Tiger, Tiger

Photo Copyright Nancy Keene, 1997

My husband and I witnessed firsthand the ascent of Tiger Woods into global sports superstardom and the velocity of the buzz that it entailed. It was Monday — Martin Luther King Day — during the week of the 1997 Phoenix Open, the beginning of his first full year on the PGA tour.We were driving from a hotel near the Phoenix convention center to the Scottscale TPC, where we had scored a tee time.

En route, traffic came to a screeching halt. We inched along and finally approached the clubhouse. There was another traffic jam in the parking lot. Trucks, vans, buses.  We raced into the pro shop and apologized for our lateness. No problem, we were told. “We’re running an hour behind. We’ll start you on the back nine. Tiger Woods is leading a golf clinic and you’ll pass him on the way to your tee box.” Indeed.

We were observing sports history. It was a huge crowd, demographically and racially diverse. Young children rapt with interest and attention. Brothers from the ‘hood. Resort visitors and the PGA gallery set. The air was E-L-E-C-T-R-I-F-I-E-D!

You could see and feel the magic that was Tiger. He was tall and handsome with a powerful, but calm presence. He had the hip Nike look — a lean, toned, strong athlete.We were visitors in Tiger’s kingdom and thrilled to see the king. It was an Elvis or Michael Jackson kind of rock star happening.

By comparison, when we watched Nick Faldo win his third British Open at St. Andrews in 1992, it was exciting, but a more subdued experience. Faldo had great dignity and presence. Walking down the fairway, he had the stride of a champion. But it was more like seeing former GE chairman Jack Welch or another vaunted CEO in action. More reserve. Less rock.

Tiger had an off-the-chart, “hockey stick” trajectory in his pursuit of success. He broke the barriers and redefined the boundaries — nailing win after major win. He was a high-potential star from childhood and proved himself as a high-performance champion as soon as he exploded into the professional arena.

As a talent advisor and aficionado of leadership dynamics, I was in awe of the Tiger phenomenon since that day in Arizona. But I wondered about the psychological impact of such huge and early success.

If you’re in your twenties at the threshold of a career that could feasibly span half a century, how do you maintain such a high level of motivation and desire when you’re already nearing the gold standard of major tournament wins? Once you’ve outpaced the record-holders, it is just a matter of putting more and more numbers on the board?

Is it all about the quantitative?

It certainly wasn’t competitive ennui that befell a superstar’s downfall from glory, a story that unfolded after a fateful car crash in his private gated community.

The technology that amplified Tiger’s reputation and celebrity delivered an equally broad and rapid deployment of breaking news tidbits and salacious gossip items.

And every new alleged transgression on the scoreboard prompted a full, follow-on seismic wave of more news and repetition of the full story and fallout. It was a 24-7 repeating news loop. Pundits and psychologists pondered and analyzed. How could he have such a high volume and frequency of indiscretions and infidelities.

Is it all about the quantitative?

Think of the hours and repetitions he clocked during a lifetime of practice at the driving range.  How did he perfect and manage his swing and every shot?  How much is enough?  How much is too much?  The mathematical calculations had to be staggering.

We mourn the human tragedy.  We empathize with his beautiful wife, the mother of his children.  We are shocked and sad to see a hero show a side of himself that is all too human.

We await atonement and hope for redemption.  There will be judgement, according to the laws of public opinion, which are intriguingly rooted in the religion and rites of the Catholic Church that many of us know.

Public opinion will continue to weigh in. But sins and trespasses can be forgiven.   A priest in the confessional would offer absolution, penance and a reminder that the Church can always be a haven.

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Copyright © 2012 Nancy Keene