In case you haven’t heard, Tiger Woods just won the U.S. Open. Again. That makes 14 Major titles at the age of 32. He called this one his greatest victory ever, which it might be. Although, you could make a strong argument for his U.S. Open win in 2000 at Pebble Beach, where he finished a record twelve strokes under par and won by fifteen. This one was definitely full of more big back nine moments and clutch putts than any of the others. How lucky we are to serve witness right now, while Tiger is in his prime. What a privilege.
At this point, there isn’t a comparable historical point of reference, which makes his brilliance difficult to quantify. I know that Jack was great – no disrespect. But I wasn’t alive in his prime so it doesn’t resonate with me. I know that Arnie, Hogan, Byron and Slammin’ Sammy were pretty darn good too. But they’re like characters you read about in storybooks. They played in black and white, in the days of horseracing and prize fighting, with a following of only a few, relatively speaking. Tiger plays in high def prime time, in the days of NFL, PPV and MMA, with millions upon millions watching his every swing. No one has ever been as good at playing this game – it’s simply undeniable.
This isn’t me dropping Bill Walton-esque superlatives either. “That was the greatest bounce pass in the history of the NBA…” He is better than everyone else. Period. He’s better mentally and physically. I bet he could play any sport at its highest level. He just chose golf. (Or did golf choose him?) In fact, while at Stanford, the strength and conditioning coach said that he was the strongest athlete, pound for pound, to ever attend the school. It’s time to move from calling him the greatest golfer to ever live, to calling him the greatest athlete to ever live. If not now, then soon.
The thing that made this U.S. Open victory so impressive is that he won hurt. Really hurt. Willis Reed hurt. Those of us who know the golf swing aren’t surprised by his knee problems. Honestly, I predicted it several years ago. It was either his knee or his hip – or maybe some day soon, both. I also think that there will be many more professional players that eventually suffer the same malady, as they’ve patterned their swings after his. But then again, I doubt anyone hits as many practice balls as he does. For him to repeatedly (including 19 extra playoff holes), fearlessly and violently snap his wounded left leg straight on every swing this past week was a testament to his tenacity and mental toughness. He just wanted to win worse than the pain, and made a decision to pay the price, no matter the cost.
It’s one thing to play hurt in a constant-motion sport, like soccer, basketball and football. It’s another when you initiate motion from a static position, as in golf and pitching (baseball). In both, the player starts from a stand-still, twists their body into a painful position to create torque, then violently releases that energy towards a distant target. But I’m sorry, bloody sock notwithstanding, how many pitchers are willing (or permitted) to throw their hardest pitches, time after time, for five days in a row, five hours each day, knowing that they will repeatedly cause immediate and severe pain without flinching, relenting or worrying about ending their career?
Tiger Woods has mastered a game that was previously thought to be unmasterable. That’s what makes it so addicting to the rest of us. It’s in our DNA. An intermittent reinforcement schedule forms the most lasting patterns of behavior, which, in golf, conditions us to come back again and again. Proficiency is here one day, gone the next. Actually, here one hole, one swing, one moment, then gone the next. We don’t know when we’ll receive the next reward – so we keep practicing, keep playing, keep taking lessons and keep buying new gear to hopefully get that next elusive Pavlovian slobber fix. I read somewhere that based on his scores and the severity of the courses of all the Majors that Tiger’s competed in, his handicap index would be a +14. That means for me to compete fairly against him heads-up at the local muni, he has to give me one stroke on each of the fourteen most-difficult holes – and I’m a scratch!
The only thing that’s ever going to slow Tiger down is Tiger. He’s either going to get too hurt or too bored. Certainly neither will happen until every important record has his name on it. My only hope is that Tiger doesn’t get bored anytime soon. Not because I don’t want to see him in a baseball uniform – like another red jersey wearing transcendent super-athlete who got bored with a sport once it became easy – and made those who he played against look silly. (Although, I bet Tiger’s batting average would be higher than MJ’s.) I don’t want to see him get bored because I’m selfish. I love watching him too much. When he tees it up, it’s Keats with a pen, Beethoven on the piano, or Michaelangelo with a brush. It’s classic, timeless perfection – and his body of work will stand up to be studied and admired for generations.