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Tiger has an identity crisis
You can remember the 2013 Masters for Adam Scott’s thrilling playoff victory over Angel Cabrera, the slow-play penalty leveled against a 14-year-old kid from China, or the two-stroke penalty a television viewer called on Tiger Woods for an illegal drop.
The 2013 Masters was as memorable, strange, controversial and dramatic as any sporting event I can remember. It was Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear, the Thrilla in Manilla, Cal-Stanford, the ’72 Gold Medal Basketball Game and The Immaculate Reception rolled into a single, four-day golf weekend.
I’ll remember it as the weekend I realized adversity is Tiger Woods’ kryptonite. I’ll remember it as the weekend I first considered the real possibility that not only will Tiger fail to catch Jack Nicklaus in major championships, but Tiger isn’t on the same level as Nicklaus as a competitor.
I am a Tiger Woods groupie. After Magic Johnson, Tiger is my favorite athlete of all time. I would rather watch Tiger play golf than watch football. Let me bring this all the way home. If given a choice between watching Woods compete in a major championship or catching the premiere of season six of "The Wire," I’d choose Tiger.
It pains me to admit Tiger has a competitive flaw. He has a big one. He’s a front-runner. He’s not mentally built to handle adversity.
On Friday, with a chance to pull into the lead, Tiger hit the perfect golf shot at No. 15. His ball bounced off the flag, ricocheted backwards, crashed to the ground and spun into the water. Tiger lost his composure, didn’t double-check the rules on where he could drop his ball and wound up costing himself an additional two shots.
You can call it bad luck. Had his ball not hit the flag, Tiger likely makes a 4 on the par 5 and is in the lead on Friday. It wasn’t bad luck, though. It was adversity.
Woods had two days, two rounds of golf, to recover from it. He couldn’t do it. He fired two solid rounds of 70 when he needed two 68s or a 66 on Sunday.
His five-year major drought continues. His career-long drought of never coming from behind on a Sunday to win a major continues. This can no longer be ignored by Tiger groupies such as myself. It’s a problem. It says something about Tiger. It says he’s not the competitor that Nicklaus was. The Golden Bear won eight of his 18 majors with rallies on Sunday.
Tiger can’t do it once? There’s something wrong. Tiger is missing an ingredient that seemingly all of our greatest champions — from Nicklaus to Jordan to Ali to Montana to Magic to Bird — had. When the going got tough, Bird stole the ball, Magic nailed the baby skyhook, Montana found Clark, Ali rope-a-doped Foreman, Jordan pushed aside Bryon Russell and Nicklaus shot 30 on the back nine.
Tiger? Well, it has taken Tiger four years to get over Thanksgiving. He’s far more likely to fade on Sunday in a major than make a run.
I have a theory.
Tiger is a man with no country. His father passed away, and Tiger torched his self-made family with serial, reckless infidelity. Tiger claims to practice Buddhism but has admitted he slipped away from religious adherence. And, finally and perhaps most important, Tiger has no racial or ethnic identity. He has long claimed to be “Cablinasian.”
“There are three wells of strength people throughout history have drawn on in times of need,” noted sociologist and activist Dr. Harry Edwards told me Sunday night. “The first is family. Tiger victimized himself and his family. The second well of strength has typically been religion. Tiger has never really expressed a strong religious affiliation, at least not publicly that I’m aware of. The third well of strength we as human beings tend to draw on is that long running, deeply rooted identification with a particular group beyond family and religious affiliation, and those tend to be ethnic or racial.”
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I’m not a Tim Tebow fan. But I do recognize that his religious faith and his family make him a phenomenal competitor. Tebow never quits believing. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t think Larry Bird gained extra motivation and resolve from being the white superstar kicking butt in a predominantly black league. Muhammad Ali convinced himself the future of Black America depended on him whipping Frazier and Foreman, black fighters with slave names.
Racial, ethnic, religious and family pride are important and healthy.
“Tiger doesn’t identify with anybody; he’s Cablinasian,” Dr. Edwards said. “I don’t know how deep a well the Cablinasians have. When I was receiving death threats, when Cal-Berkley was denying me tenure, I had my wife and my kids, I had my long association with the black struggle in this country, I could go to the life lessons of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Nat Turner and Sojourner Truth. . . .
“You’ve got to have something to lean on. I haven’t talked to Tiger. I don’t know what those things are in his life, what shoulders he’s leaning on. The Cablinasians, I’m not sure you can stand very high on their shoulders.”
An identity gives your personality an edge, an attitude. Tiger never wanted to be the black golfer taking on golf’s history of racism. Imagine John Kennedy not wanting the burden of being America’s first Catholic president. Imagine Bird and Magic not carrying their racial identities into their decade-long rivalry. Michael Jordan created enemies and demons and villains to maintain his competitive edge. LeBron James said he took mental notes of the people ridiculing him.
When you don’t have an identity, you want to be loved by everyone, you’re afraid to have an edge and you don’t know what to do when you fall behind. Tiger is not a quitter or a wimp. He won a US Open on one leg. But he doesn't have the extra emotional gear that fuels so many great competitors. America's history of oppression has given countless black athletes an extra emotional gear. Tiger declined it. It was, perhaps, a mistake. That gear might have bailed him out a few times when he fell behind, especially at a place like Augusta National Golf Club.
Tiger has been blessed with so much talent that he might surpass Nicklaus for most major championships. But I’m not nearly as sure as I once was. A few years ago, Woods was well ahead of Nicklaus’ pace. Now he’s not. If Tiger, 37, falls behind Jack’s pace — Nicklaus was 38 when he won his 15th major — we know Tiger will never catch him.
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