This past weekend I watched a superhero fall to incredible lows and rise to unbelievable heights. I wasn’t watching one of the manufactured Marvel superheroes on the big screen. I was watching Tiger Woods live on TV. I was watching him create one of the most compelling stories ever in sports. Late Saturday afternoon, I began watching Tiger fight his way into the lead of the tournament as he hobbled around on a bad knee. I wasn’t intending to watch much more than a few minutes but I watched until the close of play on Saturday, tuned in again on Sunday for every minute as Tiger lost the lead and then fought back to tie the leader, and then I could not possibly miss the eighteen-hole playoff on Monday. I was not alone on Monday. I saw a report that trading volume was down 9% on Monday, and it was attributed to the distraction of this playoff match. Who could work when Tiger was playing? Who could not be drawn into this story and find themselves completely swept away by the ups and downs, all the while wondering how it would turn out?
Tiger’s adversary was Rocco Mediate, a delightful forty-five year old player ranked 158th in the world. Commentators said Rocco was the crowd favorite, and no one could root against Rocco. He was the everyman, given a special opportunity to “play the best player on the planet, one on one.” No one truly expected him to win but he played well, fighting back after falling behind by three shots. He had to overcome his own nervousness and settle in to his own game. Incredibly, he had a one shot lead going into the 18th hole. Somehow, it became believable that Rocco might just win.
As much as I liked Rocco, I found myself pulling for Tiger again and again, as he fought back to tie on Sunday and at the end of eighteen holes on Monday. I have always identified with the underdog, and everything about Rocco made me pull for him. (I have rooted for the Dodgers and Red Sox, never the Yankees, who usually won in the end.) Yet, I realized part-way through the tournament that Tiger wasn’t simply a favorite; he had become a superhero. I wanted him to win.
On the Monday broadcast, Johnny Miller remarked after Tiger hit an amazing shot out of a fairway trap: “That’s a Tiger shot.” It’s like Tiger called on super-powers. I certainly wanted to believe he had such powers. What’s more, Tiger’s round of golf revealed a level of vulnerability that made yourself question if you believed in him. He grimaced after shots because of sharp pain in his knee. He was limping down the fairways. It was never automatic that Tiger would win. As the storyline developed, he heroically summoned his own strength, managed to overcome the physical pain, and obtain a victory. In the end, the real battle was not Tiger vs. Rocco; it was each man against himself, as the game of golf isolates for us to see so clearly.
Yesterday, we learned that Tiger won’t play the rest of year, as his knee problems were more severe than he let on; he needs additional surgery followed by a long recovery period. It’s bad news for golf and for the people who run tournaments. However, Tiger is not merely an action-hero and his accomplishments carry beyond the golf course.
According to Nike’s ads, which feature Tiger’s father, Earl Woods, Tiger’s special strength is his mental toughness. His father says: “‘I promise you that you will never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life.’ And he hasn’t. And he never will.” David Brooks writes about Tiger in Tuesday’s New York Times, adding that Tiger has become “the beau ideal for golf-loving corporate America, the personification of mental fortitude.”
Tiger is the best. You want to watch “best”; you want to see what “best” does; you want to learn from “best”. Even the best is not perfect, you realize. You wonder how you measure up against the best and you hope, like Rocco, you don’t do too badly.
Does Woods vs. Mediate bring to mind the presidential race: Obama vs. McCain? There’s the obvious: black/white, young/old, prodigy/warrior. Both seem worthy for different reasons. But, in the words of the old Exxon ad, who has a Tiger in his tank? I hope that we elect a leader who understands our vulnerability and summons our strengths. I hope that person can find the focus and determination to meet the challenges ahead and see us through to the end. I’d like to believe that one of them will prove to be a Tiger and inspire our confidence. I want the best to lead.