The genius of Tiger Woods

AP

The true magnitude of Tiger Woods’ achievement in golf can be understood only long after his retirement. Only hindsight will help us grasp the enormity of what the great man has accomplished, writes Nirmal Shekar.

Tiger, tiger, burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

- William Blake (1757-1827) in the poem, The Tiger.

As he back-pedalled and flung his cap to the ground before letting out a whoop of delight, Tiger Woods knew that he had just accomplished something that was phenomenal even when measured against his own lofty standards of excellence.

The 24-foot downhill putt that the planet’s finest golfer sank on the 18th hole to beat Bart Bryant by a stroke in the Arnold Palmer Invitational tournament was one of those rare jump-out-of-the-couch moments when the average fan has his vicarious brush with sporting perfection, and the athlete himself seems to fall into a sort of trance.

In the event, it was hardly a surprise that the question that has cropped up again and again in the course of the great man’s celebrated career — is he the perfect golfer? — should once again dominate discussions in commentary booths and figure prominently in the media in general.

The term ‘perfect athlete’ is an oxymoron. Such a superman, much like the perfect human being, can exist only in our imagination. For, evolution is an unfinished business and to live is to simultaneously strive for perfection and wrestle with imperfections.

Yet, we passionately follow sport because a handful of its gifted practitioners offer us the illusion of perfection from time to time. With their virtuoso abilities and indomitability in the face of monumental challenges, they appear to tease us with the question: Can it get better than this?

Can putting in the clutch be done any better than Tiger Woods’ believe-it-or-not 24-footer in Orlando in the Palmer Invitational?

Surely, perfection was the last thing on Woods’ mind as he approached that putt with the title and his six-month unbeaten streak at stake. He was concerned about something further down the aesthetic hierarchy, something more down-to-earth: winning.

“(Winning is) why you work all those tireless hours,” said Woods. “It’s why you get up at 0-dong-30 and log your miles, bust your tail in the gym.”

All transcendental sporting moments, all those grand illusions of perfection, almost every one of those where-were-you-when-it-happened moments of sporting excellence are nothing but by-products of an athlete’s relentless pursuit of victory.

Of course, in an abhorrent winning-is-everything culture such a reductionist view that seeks to identify the catalyst of athletic perfection might make some shrink in horror. But then, the song of the skylark that Percy Bysshe Shelley famously celebrated in the poem Ode to a Skylark may not sound any less beautiful because it happens to be a mating call.

Shelley’s skylark was “singing hymns unbidden” to find a mate and great, gifted athletes produce breathtakingly beautiful moments of seeming athletic perfection even as they seek to get the better of their opponents and win important contests. The process doesn’t suffer because of the primordial goal.

Nadia Comaneci wasn’t dreaming of the perfect landing — or even a first-ever score of perfect 10 — while turning seemingly impossible manoeuvres into beguilingly simple routines on the uneven bars in the gymnastics event of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Her sights were set on the gold medal, instead.

While weaving baroque patterns with the ball at his feet and leaving a string of befuddled Englishmen in his trail to slot in the most sublime goal in the history of the World Cup, Diego Maradona was not hoping to be immortalised in the Musee Du Louvre; he was merely trying to win the game for his country in Mexico in 1986.

It is much the same with every other athletic genius, from Don Bradman down to Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar and from Rod Laver down to Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. They aim to win all the time, playing the best they can and in the process offer us the perfect illusion of sporting perfection from time to time.

Those are the exalted moments when they — the gifted sportspersons — achieve their sporting nirvana as competitors and we reach ours, too, as consumers (connoisseurs if you are allergic to marketplace terminology) of sport.

Woods, at age 32 already a winner of 13 major titles, has provided golf lovers many such highs ever since he turned pro in 1996. In a sport where winning two or three titles in a row is deemed a huge achievement, the long-time world No. 1 has registered streaks that his peers may not even dare dream of.

“The fields are getting better and he is still doing this,” said Sean O’Hair, a fellow professional. “We are witnessing something pretty phenomenal right now.”

Correction: we have been witnessing something truly phenomenal for quite some time now. And our luck might last another seven or eight years, in the least — by which time, of course, Woods would expect to have gone past his idol Jack Nicklaus, winner of 18 major titles.

“I think true golf fans who understand the game understand the magnitude,” said Bryant. “I think the golf public in general doesn’t get it, to be honest. Because what he’s doing right now, I mean, you can’t even hardly fathom it. You can’t explain it.”

Genius has never been easy to explain. Dwell a minute on Sampras’ seven Wimbledon titles in eight years or Bjorn Borg’s and Federer’s five-in-a-row; consider, for a second, Bradman’s Test average of 99.94 or Michael Schumacher’s mastery on the Formula One tracks. These are mind-boggling achievements.

And the true magnitude of Woods’ achievement in golf can be understood only long after his retirement. Only hindsight will help us grasp the enormity of what the great man has accomplished.

Until then we can continue to marvel at his genius, his mastery of the fairways and the greens and watch in awe as he runs up one winning streak after another — at the time of writing, Woods’ latest unbeaten streak was under threat in the CA Championship in Doral, Florida, where play spilled over to Monday (March 24) because of rain — in his grand march towards surpassing greatness.

Music scholars refer to something called absolute music, famously associated with Beethoven. Sometime in the future, golf critics might come to view the brand of golf played by Woods as absolute golf.

* * * European Tour wins 1998: Johnnie Walker Classic. 1999: Deutsche Bank — SAP Open TPC of Europe. 2000: Johnnie Walker Classic. 2001: Deutsche Bank — SAP Open TPC of Europe. 2002: Deutsche Bank — SAP Open TPC of Europe. 2006: Dubai Desert Classic. 2008: Dubai Desert Classic.