I don’t watch golf. I don’t play golf. I don’t care about golf. When I’m being less mindful of the importance of the “don’t hate that other people like things you don’t” mindset, I have some less-than-great opinions about PEOPLE who are super into golf (I’m working on it; apologies). But yesterday Wright Thompson’s epic deep dive into the psyche of Tiger Woods was published at ESPN and it is the best story about a sports figure I’ve read in a long while.
The extraordinarily short version is that Tiger Woods is a messed up dude with issues about his late father and a fixation on all things military — specifically Navy SEALS — which shoved golf and everything else out of his head for years and may very well have caused the physical breakdown of his body which effectively ended his dominance as a golfer. Though, of course, the mental stuff may have ended it before that. Hard to say. Either way, it’s fascinating, not only for that, but because Thompson got Michael Jordan of all people to sit for an interview about Woods. Woods may have faded from the spotlight in recent years, but you’re a big deal when someone of Michael Jordan’s stature gives an interview that isn’t about him, but about YOU.
Though this isn’t a baseball story, I link it here because it informs a topic I talk about here a lot, and that’s the armchair psychology of athletes fans and reporters like to pursue. The stuff in which, the night of a game or the day after, fans and the media weigh-in on so-and-so’s character or makeup and try to draw conclusions about their mental state and drive and all of that because the guy hit a big homer or sank a key putt or thew a touchdown pass.
I’ve always hated that, but a story like Thompson’s shows us just how silly such a thing truly is. We have NO IDEA what makes these guys tick. The notion that we can tell anything significant about a guy’s character based on a game or match is comical. They have lives. WEIRD lives, as the Woods story shows. We attribute character to athletes based on their performance but a lot of the time — most of the time? — their performance is what happens despite their character or mental state, not because of it. They’re human beings, not repositories of our need to engage in hero-creation.
To be clear, Thompson is no psychologist himself and I’m not suggesting that he necessarily nails Woods here any better than a next-day column about him winning the Masters might’ve (Woods and his people didn’t talk to him). But his extensive reporting does reveal how totally blind those who wrote those next-day columns were to what was really going in in Woods’ life and in his head. All we knew when he was winning majors was what he was doing on the links and whatever else we could get from the tabloids. We didn’t know he was jumping out of airplanes, running miles in combat boots and having Navy SEALS literally shoot at him.
We love our athletes. We love what they do on the field, on the court, on the ice or on the links. But we don’t know them and can’t know them based on that alone. We should stop even bothering to try to do so in such a reflexive manner and, rather, presume that there is far more that we don’t know than that which we know.