December 21, 2000

slide shows

Rediff Shopping
Shop & gift from thousands of products!
  Books     Music    
  Apparel   Jewellery
  Flowers   More..     

Safe Shopping

send this story to a friend

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright!

Rohit Brijnath

Maybe after the leaves of autumn have fallen two score times and more, and spring at the Masters is a memory; maybe when there's an edge of white under his cap like foam on a dark wave, and his belt loosens a notch against an ambitious belly; maybe when his knees tremble softly on winter mornings when he bends down behind his putt and we know he's descended finally from Zeus' embrace on the mountaintop; maybe only then the golfer will be mortal.

Then in 2020, what will he think of 2000? Where will it stand in the timeline of his life? The best of days? Surely.

Tiger Woods Surely, Tiger Woods cannot get much better.

Once, a long time ago, a baseball player, who had climbed his own mountain and then descended, who failed when older in his comeback but recognised in the process what he once had been, gave his new mortality a lyrical definition.

Said Reggie Jackson, "I'm still Reggie, but not as often."

In 2000, Tiger was Tiger more often than any man could have believed.

Golf lends itself, as all sport does, to the possibility that one player can rule relatively undisturbed. But such is the variable of the sport, it does not truly embrace the idea of domination.

It is one man against a golf course, every design a separate challenge to ingenuity; it is one man against the elements, open to the heat, the rain, the chill, one day using a five-iron into the breeze, next day a nine-iron over the same distance when it is still; it is one man battling himself, his convictions, his technique, the slightest tilt of an elbow enough to send his ball awry; it is one man against a 100 others, all having slipped the leash of ambition.

There are too many factors deterring a one man rule.

Till Tiger started 2000.

It is not so much what he won, but how; it is the daylight he left between him and the chasing pack; it was clear, this fox is quick, and the hounds are losing badly.

The US Open by 15 shots, the British Open by 8 shots; in prize-money he has with $9 million, won nearly $5 million more than the next man; in the ranking system he has 1317.22 points, then Ernie Els at 637.33 points, then Phil Mickelson at 531.38. The inference is obvious: he is twice the player they are.

It seems the players themselves seem him as Hamlet, Romeo, Caesar, and tragedy aside, themselves as bit players in a pre-written script. They acknowledge his genius in an outpouring of compliments sport has possibly never witnessed (not in my lifetime, not while a player is active); but more than that, they acknowledge he is (or mostly is) untouchable. It almost defies comprehension, that at a particular tournament, with Tiger just a shot off the lead, Colin Montgomerie should say, "I think the view in the locker room, without saying it out loud, was the tournament was finished. And it was, who is going to finish second?"

It was only the first day of the tournament!

And Tiger Woods is only 24. It seems inconsequential, but hardly. Pete Sampras

Once, athletes were frightened by the sight of any opponent wearing braces, for the teenage athlete was seen as possessor of that magical elixir: the elasticity of youth. But time has its uses too, it allows for ability to mature, for considered skills, for men to realise that there is a fine virtue in experience. It is understandable then that the world's best tennis player (Pete Sampras) is 27, the best distance runner (Haile Gebreselassie) is 27, the best Grand Prix driver (Michael Schumacher) is 31, the best cyclist (Lance Armstrong) is 31, the best batsman (Sachin Tendulkar) is 27.

Then remember that golf traditionally asks less of strength (Tiger's altering that too) and more of maturity, it demands a completeness that only time brings.

Then look again at the 24. Suddenly, it is more imposing. It seems too early for a golfer to be 'complete', it seems almost absurd that in the tour statistics, Tiger is first in birdies made, first in eagles made, first in green in regulation, first in scoring average, second in driving distance, second in putting.

It is technique, of course, and strength, and genes, and his relentless father, but most of all it must be will that carries him, a refusal to fold, as if it were some holy vow like the ones the silent monks would take.

Thomas Bjorn says, "He hits every shot as if his life depends on it," and it explains something.

It is will too that allows him to journey through the wall of expectation.

Pressure, said the wonderful Lee Trevino, is "putting for $100 with $5 in your pocket". Tiger putts for $1 million with $1 in his pocket. Few things affect the nervous system as completely as sport: men vomit, shake, pray, faint, listen to inspirational tapes, counsel with psychologists. But greatness is an ability to conquer the moment, to ensure that fear is overridden by purpose.

All through the year we have waited for Tiger to fail. He has lost, yes, but failed, no, and there is a difference. Every tournament, the papers, the commentators, the public, fellow golfers, officials, say he is going to win. Before the British Open, Michael Bonallack, the retired secretary at the Royal and Ancient says: "If he doesn't win the British Open,there should be a steward's inquiry."

And then Tiger tees up, and sends the signal to his brain to begin the swing, and still no insecurity, fear, trauma, doubt, apprehension, interrupts that message.

It is the first time I have seen the expectation taken out of sport. What is expected, happens. Said Justin Leonard: "The amazement has gone away."

Players like situations, prefer environments. Some racing car drivers are terrific on wet tyres, others unsurpassed when they're in front. Some soccer players find their skills enhanced in their own stadiums, some cricketers aren't as comfortable on Australian wickets, some tennis players play their best when out a set in front.

Tiger is defying categorisation. He can win on any continent (though his preference for America is obvious), through all weather, through a nasty cold and an infected chest. He can win when he's leading on the last day; he can win when he's 5-6-7 shots behind on the last day; he can win when he's tied for the lead on the last hole on the last day. He can win, one presumes, with just a putter, driver and pitching wedge to play with, with his shoelaces tied and his red T-shirt, that he wears on every final day, burnt.

What Eldrich Woods Jr has told us in 2000 is this: that how we perceived sport pre-Tiger and post-Tiger has altered irrevocably. There are new boundaries of excellence. And he has set them.

There is only one problem.

In 2001, what does he do when they cry 'encore'?

Rohit Brijnath

Mail Rohit Brijnath