Sunday, December 13, 2009

Showing His Stripes

I took up golf when I was 13-years-old. Even though I had spent my entire childhood playing sports, I’d always preferred catching passes or fielding grounders to hitting putts. But with my dad’s passion for the game encoded on my genes, it was only a matter of time, and once I struck my first pure 3-iron shot, I was hooked.

Ever since then, no one’s been able to get a club out of my hand. Not only do I love being out on the course, surrounded by nature in a beautiful setting, the game gives me a special language that I can speak with my father, something that I treasure deeply. And despite Roy McAvoy’s (Tin Cup) warning that “perfection is unattainable,” I enjoy tinkering and experimenting with my golf swing in hopes of discovering that one magic move that will unleash my full potential.

But more than anything else, I am captivated by the individualistic nature of the sport – that I’m out there alone, and it is all up to me to overcome the hazards, the elements, the breaks, and even my inner demons to get that little white ball into the hole.

Each time I tee it up is like taking a long look in the mirror and being put face to face with every facet of my personality. I learn more about myself – my strengths, my weaknesses, my integrity, my spirit – in 18 holes than I ever could on Dr. Melfi’s couch.

The game has this uncanny ability to expose your true character, testing you in every way imaginable. It will deflect a perfectly-executed shot into the water. It will defy you to bounce back from a double bogey that’s completely your fault. It will present you the opportunity to cheat without anyone knowing. And the way you handle all of this – the misfortune, the adversity, the ethics – can reveal who you genuinely are as a person.

Sadly, the exact opposite appears to be true of Tiger Woods.

On the golf course, Woods is the embodiment of a champion, possessing an iconic combination of talent, skill and athleticism that has propelled him to play the game at arguably the highest level ever. With a mental and emotional approach that rivals his physical gifts, he can seemingly will himself and his golf ball to do whatever is needed to succeed (case in point: winning the 2008 U.S. open on a broken leg).

But with the recent revelation that he has been unfaithful to his wife, cheating on her with enough mistresses to field a couple of starting basketball lineups, the public persona we’ve witnessed on the fairways was evidently nothing more than a fa├žade.

When the news first broke, I immediately dismissed it, figuring it was just the work of some tabloid publication scrounging for exposure. After all, I had seen the American-dream portraits of Woods with his family. I had watched the commercial in which he eagerly awaits the delivery of a tiny set of Nike golf clubs for his unborn child. I had witnessed the scene at the British Open, where he fell into his wife’s arms, overcome with emotion from winning his first major title since losing his father.

There was no way he could’ve done this.

“It’s Tiger,” I assured myself.

That sentiment of belief carried a lot of credence, having been built over years and years of Woods being in the limelight. From the moment he walked onto the stage of The Mike Douglas Show at the age of two, he's been a part of our lives. We may have only watched him on a TV screen or from behind a gallery rope, but we got the sense we knew him, and we cheered him on as if he was our best friend.

The personification of hard work and determination, he was the poster child for everything that was right with the world, showing us that true greatness is possible, inspiring us to keep reaching for the stars and going after our dreams.

Several years ago, when I was attempting to play golf competitively, he was the gold standard that I was always striving for. His undying self-belief and bottomless resolve to get better motivated me whenever I struggled to get up those last few reps in the weight room or thought about skipping that extra bucket of practice balls. All I had to say to myself was, “Tiger’s working,” and I was immediately back on track.

And during the tough times, when I couldn’t do anything right, and I doubted that I had what it took, I would wish that I could be more like him.

Now, I feel foolish for ever wanting that.

But beyond his failure as any sort of role model, what makes his infidelity that much harder to comprehend is that he is a golfer. Unlike other sports, where the prevailing attitude is, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” golf is a gentleman’s game, a game of honor, and every player who puts a peg in the ground is expected to uphold that.

That’s why we rake the sand traps and repair the green when our golf ball makes an imprint. We stay quiet while others are hitting. We call penalties on ourselves. And at the end of the round, we sign our scorecard, putting the weight of our name behind the number we post.

So while it may have a (much-deserved) rap for being exclusive and elitist, when it comes to honesty, golf rightfully holds its head high above the rest. And it’s shocking that a man who has devoted his entire life to the game could somehow miss out on its most basic lesson.

