I can't speak with any real authority on the subject of sport in general, but when it comes to golf, I can start to at least academically focus on it a little better. It’s a minor personal tragedy for me that I can’t actually play the game to any level of expertise beyond God awful, embarrassing to those whom I've played alongside, and flat out butt ugly. Golf courses are beautiful places and I actually love the concept of me playing golf, but I play it so badly I don't even call it golf anymore. I call it goof. You’d think, after the amount of money I've spent on tee times, lessons since high school, practice practice practice, all the gear I've had made for me, and my general fitness level, I would be able to play the game at least part of the way toward being kind of sort of respectable, but I play a truly hideous game of golf. The last hole of golf I played was with two friends in the evening in Bend, Oregon a few years ago, and I actually made a par 4 by accident. I walked off the course and I kept the ball. I have it on my desk at this very moment, and I don't play the game anymore. But now and again, I do think about it a bit.
People who really do play golf know the game is often couched as a metaphor for life, and some of that thinking is deserved, and then again some of it simply isn’t. I’ve got a rabid golf zealot friend who thinks golf is actually a Zen-like experience. The author Tom Robbins (bard of the 60's) once said “Golf is nothing of the kind. If golf was a Zen-like experience, no one would ever keep score, and every time you hit a lousy shot, you’d laugh.” Plainly stated, for me, it's a bitch. Still, I continue to be drawn to watching the bigger tournaments on tv - no idea why. I watched a tournament last weekend, and I'm sort of glad I did. My golfing friends may know this story, but you may not. It's a golf story, but it's not.
At this writing, it’s now Sunday, November 22nd, a week to the day after the 2020 Masters Tournament at the famous Augusta National golf course in Georgia. The tournament was spooky because there were no fans. Normally there are thousands of people wandering the course during the tournament, with applause and reactions to well-played shots that literally make the ground shake. COVID took care of that. I watched the Masters on tv, and on Sunday, during the 4th and final round, I saw Tiger Woods play one of the worst holes of professional golf ever played. Like most of us, I’m in quarantine with not a whole lot to do, so I’m just sitting here today thinking about that performance, and I can’t get baseball’s own Yogi Berra out of my mind. Yogi played for the Yankees from 46 to 63. Those who know about Yogi and his personality know Yogi had a way with words. There are countless famous quotes attributed to him, and one of his more glorious comments about baseball was “90% of the game is half mental.” A truly stunning thought. Life, in general, has its parallel universe. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone embody the conflict implicit in Yogi’s observation better than Tiger Woods last Sunday when he tanked the 12th hole at Augusta. As too few sports columnists have observed, Tiger’s play on the 12th got most of the publicity, but what happened next was far more important to all of us who try to play golf, can’t play golf worth a damn, wish we could play golf, or don’t give a crap about golf, which is pretty much all of the rest of us.
For those who don’t know a ton about golf, Georgia’s Augusta National is one of the world’s toughest and most hallowed of grounds. Designed by Bobby Jones and Alister McKenzie in 1933, the course is surrounded by manicured azaleas, magnolias, carpet fairways, pure white sand, gorgeous foliage, lovely placid ponds, and beautiful Georgia pines. In a historic moment, last year, Tiger Woods won the Masters at Augusta for the 5th time in his career, but yesterday, he was not in contention when he came to the 12th. The 11th 12th and 13th holes out of 18 at Augusta are called “Amen Corner” because of the many famous and legendary disasters and success stories that have transpired there during the Masters, since it began in 1934. The holes take advantage of the natural curving and hilly terrain, thick grass, water hazards, sand traps, and the surrounding pine trees, and use them against golfers as weapons that demand excellence from those who succeed and inflict intense pain on those who aren't prepared. Because of their volatile and changing moods, those three holes can make children out of professional adults. To a lot of academics, Amen Corner is the PhD thesis on golf. When he approached the 12th tee, I think Tiger might have been 8 strokes behind, so he was out of it. He was simply playing as best he could. That’s what you do when you say you’re a pro at anything. It’s what you do, so you do it, no matter how far behind you might be.
