Tiger Woods, the American
August 15, 2010 § 8 Comments
In 1996, Sports Illustrated named Tiger Woods “Sportsman of the Year.” Senior writer Gary Smith suggested that Woods was the “Chosen One,” a special person who would forever banish racial prejudice from golf. Woods once said to a journalist that he should refer to him as “Cablinasian” — his mother, Kutilda, is Asian, one-half Thai, one-quarter Chinese, and one-quarter white; his father, Earl, a graduate of Kansas State University, who pursued a career in the Army as a Green Beret and experienced intense action in Vietnam, is one-half African American and one-quarter American Indian and one-quarter Asian. Woods was even named after a South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel, Vuong Dang “Tiger” Phong, a friend of his father’s, a man whose bravery earned him his nickname. Not unlike our President, Tiger Woods is an amalgam of America. He is our American. He represents who we are. We look to find our story in his image. But things change. And in these changes, we find a troubled Tiger Woods that resembles the rest of us, the state of America itself. Tiger Woods is the athlete of our times, the sign of our times.
What is confusing, following Tiger Woods’ worst tournament performance ever, is that we’re not sure what we’re seeing. We want to look — but we also want to turn away, the weight of disappointment and disillusionment is too much. Woods is man alone, besieged by personal demons. His “tiger” has been cut down. He is a wandering soul, Ishmael floating on an empty coffin in a vast ocean, no trace of the Pequod. We fear we’re navigating open waters as Ishmael does in Moby Dick, an American tale about shipping off on a narrative not of our own making, that doesn’t even consider ours. Woods — as we are — is trying to understand it all. The narrative fell from his hands; it’s now intertwined with the American story in a fine coil. Woods is the American story writ large. That’s why we’re watching. Woods is a mirror of America and in it we find that we have fallen. We’re staggering with Woods, tied for 36th place, 1under par after the second day at the foggy, wet greens of Whistling Straights. Into the fourth round, Woods is in 31st place, 3 under par. Nick Watney, leading the group on Sunday, is 13 under par. It’s an American drama.
The first such prognostication of an American future comprised of extreme, almost orgasmic highs and dark and ominous lows where bearings are hard to find comes to us from literature, Henry James‘ The American. In James’ hands, Christopher Newman is the epitome of America’s individualism, self-determination, and pragmatism. Newman has risen economically — and he thinks socially. He has risen above his station using the inherent possibilities emerging in this new American economy.
In the opening scene of the novel, we find Christopher Newman, “on a brilliant day in May, in the year 1868,” a “gentleman.” In America, Newman has done something unthinkable in old Europe: through hard work and determination — and a marketplace — he’s risen above his station. He has stripped himself of an old class and entered a new one. He hasn’t inherited anything; he’s worked for his wealth. He’s a salesman. And where we find this new American, in the opening scene, is in the Salon Carré, in the Museum of the Louvre.
Newman is a strong sexual presence — as is America (even with the heavy hands of Puritanism and Christian fundamentalism weighty on our backs), as is Woods, as are the heroes we genuflect to. (Brett Favre will play for the Vikings because he’s a man, and his heroic sense of self keeps our own in place at a time when we need it most. We need him to play, as badly as he needs to play.) Newman is reclining “at ease on the great circular divan” that occupies the center of the Salon Carré, “his head thrown back and his legs outstretched” and “staring at Murillo’s beautiful moon-borne Modonna in profound enjoyment of his posture.” James tells us that Newman, on the ottoman, “had taken serene possession of its softest spot.” It doesn’t get anymore sexual in James. Legs outstretched, head thrown back, a moon-borne Madonna and the possession of a sweet spot. Newman is taking it all in. The experience is about him, not the Louvre, not the art–him, solipsism so refined that it becomes aesthetically and morally attractive. James is keen on making sure we understand this. Newman’s “profound enjoyment” is “his posture,” nothing else. The art is secondary, a foil for his fantasy,which reigns supreme. From hubris this profound, only a great fall is possible. This is the American story: we expect our heroes to rise above it all but we want them to fall, and fall hard and fast. This is how we live today, frightened that we may fall, quickly and precipitously, into an abyss. As our heroes rise again, we’re then appeased, our anxieties forgotten for a moment — a momentary stay against the confusion. We want to see our heroes rise again — the “come back kid,” Bill Clinton filled this void; President Obama, of mixed race, black, and far from a promising candidate early on, beat all odds and became the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. Hollywood, here, can only follow; it can’t make this up. And in this story is the idealism we cherish: hard work and determination, self-realiance, manhood, the male coming to the rescue of the down and out. We need this story like no other.