Look, I understand that he’s “far short of perfect,” and that everybody makes mistakes. As a young, good-looking billionaire, I’m sure he’s constantly presented with a buffet of women that any man would have a hard time resisting. And we don’t know what went on behind the closed doors of his Florida mansion…he could have a miserable marriage, or his wife could’ve threatened to go Lorena Bobbitt on him if he didn’t win The Masters every year.

There are a million different reasons why this happened, but unless he has a sex addiction – a real, medical condition he needs to be treated for – they all ring hollow to me.

Because when it comes down to it, you either do the right thing, or you don’t. You either act with character, or you don’t. You either stay true to your values, or you don’t. And the allure of forbidden fruit or the actions of others or any other excuse you can come up with should have no effect on the choices you end up making.

Fortunately for Woods, the world will eventually move on from this. We are a forgiving society, and it’s only a matter of time until our what-have-you-done-to-me-lately ADD kicks in. Sure, his first tournament back will be a circus, but once he starts winning majors again, most people will remember why they liked him in the first place – for his tremendous skill as a golfer.

But I will never look at him the same.

While he owes me no apology, he has violated a moral code that I believe in, and I cannot separate his ability as an athlete from the deceit of his infidelity. I see the whole man, and this will forever be part of the picture.

I had never doubted Woods before, whether it was his work as a philanthropist (which I will still applaud) or his capacity to overcome a five-shot deficit. But as more women come forward and more tawdry tales are told, I don’t know what to believe at this point…nothing seems implausible.

And if allegations suddenly pop up that he cheated on the golf course or was involved in shady business practices or took steroids to build his body, I’m not going to be able to automatically reject them anymore.

“After all,” I’ll cynically consider, “it’s Tiger.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Stress to Impress

My parents’ friends have always liked me. Maybe it’s because I know when to say “Please” and “Thank you,” or maybe it’s because I was a cute baby with especially fat cheeks they could pinch, but outside of the occasional complaint that I didn’t pass on a phone message, they’ve had nothing but good things to say about me.

In fact, one of my mom’s favorite pastimes is telling me how handsome her female friends think I am. I know that whenever I run into one of them at a wedding or event that it’s only a matter of time before my mother calls to relay their glowing report.

And while I appreciate the confidence boost, I’ve had to explain to her that because her contemporaries are married and have kids who are older than I am, their flattering opinion could never change my dating life from resembling an episode of Seinfeld – a show about nothing.

“Let me know when you start hanging out with Mrs. Robinson,” I’d say.

Last winter, though, the goodwill I had garnered over the years finally paid off. Having just moved to a new city, I barely knew anyone, and I was spending most of my nights driving around aimlessly, hoping to find a Subway where I could pick up dinner.

But that all changed after one of my mom’s oldest friends suggested I get in touch with her niece, Emily, who happened to live in the same area code. We exchanged a few e-mails, and she postponed on me once, but we were eventually able to connect.

As we settled in at the Thai restaurant of her choice, I was still unsure if it was a date, or if she was simply doing her aunt a favor. Not that I cared…she was prettier in person than her pictures I’d stalked on Facebook, and when it took us 45 minutes to open our menus because we were talking so much, I had to smile at my good fortune.

Over the next several months, the chemistry we had that first night continued to grow. She quickly accepted my over-the-top obsession for Texas Longhorn athletics, and I slowly got used to her affinity for singing random dialogue as if she were in a musical. Sharing the same sense of humor, we laughed constantly, and there were very few occasions when I didn’t feel completely at ease.

That is, until it came time to meet her parents.

Because I’ve had fewer relationships than Screech Powers, I have only been “presented” as the boyfriend once, and that was when I was a freshman in college. But being so young, it was a relatively low-pressure experience…I was nothing more than the non-threatening boy their daughter was hanging out with.

This was completely different, though. At this age, you’re not just going to football games or dancing at fraternity formals anymore…there are playoff implications here, and you are only introduced to someone’s family if there’s a chance for bigger and better things.

My knack for getting adults to like me was going to be tested like it never had before.

