The nineteenth question at Tiger Woods’ Monday press conference — perfectly legitimate, if not necessary, mind you — seemed more of an indictment than an inquiry:
“…watching you at Quail Hollow,” the reporter began, “(it) looked like you were just going through the motions, how committed are you to honestly playing golf this year?” Going through the motions? Honestly? As used in a query, “honestly” carries the implicit accusation of dishonesty. Just weeks ago, at the Masters, Woods was an odds-on favorite. No one saw this coming. After all, this was the guy who, not two years ago, introduced the element of physical heroism to golf, playing 91 holes with a torn ACL and a double stress fracture in his left leg to win the U.S. Open.
As for the 2010 U.S. Open, he’s not sure if he’ll play. The state of the supposedly bulging disc in his neck is uncertain. Even less certain, however, is the state of his psyche.
What struck me most in perusing the presser transcript was Woods’ response to the aforementioned going-through-the-motions question, which, by the way, reflects the overwhelming consensus of his play at Quail Hollow. By taking no exception to the premise, he acquiesced to it. For Tiger Woods — the world’s most celebrated athlete, and long thought to be the mentally toughest — it was a startling admission of weakness.
“I am committed,” he said, convincing no one that he was, honestly.
After all, having to declare your commitment only means that some people — a good many, perhaps — are justified in doubting it. By quitting with 12 holes to go at The Players Championship, Woods only raises more questions, unspoken at the press conference, perhaps, but still part of the conversation that envelops him like a mist:
Would you have quit if you were still in contention?
Would you have quit if it were a major?
Are you, after all this, a quitter? Looking for a way out?
It’s worth mentioning that news of his injury, or rather, the severity of it, came quite suddenly. On Saturday he had been asked if he had any health issues, knee or otherwise. “No,” he was quoted in the New York Times. “Zero. Absolutely 100 percent.” Then, on Sunday, after quitting, he said: “I’ve been playing with a bad neck for a quite a while. I might have a bulging disc.”
The most money-making athlete in the world has been playing with pain in his neck for months and he might have a bulging disc? Even more damning is the idea of Woods caught in a lie. If you believed he was 100 percent on Saturday, then why should you believe he has a bulging disc today?
That might work for boxing promoters, but not for Woods, whose ability as a philanderer suggests preternatural skill as an all-around liar. Athletic injuries have their own peculiar protocol and politics. Look no further than the NBA playoffs. In a way, the most visible injuries are the easiest to deal with. No one doubts that Manu Ginobili or Steve Nash were hurt, as they have the bandaged faces to prove it. But LeBron James’ left-handed free-throw inspires weeks of debate concerning the condition of his elbow. Serves him right, too. The true stoic shows as little as he can, and says nothing. Take Kobe Bryant, for example. If he said he was 100 percent on Saturday, he wouldn’t admit to a bum neck on Sunday.
Still, the most instructive example for Woods isn’t a basketball player, or even another golfer, but a fighter. Of all people, it’s Mike Tyson. I’ll admit that seems an odd comparison. Tyson was a wack job; everybody knew that. Tiger is a control freak. But each of them depended on a form of intimidation. Tyson beat his opponents before they stepped into the ring. Woods tends to beat them before they step to the first tee.
Perception is its own reality. If a man doesn’t believe he can beat you, he can’t. Conversely, if he believes, he can.
“In order to…intimidate someone, you have to play well,” Woods said Monday. “And I haven’t done that, at least this year. I’ve played, what, three events?”
To recap: finished fourth at the Masters, went through the motions at Quail Hollow, quit at The Players Championship. Just three events, yes, but they’ve demystified Woods as much as the most salacious dispatches.
Anything that diminishes him, fortifies his opponents. And there’s a lot that diminishes him these days: the porn star who follows him to each venue, the prospect of divorce, the animosity between Woods and Jesper Parnevik (who introduced Tiger to his then-nanny, the future Mrs. Woods), the departure of Woods’ longtime swing coach, Hank Haney, and of course, the injuries. Why is it that the best athlete on the tour, and the one reputed to be the most physically disciplined, is suddenly falling apart? If Tiger’s so tough, then why’s he quitting?
I don’t have the answer, though, unlike Tyson, I don’t think it’s a form of cowardice. Previous arguments notwithstanding, I actually believe that Tiger is almost as tough as reputed to be. But I’d much rather defer to the guy who set the standard for athletic heroism.
That would be Jack Youngblood, who instructed the Rams’ trainers to tape him up after breaking his leg in the first half of a 1979 playoff game with the Cowboys. Not only did he get back on the field, he managed to sack Roger Staubach. What would a guy like Youngblood think of a golfer who quit with a sore neck?
“At first, I went, ‘What?” Youngblood said. “But the more I got to thinking about it, thinking about how precise he is with that club in his hand, a bulging disc has to be really hard.”
Youngblood went on to play in the NFC Championship and Super Bowl XIV, broken leg and all. What’s so hard about playing golf with a sore neck?
“Football, you just grit your teeth,” he said. “Golf is a whole different deal. It’s a finesse game. Literally, one or two degrees with that club head changes everything . . . Plus, all that’s going has to be messing with his psyche. His head’s got to be spinning.”
So what would you do? A bad neck?
“If the pain’s shooting down my arm? I might hold up my hand and walk off the golf course, too.”
That’s a legitimate tough guy talking, so I guess I have to take his word for it. Quitting is better than going through the motions.