For more than 15 years, Tiger Woods has been the public face of the world's loneliest game—a game without teammates, partners or even really opponents.
It is a game of man versus pin—and the pin ain't talking.
Woods has always seemed uniquely qualified for just such a sport. He's friendly without being fraternal. His network of acquaintances is notoriously small and difficult to penetrate. And he's always appeared most at ease competing against himself.
Tiger Woods needs no opponent. Tiger Woods has Tiger Woods.
Or as the Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman puts it:
Kelly Tilghman @KellyTilghmanGC
Tiger Woods says the pressure he feels to win is internal. He plays for himself & the gratification of winning.11/21/2011, 5:39:49 PM
The intensely solipsistic way in which Woods handles pressure is a function of how much of it he must process. It is, in a sense, the only way a person could cope with the infinite responsibility of being Tiger Woods, to eliminate all things outside oneself.
No modern-day athlete has been in the public eye longer, experienced more personal scrutiny or been so inextricably bound to the fate of his sport.
Every stroke is analyzed. Every practice round dissected and mined for clues. Every personal relationship vetted.
I say this not to absolve Woods of his sins or engender sympathy, but simply to raise the question: Does Tiger Woods face more pressure than any athlete in the history of mass-consumption sports?
To answer that we have to perhaps first ask: Who else is Woods' league?
How about LeBron James?
A star from his adolescent days at St. Vincent-St. Mary, the "Chosen One" became basketball's next big thing the moment he hit puberty. In largely fulfilling that destiny, James has only further amplified the media noise that surrounds his every move.
On that front, two moments in James' career stand out. The first is when he decided to join the Miami Heat, an announcement that both darkened the tone of his notoriety and intensified the pressure he was already facing to win his first championship. The second is when he finally broke through and won it, which was met with the sort of universal release rarely seen in the world of sports.
Never before, or since, have I seen so much individual attention extracted from a team sport.
But that's just it, basketball is a game of constant dependency, and with that comes infinite means of deflection.
No win or loss is James' alone. And whatever failures he's experience in the past, have been at least in some small part been filtered through his peers.
The same logic applies to international soccer star Lionel Messi, whose sport is more popular than James', but who can also take some refuge in the fact that he alone is not responsible for outcomes.
Both men have been public figures since childhood. But when they need to, they can always escape into the team.
Tigers Woods has been famous for an even greater portion of his life. And when things go awry, there has never been anywhere to hide. It's his name next to the score, and his name alone.
But maybe the most convincing argument for Woods' primacy as the most scrutinized athlete alive is the unique relationship he has to his sport and its popularity.
When Tom Brady or Peyton Manning goes down with injury, no one frets about the NFL's ratings.
I would imagine a similar relationship exists between LeBron James and the NBA or Lionel Messi and the Champions League.
Tiger Woods' 2009 departure from the PGA Tour, however, was such a universally understood calamity, that even Saturday Night Live felt obliged to weigh in.
Even if the assumption about golf's vitality sans Woods isn't true—and there's some substantial evidence to suggest it isn't—there remains an enduring notion that the sport needs Tiger.
Whether Woods wears that as a burden or not is up to him, but it's certainly a form of pressure. Moreover, it is a form pressure unique to Woods and his sport.
Thumbing back through history, there is only one athlete I can summon who meant more things to more people or faced greater pressure to succeed than Woods: baseball's Jackie Robinson.
The root cause of Robinson's travails were so wildly different from Woods' that it seems impossible to compare them.
As the first black player in Major League Baseball, Robinson triggered a shift in the way Americans think about race. If he had been anything less—either as an athlete or a public figure—that conversation would have traveled a different path.
The pressure that Robinson faced came at a time before social media and television cameras. But it was also driven by something much larger than the games we play.
That same could be said for Muhammad Ali or even Hank Aaron, at least during that brief period when Aaron pursued and surpassed Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention those three in this conversation. But we'd also be fools to draw them alongside Woods, for whom winning and losing is just that, and nothing more.
Instead let's say this: Tiger Woods plays a sport that, by its very nature, conspires to separate the individual from his peers. He's played that sport longer, and at a higher level, than almost anyone in the game's history. He's done it in a time when rampant changes in mass communication have rendered privacy almost obsolete.
And he's done it alone.
That, to me, is what makes Tiger different from LeBron, Messi, Brady, Federer, Mayweather, A-Rod or whomever else you might toss into the all-time pressure tumbler.
For a decade he was alone at the top—tasked with carrying the sport aloft, feared by his rivals to the point that he was never truly among them.
Then he was alone at the bottom—undermined by personal shortcomings and subjected to a kind of dread reserved only for those who have already distinguished themselves.
His career has always been, in one way or another, stuck on an alternate plane.
And the pressure faced has always been his alone to bear.
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