When Tiger Woods removed himself from the Players Championship this week, I couldn’t help but wonder what it meant for him and his legacy.
Sure, in the grand scheme of things, the Players Championship in one year, in any year, doesn’t mean a thing. However, for a man who’s nursing a badly broken down knee with an equally broken swing, it starts to mean something.
While Woods is only 35, young even by a professional golfer's standpoint, you do have to consider if he’s at the beginning of the end. The naysayers, those who believe his legacy is still intact and Jack Nicklaus’ career major record is still within reach, will tell you that Tiger is long from over.
That his skill, his ability to heal (which is no greater, but no worse, than most of us) will compel him to recover, readjust and regain his championship form. At least to some degree.
But to assume that Tiger is capable of a rebound, we have to assume that he is mentally tough too. He’s long been lauded as one of the more mentally tough athletes in professional sports. His pedigree and mental durability have been compared to the shining example of one of the toughest athletes of our time: Michael Jordan.
While perhaps the comparisons aren’t even, they aren’t, in my estimation, even close. Our perception of Tiger’s ability to regain his form and play championship level golf once again is fully reliant on his mental toughness. I have serious reservations that Tiger is mentally tough.
When the idea of mentally tough comes to mind, I think of my grandfather. He was, in simplest terms, a war hero much like many men of his generation. One of the old World War II vets that spent five years in Europe fighting. He earned five bronze stars and was involved in every major battle of WW II. He saw immense horrors and was undoubtedly scarred by the time he returned home.
He came home to his daughter he barely knew and a wife who worried every day. He got acclimated back to civilian life and dealt with supporting eight kids on a foreman’s income. He’s dealt with the death of children, brothers, sisters and a million of other things that the older generation had to endure. I realize he's not nearly the only criteria for a mentally tough person, but he fits the simplest, basic mold.
My grandfather is mentally tough. There are plenty of soldiers like him and plenty of people who can wear the moniker of being mentally tough. When I think of mentally tough people I know, or have witnessed, it's people whose background has paved the way for that toughness.
Whether it’s surviving some horror, rising above your environment or just not letting your situation define you for a second, those to me are the definitions of mental toughness.
Tiger, to my best understanding, has never had to overcome adversity. The stories of his rise are legendary, but no tale told of golf's greatest gift has involved him overcoming adversity or having to build the muscle that makes the modern athlete tough. He’s been groomed his whole life for success.
His father, Earl Woods, gave him the gift of great focus. Stories of him dangling car keys in front of him as he putted are legendary. They shaped Tiger to concentrate and block out his surroundings, but they didn’t teach him about what it means to battle back from real struggle.
Tiger has never willed himself to victory while trailing in a major on the last day. He’s never been the forgotten golfer or the guy who was told he wasn’t good enough. He’s been a winner his whole life. So how does a mentally tough athlete overcome the kind of personal and professional strife that he’s never come close to experiencing before?
When life knocks you down, you get up and you get tough. Tiger has been beat up by life for the first time. He hasn’t gotten up…yet.
Perhaps Tiger will surprise us all and come to show us that all those years of dangling keys have led to a mental toughness and not just an obsession with winning (those are not one in the same). But more likely, we are witnessing the end of an era for an athlete who is going to have to overcome obstacles that he never has.
He’s going to need to be mentally tough, but I have my doubts about that.