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30 July 2015

There is more to Tiger Woods’s sad decline than the victory of body over mind

The story is familiar as a morality tale.

By Ed Smith

After failing to make the cut at the British Open this month, Tiger Woods vowed to “look at my numbers [to] see if my spin rates are on or not”. Instead of plunging into such arcane data analysis, one television commentator said, Woods might consider just playing a round of golf.

Yet Woods never “played” golf so much as bent it to his will, coercing the game into subordinate status. He was the least playful winner. He is now the least playful of losers. It wasn’t exactly fun on the way up. On the way down – Woods’s world ranking is projected to fall to 254th – it has been agony. Ask his fans (or his fellow professional golfers) what they admired about Woods in his pomp and they do not talk about an enviable swing or sweet ball-striking. They were in awe of his conviction, his certainty, the imposition of his will. He was a champion tyrant.

The twist is that there is no direct opponent in golf. You are playing against yourself. So the vanquished party, the object of Woods’s tyranny, was himself – his doubts and moments of uncertainty. Peak Woods was sport’s high-water mark of relentless psychological control. No wonder the corporate class lapped it all up. And now? Woods embodies everything that he once routinely defeated and gave the impression of looking down on: frailty, insecurity and introspection.

The central question about Woods has implications that go wider than sport. It applies to collapsing careers in all spheres. What was the first domino? Did Woods’s turmoil off the course cause his athletic ­decline? Or did his sporting problems lead to rage and personal disenchantment, even a subconscious desire to seek exposure and disgrace?

The story is familiar as a morality tale. Six years ago, Woods was locked into a double life. Publicly, he was happily married, apparently driving a dull estate car and entombed in a gated compound in Florida. Privately, it seems, he was addicted to sex and the fast lane. Though able to smile patiently through corporate photo shoots, he snapped easily in real life. Woods was winning not only at golf but also at deception. The greater the deception, the more credulous became the admiration.

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The public unravelling began in 2009 when he crashed into a fire hydrant after allegedly being chased out of the house by his wife. “The way his game has collapsed is inseparable from the night of the fire hydrant,” the American golf insider Tom Callahan argues. “There’s a conscience, a guilt, a lack of conviction about how special he is.”

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The idea of personal failings leading to professional collapse is a seductive narrative. There is another version of events, however. Just before his fall, Woods’s overtrained body was beginning to give way under the strain. House guests would be woken at 5.30am by the noise of the golfer pumping iron. Then critics questioned his methods in seeking to recover from a recurrent knee problem. He emerged from injury – at best, a partial recovery – with new shadows hanging over him.

These days, no longer able to count on either his body or his technique, Woods’s confidence is proving of little use to him. That should be no surprise. After too many dodgy tee shots, any sane mind will weary of the injunction, “This is the one: 320 yards, straight down the middle of the fairway.” Even the calmest marksman, having taken too many shots with a skewed barrel, will begin to doubt his aim. The body sends signals to the mind and vice versa. Faulty hardware can eventually crash the most sophisticated software.

Psychological explanations are interesting but inconclusive. We can only guess whether Woods, deprived of a normal childhood, wanted to escape the dual identity he had created for himself. Perhaps, instead of slowly extricating himself from the mess, it seemed easier for him to crash out with a bang.

We can be more certain that Woods’s crisis proves the limits of “mental toughness”. It has become a cliché of modern sport that the key to all triumphs is a strong mind. It is, in truth, necessary but far from sufficient. Brilliant players are usually mentally strong. Yet that resilience is also well founded in practical realities: given superior ability and technique, they have good reason to feel confident.

I’m currently commentating alongside Glenn McGrath, one of the finest fast bowlers ever to play cricket. McGrath’s outlook on the game is unfailingly clear and positive. It is as though the confused haze through which most careers are played out never settled on him. He kept trying to bowl the ball on a good length or just outside off stump and that’s what he did, with a consistency that no one has matched since.

Here is the crucial point. Besides his uncluttered mental approach, McGrath had a superb technique and a body well adapted for fast bowling. His biomechanics never let him down. Which came first? Did his wonderfully reliable technique flow from the clarity of his mind? Or did the repeatability of his technique ensure that his mind never became scrambled in the first place? In reality, the causal chain ran in both directions. Self-belief does not exist in a vacuum. Competence is confidence is competence.

When Woods was on the way up, his ­example was used to sell the corporate ­fantasy that the mind could completely rule the body. On his way down, we should not swallow the myth in reverse. It’s always a mix of everything, jumbled up and in ­constant interaction – body and mind, skill and technique – making a mysterious compound that determines both the good times and the bad.