Golf

Elite sport has its share of child prodigy stories, which make compelling reading for ambitious parents. Tiger Woods is a reminder that each is a cautionary tale. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Tiger Woods and child prodigies

Tiger Woods celebrates sinking his final putt to win the 1997 US Masters.
Tiger Woods celebrates sinking his final putt to win the 1997 US Masters.
Credit: Stephen Munday / Getty Images

My misfortune is not to be a writer but, from an early age, to have never wanted to be anything else. This desire has given me a consistent sense of purpose and self-definition, splendid things to be sure, but about which my bank’s mortgage broker is indifferent. As far as it goes, I’ve been well compensated for my vocation, but the ceiling to my earnings will forever remain modest.

At least compared with Tiger Woods, the billionaire icon and subject of a 2021 docuseries I watched recently. I paid special attention to the myth of his parents and the cultivation of his talent. And as I watched my daughter play last weekend, I mulled the odds of transforming her into an athletic prodigy – one who would rain great glory and treasure upon our home in ways inaccessible to me.

In our small garden I handed my daughter her foam ball, the one garishly patterned with Disney princesses. And as I held hoops, and crouched for catches, I studied her throwing technique. I did not like what I saw. Spasmodic, lurching – I was astonished by how singular each throw was, how wildly idiosyncratic. There was no consistency of technique; the only constant was her beautiful laughter. Her arm was straight at times, then crooked. She threw overarm, then under. Sometimes, pleasingly, she stepped forward onto her right foot; sometimes she was planted clumsily. She was uncaring about balance and her eye was often unglued from its target. Frankly, it was a mess – her only concern seemed to be her own delight.

While I consider my daughter to be both a prodigy of charm and theatrical temper – and intuitively skilled at deploying both to compel me to yield to her will – I am yet to witness any athletic precocity. Certainly, she’s quick, tireless and impressively elastic. But no more, I suspect, than the average four-year-old.

Perhaps now’s the time to begin unearthing, and then harnessing, her athletic genius. Perhaps it was yesterday. Because against the benchmark of Tiger Woods, she should already be performing preternatural feats – and I should be profiting from the viral videos and morning talk show appearances. It needn’t be golf – in fact, I’d prefer that it wasn’t. Ideally a team sport, globally revered and dripping with money.

The popular origin story of Tiger Woods was for a time one of the world’s most famous and influential parenting fables. It goes like this: at seven months old, Tiger’s father, Earl, gave his only child a putter to cling to in the pram. At two, Tiger had developed a spooky swing – while his kindergarten teachers expressed concern that he was insufficiently interested in other forms of play. As a boy, Tiger’s father would heckle him on the links to better harden him to pressure, and conscript a psychoanalyst to teach Tiger how to hypnotise himself. By 21, Tiger was the best player in the world. 

In baby Tiger, there mysteriously appeared the suggestion of a supreme talent. But for it to be triumphantly realised, it required the obsessive attentions of his parents and the militant focus of the son. And so it was. In 1997, Woods became the youngest and the first non-white winner of the United States Masters Tournament – and he did so with a historic margin of victory that’s untouched today.

Oprah swooned, Nike found another golden goose, and several books, with titles such as In Every Kid There Lurks a Tiger, were published for parents who aspired to develop their own prodigies. The phenomenon of Tiger Woods offered lucrative sporting and parental inspiration. And something grander and more transcendent: “Tiger has Thai, African, Chinese, American Indian and European blood,” his mother, Kultida, said after the victory. “He can hold everyone together. He is the Universal Child.”

The prophet had arrived and his parents’ decision to mortgage their son’s childhood for future glory seemed vindicated. It may well have also contributed to a deeply unpleasant individual. Tiger Woods is a historic talent. He’s also a dull and eerily vacant man of chilling self-absorption; a man whose emotional keel and appetites were arrested around puberty; a suspicious loner, incapable of even the most perfunctory politeness, who has spent his professional career ruthlessly culling from his life people he felt were surplus to requirements.

Was this surprising from a man whose own father had proclaimed, after the Masters win, that “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.”

It wasn’t surprising to me. Nor was the fact that this obsessively driven and determinedly apolitical man had found weird and burdensome his emergence as a symbol of “post-racial America” for those wanting easy proof of the righteousness and perfectibility of the Land of the Free.

In 2009, in the street of his Florida mansion, Tiger Woods ploughed his SUV through several hedges and a fire hydrant before it stopped violently against a tree. You probably know the rest of the story. The crash, and Woods’ caution for reckless driving, unspooled a long, breathless series of articles on his prodigious infidelities. Divorce followed and several sponsors broke up with him too.

I didn’t care then, and I can’t summon the interest now, to dot point the tawdriness. What’s interesting, though, was how sustained and lurid the media interest was: for precisely three weeks, the front page of the New York Post ran stories about Woods’ affairs. I thought it said much more about the media, and the public appetites that sustain it, than it did about Tiger. Here, after all, was the “perfect” story: a prophet, corporate avatar and cultural paragon of self-discipline was found to be much messier than promised.

The hysterical creation then breathless dismantling of athletic myths is a recurring feature of our culture. The perversity here is that we couldn’t see one “Tiger” as being related to the other: that the indulgent and selfishly deceitful genius was not a betrayal of his Zen-like focus and mastery but a product of that very sacrificial obsessiveness. The brilliant “Universal Child” was an unusually cosseted man.

In 2009, Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce, who had written well about Tiger from before ’97, wrote: “Tiger’s People at the International Management Group visibly got the vapours if you even implied anything about [women]. However, from that moment on [the 1997 Masters win], the marketing cocoon around him became almost impenetrable. The Tiger Woods that was constructed for corporate consumption was spotless and smooth, an edgeless brand easily peddled to sheikhs and shakers.”

In the interview where Earl Woods had promised his son would alter the history of humanity like no man before, he had also compared Tiger to Gandhi. The great man’s father had a talent for hype. Of Gandhi, Orwell wrote: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

Tiger was not a saint but a flawed genius whose specific talent was first sold as beatific by unusually ambitious parents and then by interested companies. But we love fairytales. Towards the end of his life, in interviews with Charles P. Pierce, Earl Woods disavowed the “messianic myths” he’d once cultivated. I wondered if this applied to the myths of his parenting.

 

My daughter hurled and panted and spun. She threw the ball deep into the bushes, giggled, and then proposed impractical ways for us to recover it. Happily, I played along. When we’re like this, when we’re joined in the camaraderie of our silliness, there is nothing else but the moment. Nothing more than the pleasure of this. There is no conscious decision to “make memories”; no attempt to create future glory. Besieged by anxiety about both my past and my future, this unthinking surrender to the present is glory enough.

I wrote this piece because of something beautiful I read. It comes from a trilogy of plays Tom Stoppard wrote about 19th-century Russian radicals. It’s titled The Coast of Utopia, and if there’s a hero, it’s Alexander Herzen. In 1851, Herzen’s mother and young child, Kolya, were drowned when their ship sank. Kolya was seven, deaf and unable to speak.

Herzen wrote about this in his memoir My Past and Thoughts, which is now largely forgotten outside Russia. Stoppard adapts his words, spoken when a friend tries to console him on his loss: “Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up,” Stoppard’s Herzen says. “But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment … Life’s bounty is in its flow, later is too late.”

A child’s purpose is to be a child. And mine is to allow it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Hothouse powers".

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