der­ful, amaz­ing jour­ney!”

Thomas Fried­man writes for The New York Times.

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