Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Expect the world from Tiger Woods
By Mark Kreidler Special to ESPN.com
Horrifying news! Tiger is better.
Better than the opposition? Well, certainly, but that doesn't qualify as breaking news. Tiger Woods hits the Nissan Open in L.A. this week having entered, and won, two tournaments in 2006. Each victory came in a playoff, which suggests that Woods wins even when he wobbles.
But it is a different kind of improvement we ponder here. Woods is now 30 years old with 10 years on the PGA Tour, a veritable veteran. His actual life experience has finally surpassed the hyper-promotion that accompanied his early success.
Woods has twice reinvented his swing -- and twice come back stronger than he was before.
He is longer off the tee, better around the greens. He is as emotionally armored as any athlete in the history of sport. He knows how tournaments are won and lost in just about every condition a golfer might be expected to face. He has twice remade his swing without surrendering his career. Both times, in fact, he enhanced it.
It sounds ludicrous when applied to a person who already has been enshrined into the pantheon of golf, but there it is all the same: Woods appears on the verge of his best years yet. He's better than Woods.
So go ahead, expect it all. Ask of Tiger the kind of performance that you wouldn't dream of asking the gifted golfers who play alongside him on the PGA Tour. Make him do something superhuman to get your attention and hold it.
Get ridiculous with your expectations. Four majors, and nothing less! Be brutally disappointed, or even excited, every time Woods uncoils one errant shot, even with his driver. Look at his 14-2 worldwide record in playoffs and curse the two screwups. Be surprised -- be stunned -- on any Sunday that you don't see Woods in the final group.
Do all of it. And then you'll know what it's like to be inside Tiger's head.
There was a great moment last week in which Woods was bantering with reporters during a conference call to promote The Masters, which he won last year to join Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only four-time champions at Augusta National. At one point, someone wanted to know whether Woods' greatest challenge was staying hungry.
It's the right question on so many levels. Woods is richer than reason, married to a beautiful woman, iconic to the masses. He could quit competitive golf tomorrow and spend the rest of his days renting out his legend. Surely, boredom with the weekly grind could come into play somewhere along the line.
Woods' response? "That's never a question," he said simply. It was the only one-sentence answer he gave in six printed pages of transcription.
And it's the truth. A lesser golfer would have succumbed to the lifestyle a long time ago, which explains why he would remain the lesser golfer. It's really one of the most under-reported facets of athletic stardom in the current era; on top of every other competitive consideration (age, frailty, job insecurity, etc.), sometimes it's just easier to enjoy the fruits of the labor and stop worrying so much about the labor.
When Woods looks ahead to his 30s, he sees things tougher out there on tour, not easier. He sees more work, not less.
"It's always going to be difficult to win tournaments," Woods says, "and as the fields get deeper and better, you're going to have to get better and be more efficient and post lower scores. So that's always a challenge to try and win, to get better and improve. Hopefully, I can do that over the next decade."
The available research gives Woods a solid chance on that front. Though it's difficult to pin down because of the variance in individual pursuits, most of the studies on elite athletes suggest that they approach their primes -- in terms of ability, emotional maturity, concentration and the like -- around age 27 or 28, then carry on through their early- to mid-30s.
Though golf carries its own set of potential physical roadblocks, it's not hockey or football, so the life expectancy of a career prime can reasonably be extended in that sport. And people like Woods have raised the bar higher still by treating themselves as athletes first.
Asked about the changes in technology since he turned pro in 1996, Woods instead pointed to the golfers themselves: "Guys are more fit, they are stronger, more flexible, they are bigger, got more speed, and I think certainly that's attributed to some of the distance numbers that you're seeing now."
Woods was a part of that movement, the lurch toward more strength and range of motion and all of it. He was ahead of the curve there. Now, as he enters his 30s, he remains essentially the standard-bearer of his sport. It doesn't matter what anyone else can or cannot do: If Woods does what the whole world believes he's capable of, it's still everyone else playing for second.
That decade, the decade of ludicrous expectation, begins now. More ludicrous still, Tiger Woods appears ready for every day of it. The best of his career actually lies before him, and seldom does such a thought carry such a weight.
Good thing it's the right guy carrying it.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.