Ideologies are manufactured narratives meant to conceal control; that is, the purpose of an ideology is to ensure servitude, not allegiance to the self, to one’s own journey. Christopher Newman is in Europe to take. He doesn’t even want the original art found in the Louvre, James tells us, but rather, he prefers the copy. We prefer the illusion — the illusion of knowing, the illusion of loving, the illusion of community, as Chris Hedges argues in Empire of Illusion.
Tiger Woods lived in a bubble of illusion. As Christopher Newman embarks on a harrowing moral journey of discovery, confused by his winner take all attitude that runs counter to an old, traidtional — and conservative — culture, Tiger Woods’ evolution left behind the powerful weight that human emotions can bring on one. When he was but two years old, he would sit for hours in a high-chair watching his father hit practice golf balls into a net. One day he climbed down from the high chair and picked up a plastic toy club and took a swing almost the mirror of his father’s. At the age of 3, he appeared on the Mike Douglas Show and putted effeciently against a respectable golfer, comedian Bob Hope. By the age of 5 he could hit golf balls with power and control. By the age of 6, he had scored two holes in one. And by the end of the 2005 season, Woods had won 10 tournaments (4 Masters, 2 US Opens, 2 British Opens, and 2 PGA tournaments) and 45 PGA tournaments despite playing in only 20 events a year. To get here, Woods’ parents sacrificed a lot, paying for teachers and green fees. The parents never pushed — Tiger was driven. He played competitive matches with his father. Earl took to distracting him, suddenly talking when he swung or jingling the change in his pocket as he prepared to putt. Earl even clapped his hands. Both father and son have said that this psychological testing helped Tiger learn to control his nerves and concentrate.
This training is not working now. The development of Tiger Woods, as is evident, left a gaping hole where emotions rule. Never has Tiger Woods needed to confront his identity in such harrowing depths. What he carries is beyond jingling change in his father’s pocket. In many ways, we’ve been fooled by the same psychological testing: we’ve been merely sailing along on the illusion that something is going on in the world — the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa — but nothing is off center here; we’ve been coasting along, much as Ishmael first does on the Pequod or Newman does as he sails away to Europe on the burgeoning American myth of endless growth and possibility, without centering, without an anchor on what is virtuous. Tiger Woods is the exemplar of this model; his narrative parallels our own in that our hyperindividualism has concealed the web of deceit that created the mess we’re in now — and with no light in sight.
Tiger Woods has controlled Golf’s narrative since the age of 21, when having turned professional just six months earlier, stunned the sports world when he did the seeming impossible by winning the prestigious Masters Tournament on his first try in 1997 by a record-setting 12 strokes, establishing a new tournament record with a score of 270. At the age of 21, Tiger Woods was already in the rarified endorsement league of Michael Jordan. This “Cablinasian” representative of the melting pot, out of nowhere, through the American rhetoric of will, determination and hard work, guided by the gentle hands of his parents, rose to prominence. And America sighed relief, a “Chosen One” was born and his mild manner, professional interviews, and mere grace and beauty made us feel secure. This is how sports and media work to channel our ideals back to us in reassuring ways.
But none of this is real, even as we watch Woods struggle in the fog of Whistling Straights. The only thing real about this chapter in our story is the fog and the delay of game. Nature, the world around us, is suggesting that we’re not in control and the control we thought we had has created our downward spiral — as happens on the Pequod and as happens to Christopher Newman. Tiger Woods’ attempt to redeem himself is our very own.