Picking Splinters: Tiger Is Human

Tiger Woods is an average golfer. Tiger Woods doesn’t seem likely to pose a threat to win this weekend’s PGA Championship. Tiger Woods looks like he’s falling apart on the course.

Those are three sentences you couldn’t so much as think last summer, let alone put down in print. He was as close to golfing perfection as you could get. His long game, his short game; both were flawless. When Y.E. Yang actually beat him in the final round of last year’s PGA Championship, sure, people asked if this meant he was actually beatable. Then the majority of them laughed it off.

He was a machine. It wasn’t a matter of if he would break Jack Nicklaus’s record for career Major victories, simply when.

Then, tabloid Christmas came early. As a flood of secret sex partners came forward, seemingly rivaling the size of one of his 18th-green galleries, we were exposed to who Tiger Woods really was.

As the affairs became public knowledge, the question was again posed: Is Tiger no longer invincible? And again, there were a large number of people who thought he was so dedicated, so committed to the game that this downfall would make him even more focused on the game and more lethal on the course. We were wrong.

Tiger is not invincible. Tiger is mortal. But more appropriately, Tiger is human.

This year’s PGA Tour has been very different for the seldom faltering Woods. And we all may have underestimated just how much impact those differences would have on him.

First, his family left him. Second, he was denied the mistresses that had become part of his regular lifestyle. When he returned to the tour, he was cautioned by many to curb his emotional outbursts on the course. In short, Tiger Woods had to be a completely different person this year than he had been just a year before.

Many athletes are creatures of routine. That’s in part due to the fact that repetition in practice is what makes them great in games. They work on perfecting their motions to the point where they become intuitive and they can perform them without thinking.

Tiger has been taken out of his routine. Moreover, all these huge changes are probably causing quite a bit of mind clutter that he’s usually been able to quiet.

Before, he had a family that loved him. He had an alternate universe to escape to. His image was finely manicured in the media and his outburst on the course almost endeared him to fans who applauded his pursuit of perfection.

Now that’s all gone. Now that once-polished image is tarnished and he’s been quite conscious of trying to fix it. (Recall the carefully planned apology press conference before a room of hand-selected attendees.) Now the wife that loved him wants nothing to do with him – or so we’ve been told by media reports. Now the mistresses with whom he’d seek, uh, refuge, are out of bounds after his stint in rehabilitation for sex addiction.

This is a radically different man than the one we questioned after last year’s PGA Championship. Which brings me back to my earlier point. For all of his golfing perfection, and his once god-like image Tiger Woods is still human. He’s no psychopath. All of these issues have to be weighing on him, as he’s fighting tendencies he was able to indulge in before, all while lacking the solace of a loving home.

When this season started, I think many believed that his return to glory would begin on the golf course. It seems awfully clear now that process must start elsewhere.

Forget the change in putters. Ignore the new swing coach chatter. What’s going to make the most difference on the course is when Tiger is feeling comfortable again. He needs to feel like himself … with the trick being that he needs to feel like his “new” self. When he’s able to feel free of his past transgressions and the dogged concerns they carry with them, only then will he be able to quiet all those distractions in his head. And that’s when he’ll regain his form on the course and, maybe, regain his greatness in the eyes of others.

It’s a tough road, far tougher than any golf shot you can conceive. But that’s the penance Tiger Woods must pay in order to reclaim his game.