What can we learn from Tiger?

Posted on April 11, 2010


Tiger Woods could be the poster child for This Sporting Life. When I began this blog I identified four broad areas of interest for me at intersection of sports-philosophy-sociology. Thinking about sports can tell us a lot about punditry, institutional design and ethics (or sportsmanship), cultural identities, and what it is that we find beautiful and admirable in life. A search in the books section of Amazon.com on “Tiger Woods” turns up over 600 items, many of which are devoted exclusively to Tiger’s relation to one or another of these four themes.

There are even a few books on what Tiger teaches us about how to play golf better.

Without having even looked over the titles of all these books, let alone read them, I very much doubt I have anything new to add to Tiger punditry. For more than a decade and a half he has served as a lens, a mirror, and a prism (focusing, reflecting, scattering and coloring) for our thoughts on myriad subject matter. All I’m thinking about in this post is what our fascination with Tiger tells us about golf. Or more specifically, what it reveals about why spectators are drawn to golf and what the source of their enjoyment is.

There are many things that attract us to various sports, and each major sport does some of these things particularly well. Great sports or sporting events are great because they seem to serve up so many of sources of enjoyment and admiration at the same time. (I still have to post some thoughts about the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but I believe that it is beloved by American sports fans for this reason.) And because there are many reasons for liking or valuing a sport (or a movie, or novel…), different spectators can enjoy the very same sport (or movie, or novel…) for very different reasons.

Of the many kinds of golf fans, I’m interested in three Tiger-relevant groups:

  • sports fans who had relatively little interest in watching golf (or whose interest had waned) until Tiger came on the scene, and who have since followed most major tournaments, typically cheering for Tiger against the field.
  • genuine golf fans (and probably golfers) before Tiger who became fans of Tiger and of what he’s done for the sport.
  • genuine golf fans before Tiger, who never became fans of Tiger and cheer for others to beat him.

I am definitely in the first category. I played a fair bit of golf as a teenager, and watched it back then. But hadn’t paid more than passing attention for years. You can measure the demographic strength of this category of golf fans by looking at the drop in viewership for majors that Tiger isn’t in. His presence at this year’s Masters was expected to boost viewership by 60%. “I don’t think there is any other athlete in any other sport that is so impactful on ratings,” Rick Gentile, a former executive producer for CBS Sports, told Bloomberg. “He changes the ratings just by his presence.”

I can barely speculate about the third category: the golf lovers who are Tiger haters. Sometimes fans of a sport just take an honest disliking to a star of the sport (especially in team sports, when they play against your team; but also for reasons of personality — e.g. I find Brett Favre annoying). In Tiger’s case, though, ethnicity is obviously a factor for many, and not just Fuzzy Zoeller. Some amateur golfers, quite innocently, might be bigger fans of other pro players because they “look more like me” in a non-racially-tinged way — that is, they don’t look especially fit or athletic, and they allow the fan to sympathetically identify with the player and sort of imagine that he could conceivably do the same things. (These same people no doubt preferred David Wells to, say, David Cone or Greg Maddox.)

Fans in the first two categories like Tiger in large part because he seems to exemplify genuinely noble individual qualities that are showcased in golf. These include:

  • Superb physical conditioning. Tiger looked like an athlete in a sport where most others, frankly, didn’t. It was hard for general sports fans to get into the sport and see the other noble elements at play as long as it looked like a social gathering of a bunch of dads in baggy pleated slacks and polos, some of them rocking man-boobs.
  • Superior physical talent: even non-golf fans could see how much better he was at striking and putting the ball than most other players. But mostly…
  • Mental “toughness.” In Tiger’s case this looked like a combination of mental qualities that casual fans may not have realized were tested so much in this sport: pre-tournament psychological and strategic preparation; good judgment concerning the selection of clubs and swings; courage and competitive fire in his willingness to take apparently high-risk, high-return decisions where most others would have played it safe (and lost); Zen-like concentration to keep focused on his objective despite media frenzy, minor set-backs on the course, or anticipation of victory a few holes away.

Of course, even before we learned that Tiger was all-too-human, we already knew he was human (he could lose his temper and concentration, make bad shots, and so on). And also, remarkably, we were all the more intrigued by the fact that despite all his superior qualities, he was by no means guaranteed to win any given tournament. He was a better bet than anyone else, but “the field” has always been a better bet than Tiger.

So what does all this tell us about golf? After all, the best stars in most major sports exemplify those three broad qualities. But golf is especially good at showcasing them. The cameras get a lot of time to zoom in on the golfer’s face as he or she is contemplating a shot. In even as stoney-faced a competitor as Tiger, you can see the gathering of resolve, the careful control of unhelpful emotions, the deliberate calming of nerves, the summoning of physical capabilities. In real time. And then you can see — at the very moment they see — the results of all this mental effort. And then their reaction. This repeats process repeats and evolves several times in the course of the round for several of the key players the broadcasters are tracking. All of this has been especially compelling when it involved Tiger and the one or two players he had in his crosshairs in the last round.

And why do we find this such compelling viewing? At some level, for the same reasons as the Tiger-haters enjoy watching good ol’ boys succeed in élite sports. We identify with his situation and struggle, albeit not the struggle to be able to over-eat, over-drink, and still win. We identify with the professionalism of Tiger and other great golfers: their hard work and extensive training, their ability to set ambitious long-term goals and to pursue them methodically and relentlessly, their courage under pressure, and their mental toughness. We like to believe that we have some of these qualities and beliefs — and wish we had more of them — and we are enthralled watching them played out on such a great stage. It is not surprising that professional-services firms seek them out as sponsors.

A great fourth round of a major golf tournament shares dramatic qualities with great theatre. On opening night. When nobody in the house has read the script. With Tony-award-winning actors. Except that the actors aren’t acting. The difference with this year’s Masters was that we also had some of this drama, for obvious reasons, in the opening round. The first opening round a golf tournament I’ve ever watched.