By Don Greif, Ph.D.
With the Masters underway golf fans (that's me)—and normal people too—will once again confront Tiger Woods' spectacular fall from grace.
Among the fascinations of the year's first major championship, psychologically savvy observers of the game will once again be watching the mental game inside the chips, putts, and drives we see on our screens. And we'll see Woods battling athletic demons in the six-inch space between a golfer's ears, the area golfing great Bobby Jones referred to as the "course" where competitive golf is really played.
Woods' story has been inescapable due to a perfect storm of media attention with the resonance of Malamud's The Natural: After news of multiple affairs are broadcast Woods takes a five-month break from professional golf, undergoes treatment for a so-called sexual addiction, and gets divorced from a "golden-girl" wife. Since returning to the PGA tour a year ago this week, his game has not been the same; he's played like an average pro rather than the best golfer on the planet, and occasionally he's hit shots resembling those of the average duffer.
Woods, a duffer? No one wants Tiger to be like the rest of us: someone vulnerable to his athletic demons. Woods had always conveyed an aura of invincibility and mental focus that has rarely been seen in golf. Like a Michael Jordan jumper or Joe Montana pass with the clock ticking down in a championship game, one of the pleasures watching him play—and why he captivated so many non-golfers—was knowing he'd sink that crucial putt or nail that long-iron. Seeing the way Woods responded to pressure over the years with victory after victory made it easy to mistake him for an android, a Zen master, or a demigod. Whatever, his play restored our faith in human potential.
But it has now been nearly two years since Woods won his last major golf tournament. Bearing in mind that the greatest golfers in history, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Watson, have suffered and overcome prolonged slumps (nicely described by NBC sportscaster, Jimmy Roberts, in "Breaking the Slump") it remains likely that Woods will, at some point (maybe this weekend?), regain his magic and again be crowned the best player in the world. But his victories will never be the same; they'll be the triumph of a deeply flawed human, a duffer-in-life like the rest of us.
That traumatic life events—dissolution of his marriage, loss of his untarnished public image, and the loss of millions in endorsement contracts—compromised Woods's performance should not be surprising. Good golf requires freedom from emotional turmoil. Emotional distress produces tension-a death knell for the golf swing, the highly coordinated movements of which depend upon a relatively relaxed state. Tension alters rhythm, timing and tempo, and the swing goes awry, leading to miss hits and errant shots; hooks, slices, shanks, chili dips, and the dreaded yips (twitches that affect putting).
The golf swing is like a highly state-sensitive psychological test, like a Rorschach. The entire game of golf, in fact, is a Rorschach since emotional conflict, as well as characteristic behavior patterns, influences every aspect of the game. The more "face valid" mental aspects of the game-judgment, decision-making, and strategizing course management-are also vulnerable to emotional states, just like the golf swing itself.
The idea that Woods needs to "straighten(s) out his personal life," according to Charles McGrath, NY Times sportswriter, is "a very discouraging notion for those of us who love to play golf precisely because it's an escape from the rest of life and who would much rather work on our short game than, say, our relationship with our boss or our spouse."
Woods is obviously far more motivated to straighten out his inner life for golf than those of us who play the game for fun. He's been very clear that he aims to establish himself as the best golfer of all time,which requires him winning five more majors to break Nicklaus's record.
One imagines (hopes?) Woods is addressing his athletic demons with the same intensity and perseverance that he always brought to his golf game. And while we really know very little about Woods's internal state, let's imagine the following psychological scenario:
Let's suppose Woods's slump really is a result of the traumatic impact of his marriage and public image exploding. That had to be a terrible narcissistic blow, one that left his pride, self-confidence, perhaps his very identity, badly shaken. But there are other losses to imagine. Strange as it may seem, Woods's philandering and sexual conquests may have served vital psychological functions; they may have helped sustain his confidence so he could perform at such a high level on the golf course. Perhaps his emotional well-being and self-esteem depended on finding new women to make him feel virile, desirable, even lovable, or something else. Maybe Woods was managing underlying loneliness, emptiness, despair or depression through his sexual liaisons. And even if he wasn't—after all we are imagining these possibilities in the absence of real data—there are many others in similar situations with far less athletic ability who have had and are having such experiences.
Woods may have additionally felt constrained and burdened by the pressures of having to live his life in a fishbowl from the time he was twenty years old, when he signed endorsement deals worth sixty million dollars. In exchange for this money—and the hundreds of millions more he earned during his career, both as a product endorser and player—Woods had to project a pristine public image, one that was carefully cultivated by his sponsors and the PGA Tour. As the most recognized and financially successful athlete in the world Woods may have felt encumbered by having to present himself as a perfect role model.
Woods's affairs, then, might have been a reaction to how tired he was of having to be so good all the time; a way to express his individuality unconstrained by the pressure to be someone that others wanted him to be, albeit in a misguided, destructive, and ultimately self-destructive way. Sex outside marriage—lots of sex with many women—is a powerful way to rebel, to defy convention. For Woods it might have been a way to say, "This is one place where I am not playing by your rules; I play by them everywhere else; in my private life I am entitled to do what I damn please." And again, you don't have to be a genius athlete for the burdens of convention—of always having to fit in with what the roles we play in life demand—to be profoundly debilitating.
I am not condoning or defending Woods's actions; he betrayed his wife through tawdry affairs and behaved deplorably. I am trying to understand; in part because the inner struggles we imagine and the outward expressions we read about illuminate human dilemmas shared irrespective of athletic ability. Understanding him helps us understand us and media catch-phrases and quasi-clinical labels like "sexual addiction" yield little insight into the true nature of his actions.
If what I've imagined is even partially true, then Tiger Woods might need to reconstruct his identity and self-esteem on a new foundation. In order to regain confidence he may have to understand himself in ways he never had to before. While these are hard psychological tasks they would provide Woods with a tremendous opportunity-to discover more fully who he is apart from what others have wanted him to be.
Over the course of his career Woods established himself, arguably, as the mentally fittest golfer ever, and now he has the chance to prove it once again, as his psychological resilience is put to the test. I hope he emerges from this ordeal as a changed man: more mature, humble, honest, and personally fulfilled; and that he continues to exhibit his prodigious golfing talents.
About the author:
Don Greif, Ph.D. is a psychotherapy supervisor and faculty member at the William Alanson White Institute, Executive Editor of Contemporary Psychoanalysis (where his recent article, "Revaluing Sports," appeared), and has a private therapy and forensic practice in NYC. He has consulted with the Yale women's golf team, individual amateur athletes, and performers in the arts. He is a former college lacrosse player and avid golfer and has mastered many-but, of course, not all-of his demons.
© 2011 Don Greif, All Rights Reserved