(DISCLAIMER: I’m not condoning what he did- and if you have to ask who ‘he’ is after reading this, you’ve been living under a rock for a while. But this has generated some thought for me, and I thought it worthwhile to air it out.)
I wonder how fame changes a person. Not just fame, but the circumstances that lead to it, and the trappings associated with it.
Recent events involving a certain high profile golfer got me thinking about it, more than usual. I think it’s easy for us to look at famous people with an outside perspective and say, “Boy, I’d do it differently.” Would we really?
It’s easy to thin-slice the event and result and extrapolate circumstances where we’d take the moral high ground. And while that may well be the case, I don’t think we should assume that position so easily. Because we’re not them- not just right now, but in what made these people who they are.
Take that particular golfer, easily the pinnacle of his sport. Driven. Competitive. Motivated. Intense. A winner. A role model, in a lot of ways. And now what? Is he still all of those things?
Let’s give it some context. Don’t just think of him just as walking down the fairway to cheers, sharply focused on finishing 18 and winning the tournament, fist pumping as he drains the putt. Think of him also at the driving range, hitting shot after shot, watching it soar distances most of us could only sigh at. Think of him on the putting green, crouched down, tracing the contours of the surface- whether alone at practice, or in front of crowd, hushed, a caddy’s voice in his ear.
Think of the physical training, days spent honing a body into a perfect force to go 72 holes in four days, outlasting not only all that oppose him, but the nagging doubts that inevitably surface in a sport that is as much mental as it is physical. It’s a sport of endurance. It’s a sport of repetition, and mental toughness.
Golf isn’t a team sport. Golf is solo. Golf is alone. There’s not twenty-four other guys in the clubhouse with you, ready to pick you up when you make a mistake. The kind of single-minded determination it takes to be a good golfer is the same reason some of us are cussing by about the third tee during a normal round. He had it, that incredible focus. We don’t.
That’s the sport. But what about the man? How is he here?
This particular man was a prodigy- destined to play golf, in the limelight as early as age two, driven by a father that would make even the worst hockey parents cringe at his single-mindedness. Though a loving man, his father was determined- a quality he passed onto his son.
And his son won, spectacularly, at every level. He needed to win, and did so at a breathtaking pace. He was a marvel, anointed to be the “best ever” at an age most of us are still figuring out who we’re asking to come with us to grad.
The limelight rarely strayed from him. This man drove golf. Casual sports fans knew who he was, almost from the moment he hit the tour. Under the constant scrutiny of a 24/7 news cycle, he protected himself. He learned the ebb and flow of media, and how to use it to his advantage. Why wouldn’t he, popular as he was?
He’d heard every question in the book, and every variation on it. He’d learned the clichés, what the reporters wanted to hear, rarely straying from the script. His public, time-off persona was much like what we saw on the course: Focused. Intense.
But beyond that, he was very self-contained, very much a mystery. What drove him? What went on inside his head? And what, if any, effect did that incredible focus he had on the course affect him when he left it?
Becoming the most famous golfer in the world doesn’t happen all at once. It happens over time, and accomplishment, and changes in life and perspective so gradual we don’t always notice they’re happening.
We can say that we’d have done differently in his shoes. Of course we would have. But we’re not in his shoes. We aren’t as talented in that sport as he is. We haven’t had the fame, the publicity, or the money. We didn’t have a lifetime of conditioning, in a sport so focused on self that one has to have an amazing mental discipline to play at the highest level.
If we’re walking down 18 to adoring cheers, the roars of the crowd driving us on during a glorious, sunny afternoon- or even at the range during a chilly dusk, grabbing another bucket of balls- what kind of incredible focus, what kind of belief in ourselves, do we need? Not just to get there, but to be the best when we are there?
And when we get that belief, can we lose perspective? Forget what made us who we are, the importance of staying grounded? I think so. I think that’s part of what happened to him.
Do the rules change when you’re famous? They shouldn’t, but they seem to. It’s easy to decry this, but it’s a principle in business as well: We’ll give better deals to someone who’s more invested in what we do.
Why wouldn’t that kind of thing apply to a person? If he’s a famous man, someone powerful, aren’t we more inclined to bend over backwards and accommodate him?
So take that fame, money, power, and the rest. He has that, in spades. Add in that single-minded belief in yourself, from days spent on driving ranges and putting greens, or listening to adoring crowds roar your name. And top it off with a support group designed to support that belief- and by extension, support the person who HAS that belief. They’re on his payroll, that’s what they do.
He lost perspective, and those around him didn’t catch it. That single-mindedness that made him so good at golf tripped him up when the cheers died down. When he was alone with his thoughts, and away from the game that made him who he was.
Golf’s an unforgiving game. You can play one hole or round as well as you please, but you’re only as good as your last shot. If that means you buried it in the sand, you take your wedge and hammer it out of there. Means you’ll need some help to save par for that hole, but you’ve gotta get out of the trap first.
I didn’t see the press conference live- the one where he apologized. He didn’t owe me an apology, and I’m not so intrigued by this that I need to know how he and his family are getting on. I’m disappointed in what he did from a moralistic standpoint, but it doesn’t really affect me, beyond what could charitably be describe as a passing interest in the sport he plays.
The progression of recent events for this man has been intriguing to watch, much like a car wreck on the road- from the initial ‘accident’, the bizarre non-answers from him and continued stories from women who claimed to know him, the retreat into solitude as he attempted to solve it silently, and the awkward, robotic confessional to the public at large a couple of weeks back.
The outcries and responses have been equally interesting, and just as far across the spectrum. Moral outrage in sportswriting is nothing new, and I’m as prone to it as anyone- ask me about any of my teams, and I’ll get dug in and self-righteous (see any entries of mine on Mike Keenan or Todd Bertuzzi for proof).
The question here is what fascinates me: Would I have screwed up like he did? No, not as I am right now. I’d like to think I have a reasonably grounded moral base, and what he did doesn’t really square with that.
But what if I was more like him? Growing up as he had, determined, talented, focused, enabled and powerful as he was? What then? Would I have slipped up?
I don’t think I know. I don’t think any of us does.