Wednesday, April 7, 2010

All Eyes On Me

When I was in fifth grade, I was chosen to participate in a debate that was going to be conducted in front of all of the fifth and sixth graders in the school. I was excited to get selected, and I spent hours studying the material, determined to have a good showing. And a couple of hours before game time, I felt fully prepared to do just that. I was comfortable with my position, I had an organized list of talking points, and I was already anticipating any counter-arguments I might need to make.

But as I took my seat alongside the rest of the panel, and I looked out across the room and saw all of my peers staring back at me, my confidence began to waver. For the first time, I realized that I was going to be right at the center of everyone’s attention. They were going to be listening to me and judging me and critiquing me and talking about me. And once that reality fully set in, I did what any kid who wants to get noticed by the pretty older girls would do:

I threw up.

All over my team’s table.

With the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’d had for lunch suddenly on display, I sat frozen in horror. My nerves-induced nausea had struck many times before, but it had always had the courtesy to hold off until I could get some privacy.

After a few paralyzing seconds, I snapped out of my shock and scrambled to contain the mess, and my teacher jumped in to help me. Once everything was sufficiently cleaned, I was sent to the restroom to wash up. Amid a chorus of disgusted gasps and mocking whispers, I slunk out of the classroom and down the hall to safety.

As I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, I knew that the vomit on my new collared shirt was the least of my worries. I mean, I had just thrown up in front of half the school. I was completely and utterly humiliated. How could this have happened? What did people think of me now? Was I still going to have friends? Would a girl ever want to “go with me”? Had I set off a chain reaction of puking? I wondered how I could ever show my face again.

And now, as Tiger Woods returns to the spotlight this week at The Masters, I wonder how he’s dealing with this same challenge.

It’s been a long, strange trip for Woods since that fateful Thanksgiving night. With the revelation of his infidelity and fondness for Perkins' hostesses, his deepest, darkest secrets have been paraded in front of the entire world, and his effort to reemerge into the public eye from the status of “punch line” has come at a glacial pace. After sticking in stealth mode for over two months, he softened the ground a bit by giving a prepared statement in February, followed by a couple of restrictive five minute interviews with Golf Channel and ESPN. On Monday, he met the press for the first time, fielding a wide variety of questions, while only sidestepping a couple.

But now it’s time to go play.

And while the physical demands of golf will never be confused with those of any other sport, the mental and emotional discipline that is required to be successful is unparalleled. Where other games are reactionary – hitting a pitch, defending your man, catching a pass – golf is the complete opposite. You’re the one who puts the wheels in motion…the ball will just sit and stare back at you until you choose to actually hit it.

Because of that, your inner demons have ample opportunity to wreak havoc on your mind, to bring to the forefront all of your fears and anxieties. As you prepare to play a shot, they’ll whisper sweet nothings in your ear about how you better not dunk it in the water or that you’re not good enough or that you’re about to make a fool of yourself. It’s a constant battle to get out of your own way and let your natural talent shine through. And even if you can quiet those voices for the second-and-a-half that the golf swing lasts, the rest of your time is spent walking and waiting, where it’s just you and your thoughts.

While Woods is arguably mentally stronger than any athlete in history, this week he will be battling these head games in the cauldron of major championship golf under the shameful shadow of a scarlet letter. Every tee he steps off of, every green he steps onto, every club selection he makes, every putt he lines up, every swing he makes, he will do so burdened by the fact that everyone watching – the gallery, his fellow players, the millions watching on TV, the azalea bushes – knows what he did.

They know he cheated on his wife. They know he’s been in rehab. They know about the never-ending string of mistresses. They know about the seedy text messages he sent. They know what he likes to do in the bedroom. They know about his "take your name off your phone" voice mail. They know about his crumbling marriage. They know he’s the reason I was forced to discuss the term “golden shower” with my mother (No, I will never forgive you, Tiger).

So how can that not be in the back of his mind? How can that not detract from his focus? How can he possibly go out and play at his customary out-of-this-universe level with all of that on his shoulders? I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how you look anyone in the eye, much less compete with a rusty game on a treacherous golf course under this type of pressure while being saddled with such embarrassment and disgrace.

I guess there’s the possibility that the golf course could serve as his own personal sanctuary, the one place where he can block out those worries, where he can reconnect with a part of himself that allows him to do what he does better than anyone else. His good friend, Michael Jordan, was that way. Jordan imagined that the basketball court was surrounded by invisible walls, and when he stepped onto the floor, he was shielded from the distractions and hassles of his fame. Same thing with Kobe Bryant. When he was charged with sexual assault in 2003, flying back and forth for hearings and arriving at halftime had little to no effect on his scoring average.

Those guys may be a big reason we sometimes look at athletes as if they are machines. Buried under their uniforms and corporate logos, we see them competing and succeeding, and we forget that beneath it all, they are just people. So if they miss a shot or get beat for a touchdown or fail to perform up to our expectations, we don’t stop to consider that they have a personal life that could be affecting their performance, the same way we might be affected by ours.

And if there’s ever been an athlete who appeared to be anything but human, it’s Tiger. Still, the only other time a major was his first event back from an extended layoff was in 2006, when he played in the U.S. Open nine weeks after his father passed away - which, coincidentally, was the only time he's missed the cut as a professional in a major.

But that was a different time and a different Tiger, and I honestly don’t know what to expect from him this week. He could win, he could finish last, or he could miss his starting time because he’s watching Joslyn James strip at the Pink Pony. Like with anything involving Woods these days, nothing would surprise me.

He’s already made it through what had to be the toughest test of this whole ordeal – giving full disclosure of his infidelities to his wife (who's handy with a 9-iron) and disciplinarian mother – but when he steps onto the first tee on Thursday, he will do so for the first time as a stripped-down, tarnished man without an air of invincibility, and with all of his flaws exposed for everyone to see.

For the sake of keeping the hallowed grounds of Augusta National vomit-free, let’s hope he lays off the peanut butter and jelly.

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?