Tiger Ventures Out

As most everyone knows by now, Tiger Woods has decided to play at next week’s, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at legendary Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.

The first reactions were something equivalent to relief that his career was not over as so many cynics had predicted. “Well, if he hasn’t played by now, he may not play for the rest of the year. In fact, he may lose all of next year too if he decides to go with surgery. And perhaps even that’s the last we’ve seen of Tiger Woods, mores the pity.”

I can’t say I ever felt any of that in my gut, but the cynicism and dismissiveness can be infectious unless you stick to the facts:

Tiger said that his knee and his Achilles were hurt.

Tiger said that he was going to listen to his doctors this time.

We saw pictures of him wearing a protective boot.

He said that he would not come back until he was physically ready.

He said he didn’t know when that would be.

That’s it, that’s all he said. But yet we conflated that into our worst fears, or given the animosity some in the media feel for Tiger and his imperiousness, our fondest desires. Perhaps that’s a little too strong, but I clearly got the projection, “Don’t let the door hit you in the butt,” from some. (He answered my one and only question of him thoughtfully, looking me in the eye, with intelligence and at length.)

And so now Tiger has to work his mastery.

He has to be certain in his body’s ability to perform so that he doesn’t have to hedge, doesn’t have to compensate, doesn’t have to be careful. You listen to any of these guys talk who’ve been injured and so often it’s been that the protective compensations perhaps saved the target of their attention, but something else got strained or pulled because of the extra load.

He has to be certain of his game, that his swing is his swing and that it will now do what he’s been practicing since he started working with Sean Foley. We don’t know if he’s even been hitting balls; there are no reports at all. (Just where could he hit full shots with nobody seeing him? Has he finally found friends who will keep their mouths shut?) But it would be hard to imagine that he would risk hurting himself by being impetuous. The old Tiger did. This Tiger has seemed to understand that you can’t will a partially torn Achilles to perform as if it weren’t.

He has to find a caddie he can trust to get him to the end of the year. The Golf Channel reported that it will be Byron Bell, a childhood friend who’s caddied for him three times before and in real life is president of Tiger Woods Design. Selecting Bell, for now, takes all of the wind out of the sails of those who speculated that he would be stealing Lee Westwood’s caddie or perhaps even Fanny Sunesson from Henrik Stenson. So there will be no palace intrigue: it’ll still be “a caddie to be named later.” And most likely, that won’t happen until next year; Bell can get him through the playoffs and Tiger can, in effect, audition for his next caddie. Who would take the leap for damaged goods?

Tiger has to submerge himself into the course, the targets and shaping his shots. That’s called playing golf, something he hasn’t been able to reliably do since he began this new swing change with Foley. He can still shape shots, but so far, he’s never sure when. Even the great Tiger Woods cannot play in doubt. Doubt is just a lighter shade of fear and fear is the death knell of freedom, the magic elixir of high level golf.

Tiger has to give up any attempt to prove anything to anyone. While there may be some ego satisfaction in proving all of his critics wrong, what it really does is elevate them in his consciousness when he will need all of that just to play. He can do that with his steely mind if he needs to—he’s done it before—but it would be ever so much more easy for him if they were just effortlessly not on his mind.

He has to retake the ground he formerly trod, “King of the Mountain.” But he has to do it by just stepping into his greatness and “being” the King, not self-consciously “trying” to be the King. Behaving self-consciously is the dead-giveaway hallmark of the ego’s meddling. And if the ego is whirring away, the mind is not at peace, essence is constrained and the present will be muddled. It’s like playing on three hours’ sleep.

And on a more mundane level, he has to let his putter flow like it used to. He has to come into this complete with whatever he has been working on in that area, because more than anything else, putting is about seeing the hole, seeing the line to the hole and then trusting your stroke to hit it on that line without thinking about it. Putting is too delicate to be thinking about manipulating the putter while you’re doing it. It has to just flow because that’s how much you trust it.

But if anyone can do all these things, it will be Tiger. Jack may still have the most majors, but we’ve never seen him do the things that Tiger can do. Jack himself said, “He’s playing a game I’m not familiar with.”

And Tiger can’t be thinking about that either.

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