All it took was one Sunday afternoon to remind me that there’s no athlete I’d rather watch than Tiger Woods.
It has nothing to do with the sport he plays. I’m about as much of a golfer as Jackie Treehorn’s goon. If Tiger Woods were in curling I’d still be glued to my television for four and a half hours of coverage.
What it really comes down to is that, contrary to everything Nike commercials have tried to instill in me, I’m not Tiger Woods. I can’t even fathom what it must be like to live like Tiger. OK, maybe not an earth-shattering sentiment there, but I’m not even talking about being the No. 1 golfer in the world. This has nothing to do with his bikini model wife or nine-digit bankroll, either. There’s something even more valuable that I envy him more for: confidence.
That’s not exactly what I mean though. It’s more than confidence. Tiger Woods brings an overwhelming conviction to every shot, each hole and all the tournaments he plays. It’s a certainty that conveys the impression that he can’t begin to conceive of the fact that he might fail. Ever.
The 73rd hole at Augusta on Sunday said it all. After Tiger’s miraculous chip on 16, it was all but over. Finally, it seemed that the man who has never relinquished a final round lead in a major championship had stuffed the last dagger into Chris DiMarco. Time to say good-bye to the 10-major winless streak, silence the critics, and try on a new jacket.
Of course, then it got interesting. A wayward tee-shot on the 17th hole followed by a misjudged chip led to a bogey. On 18, DiMarco left his approach short of the green, and Woods must have known that all he needed to do was let his ball graze anywhere along the extensive pasture that is the 18th green. Somehow he ended up on the beach. After a delicate shot left him more than 10 feet outside the hole, DiMarco prepared to chip. Suddenly, it occurred to me for the first time all day that DiMarco could actually win the tournament. He couldn’t have come closer, as his ball lipped out of the cup. After Woods missed a par putt for the championship, DiMarco rolled in his par to push the matchup to a playoff.
At this point, it would be fair to say that Tiger Woods had choked. Up two strokes with two holes to play, Woods released his stranglehold on a fourth green jacket with an array of terrible shots.
If I were making Tiger’s walk back to the 18th tee, I would be remembering all the misplays on the last two holes. I’d be wondering if the critics were correct to question my swing, and I wouldn’t be able to help myself from contemplating what they might say after a choke like this. I’d be considering what a relief it would have been to end the majors’ drought. How did it slip away? Obviously, I would not have won the playoff against DiMarco. Then again, I guess we already established that I’m not Tiger Woods.
What did he do anyway? Well, his first reaction after DiMarco’s tying putt was to smile. Then, returning to re-play the hole he had just bogeyed, Woods teed off on the 18th with a huge drive. Even with DiMarco again short of the green, Woods’s second shot was still aggressive, landing 15 feet from the cup. Putting for the win yet again, Tiger basically rammed his ball into the hole. Fist-pump and on to Butler Cabin.
There was no sign of nerves in the three shots Woods hit during the playoff. His swing on the monster tee-shot could be called angry. He appeared to be irritated that the tournament wasn’t over, but there was no sense he doubted the eventual outcome. The clinching putt was struck with so much pace that it would have carried well past the hole if it hadn’t found its way home. How could he not be the least bit tentative? Despite the winless streak and the more recent memory of the 17th and 18th holes, there was nothing but ice in his veins. It was almost easy to believe that Woods wasn’t human, at least until he later broke down dedicating the win to his ailing father.
What Woods has is more than the necessary mental toughness required of professional athletes. After all, other golfers seem to get nervous in these types of spots. (Remember when Mike Weir won the 2003 Masters playoff over Len Mattiace with a bogey?) Personally, I would have been shook, real shook.
So, that’s what I mean by confidence. Tiger Woods performs on the biggest stages with an absolute faith in himself. I wish I could execute one task with that type of belief in myself, but I can’t even brush my teeth with that much conviction.
And that’s why I love watching the guy. When Tiger is leading or in contention in a major, each shot he hits is more compelling than Barry Bonds’ at-bats (or should I say “plate appearances?”). It’s more absorbing than LeBron leading fast-breaks or Mike Vick scrambling outside the pocket.
In Sunday’s aftermath, critics have been quick to point out that Woods is still not what he once was. While he used to pull away during the final round, he let DiMarco hang around. With the lead, Tiger’s Sundays used to be more coronation than competition. The entire field would wither away against the intensity of Woods’ will to win.
Tiger readily admits his new swing still requires tinkering. Maybe it’s also true that his competitors are no longer in awe of him. So what? Even if these premises are accurate, there’s no chance that they’ll affect Tiger’s self-confidence. And that’s why I’ll be watching, and betting on, him every time.