The 12th is a par 3 for an even score. Woods played it at a disastrous 10 strokes over par, instead of 1, 2, 3, or maybe even 4 strokes. His performance on 12 was the single worst hole Tiger Woods has played in any competition, including high school, and he’s now 44. He was impossibly bad. Since the tournament began, no one had ever played the 12th as badly as Tiger Woods played it, and it was televised and streamed in real-time for all of his friends, his family, his colleagues, millions of people around the world, God, and everyone. It will live on YouTube forever as an example of the embarrassing failure of arguably the best golfer to ever play the game. Surrounded by thousands of adoring fans, Tiger has been responsible for some of the greatest moments in golf history, but there have been few total personal collapses in sports that compare to his Sunday performance on 12 - you could argue for a few, but nothing that dragged out like this. The whole thing was horrifyingly riveting. Can you imagine? You and me doing whatever it is we say we do with the major part of our lives and screwing up this bad in front of everyone you know and everyone you don’t know as well? It would destroy a normal human as it would the vast majority of professional golfers. Your brain would explode, and there’s no solution for it other than to throw all your clubs into a pond and simply walk off the course in a disgusting embarrassment, kill yourself on live tv, or just keep playing. He bent over to take his ball out of the cup on 12, and he walked quietly to the 13th tee. The announcers on tv hardly even spoke. Astoundingly, through the whole walk, Tiger’s expression seemed like he was going to the corner store to get a carton of milk.
Like the National Enquirer on a sleazy news-scoop, the camera was, of course, glued to Tiger as he walked up to 13. He walked over to his caddy Joe LaCava and pulled out his next club. Then he casually glanced up to him and said something. They both seemed to chuckle just ever so slightly. My jaw hit the floor. He smiled. And it wasn't a death mask smile or a disgusted or angry or an embarrassed smile. It was a slight smile between two guys strolling around a golf course on a weekend and maybe knocking back a couple beers. I thought “Oh my God, it didn't touch him!” He either didn't allow himself to feel that bullet in his heart, or it was never there at all, or he had somehow removed the bullet from his heart as he walked between 12 and 13. At a critical moment in my life many years ago I remember reading the words “It’s not the events in our lives that cause our disasters. It’s the words we use to describe those events to ourselves that cause the real problems.” I’m guessing he surgically took the bullet out of his heart on the way to 13, did an extensive and lengthy rehab, and was “game ready” by 13.
At the tee on 13, in order to just simply finish the tournament and quietly go home, he had six more holes to play on one of the toughest and most unforgiving golf courses on earth. He easily could have slowly bled-out and died over those six holes in front of the whole world, but instead, he birdied 13 (1 under par) and five out of those last six holes, including a birdie at 18, right in front of God and everybody. He played the last six better than anyone. Watching it was like suddenly stumbling onto a burning bush with a pronouncement in the flames - "No matter what you do to yourself, thou shalt not quit." You gotta get ready for the next shot - I believe he learned that from his parents - how to play for nothing but the human spirit of it all and do it one shot at a time. Dustin Johnson most deservedly won the tournament this year, but Tiger Woods taught the class.
Different folks are built differently. That’s for sure. I don’t believe I could ever equal that kind of focus and the ability to instantly convert the sometimes terrible immediate past into the obliterated and long-forgotten distant past. But can you imagine? Apparently, it’s not like it’s impossible to pull off. Young or old, we still gotta play our game, and we never can tell what might happen. We gotta hit that next shot.
Some people don't like Tiger Woods, and honestly, he deserves a lot of what he personally did to himself in his past. Adding to the self-inflicted pain, all the surgical procedures over the years have extracted an almost insurmountable toll on the athleticism left in his body. But as he enters this last phase of his professional life, he is also one of those few people sent to earth to occasionally show us how, in spite of our worst selves, and in spite of the beatings inflicted on us by time, our better selves can still show up, and how, despite terrible odds to the contrary, our better selves can miraculously forget the past and act with focus, grace and the purposeful intent of living for right now. A person could live with a thought like that.