Adding to the pressure was the fact that Emily had recently come home with me for a weekend and met my parents. To say that they liked her would be an understatement. She charmed them with her personality, and – without any hint from me – brought them the perfect thank-you presents. They were so impressed that I think the first thing my dad did on Monday morning was call his lawyer to have her added to the will.

With the standard now set so impossibly high, I had to devise a way to match Emily’s performance. Knowing that her parents were friendly with my parents, I decided to use that to my advantage.

So when it was finally showtime, and we all sat down to dinner, I tried my best to relate as much of the conversation back to my mom and dad. Like a salesman staying on pitch, it was Jeanie-Stoller-this and Joe-Stoller-that. I figured that even though I might sound ridiculous, at least they were consistently being reminded that I came from a good family.

But when her father asked me what kind of job I thought the President was doing, my strategy reached a dead end.

Seeing how I know next to nothing about politics, I had no idea how to answer. I felt as if I was playing Trivial Pursuit and landed on green for a “Science and Nature” question about the intricacies of photosynthesis. And after three minutes of incoherent rambling and Beavis & Butthead “Uhhhs…” my ignorance was proven out.

Had Brian Fantana (Anchorman) been there, he would’ve turned to me and said, “Take it easy, Champ. Why don’t you sit this next one out…stop talking for a while.”

Luckily, her parents were as nice as they could be, smiling and nodding, as if I had made some sort of valid point. But inside, I felt like an idiot.

With my tail tucked firmly between my legs, I kept to myself for the next little while, hoping to not fuel the embarrassing fire. And it was during this period of quiet reflection when I remembered that we often date people who share similar characteristics with our opposite-sex parent: guys seek out girls like their mothers, and girls seek out guys like their fathers. So I was curious to see what I had in common with Emily’s dad.

Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that outside of the fact that we both wore glasses and we were both white, I simply didn’t measure up.

He was very cultured, asking about different wines and how certain entrees were prepared. His intelligence was obvious, as he spoke knowledgably about a wide variety of subjects. He clearly got his news from a channel that wasn’t ESPN.

I started to wonder if Emily had taken me on as some sort of charity case.

Over the next few weeks, though, I licked my wounds and said my daily affirmations. And when I heard that her parents would be in town again, and that I was invited to join them at their favorite Mexican restaurant, I was determined to make a better impression.

The night got off to a good start, and my confidence only grew with each sip of my swirled margarita. But I was still a bit on edge, bracing for the conversation to veer towards something I was utterly clueless about.

Then, out of nowhere, like a gift from above, the discussion turned to…

Fantasy football.

Because Emily is in a league, her parents wanted to know more about it. And having played with my friends for over a decade, this was right in my wheelhouse. I explained the way the draft works and broke down the scoring system. I talked about the effect the internet has had, and how we used to have to wait for the Tuesday paper to see if we’d won or lost. I was on a roll.

And then her father asked me how much I paid to be a part of my league.

Now, I freely admit that I pay a decent amount of cash for my entry fee. It’s not obscene, but it’s not cheap, and it is definitely more than I would prefer to spend. And the moment the figure came out of my mouth, I knew I’d made a mistake by saying it.

I promptly tried to justify it by mentioning how I split a team with a friend, and how it allows me to keep in touch with everybody, and how it makes following the games more interesting, and that if you spread it out over the five-month season, it’s really not a bad entertainment value. But it was too late.

“That’s a lot of money,” he said, shaking his head.

STRIKE TWO!

When I recounted the story to my mother the next day, she calmed my fears, assuring me that Emily’s parents were some of the warmest, most non-judgmental people she’d ever met.

And honestly, that has been my experience with them, too. Despite the fact that I have portrayed myself as an uninformed, irresponsible gambling addict who risks too much change on a make-believe competition, they have been nothing but welcoming and accepting of me.

Their kindness will once again be tested in the coming weeks, as Emily has invited me to go home with her to California to celebrate New Year’s. Staying in their house, on their turf, I hope I can somehow summon the magic that allowed me to charm all of my parents’ friends into thinking I was a good guy.

But considering my track record, I should probably pack some of my baby pictures, just to be safe.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?