Tiger's birthday brings more speculation than celebration


On Sunday, I woke up and checked Twitter, which is sort of a reflex impulse these days. When used as a news and information source, the tool can provide a personal feed complete with facts you want and largely devoid of those which hold little interest. It's like watching the nightly news, but fast-forwarding through the parts you don’t need.

In this instance, I was immediately reminded that Dec. 30 is Tiger Woods' birthday. He turned 37 on Sunday.

Rather than supportive shouts of, 'Happy birthday!' or playful jabs at being over the hill, the mass reaction to this milestone was speculation as to how it will factor in his long-term career goals.

(To be fair, I'm not complaining about that. An entire feed of birthday wishes would probably be cause for more than a few unfollows. Remember: Twitter is all about customizing your own news and information. I’ll take analysis and debate over puffed up pasturage any day.)

I was initially met with tweets from fellow journalists in the golf community who took the occasion to compare Woods' career accomplishments before 37 with those of Jack Nicklaus. And more importantly, reminders of what the man he's chasing accomplished after this point in his life.

It turns out Nicklaus won four majors once turning 37 – one of each – so the unwritten logic not so subtly suggests that Woods must win more majors at a later age if he hopes to pass the major championship record of 18.

And yes, that's been a long-standing career goal, commenced not long after Tiger first took a few whacks on The Mike Douglas Show a mere 35 years ago. Just ask him, because it seems like everyone else has over the past three-and-a-half decades. He wants one record more than any other in his career, and that’s to pass the man whose poster adorned his bedroom wall as a child.

Personal goals are what give each of us the motivation and inspiration to continue improving on a daily basis. It’s when those personal goals become the expectations of others that the lines become blurred. Among his many philosophical musings, the innovative martial artist Bruce Lee often used to say, “I'm not in this world to live up to your expectations and you're not in this world to live up to mine.”

I was reminded of this quote upon reading the statistically based reactions to Woods’ birthday. His entire career – with 74 career PGA Tour victories and 14 major titles – has been broken down to one simple, and so far, unanswerable question: Will he or won’t he? As in, will Woods pass Nicklaus and be remembered as the greatest golfer of all-time, or will he fail to meet his stated goal and come up agonizingly short?

The debate makes for great 19th hole fodder, especially because neither opinion can be proven wrong until he’s no longer competitive. But it also serves as a sad commentary on how we view superstars. Being great isn’t good enough; failing to be the best is still failure.

Think about it this way: If you were, statistically speaking, the second-greatest doctor or plumber or insurance salesman of all-time, wouldn’t you consider that a successful career? Well, what if you had told everyone that you only wanted to be the greatest, that anything less was failure? And what if, instead of celebrating your accomplishments, those around you only speculated as to whether you would ever fulfill that lifelong goal?

It’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who is, at the very worst, the second-best golfer ever from a statistical standpoint, but it can’t be easy living with the constant pressure – both internally and from external sources – over reaching that goal of becoming the best.

With each candle that is added to Woods’ birthday cake, and each year that passes with the odometer stuck on 14, (he’s gone four straight now) Dec. 30 becomes a day less for celebration and more for speculation. It becomes another reminder that time is no longer on his side, that even matching Nicklaus’ career from here on in will leave him with “only” 18 major championships.

For a man who has so clearly set his sights on 19 to pass him, second place is the first loser – a notion Woods has often reminded us about when finishing runner-up at specific tournaments. It’s gotten to the point, though, where so much debate about his future has turned into a caricature of our society. Only one person can claim the title of best ever, but that shouldn’t relegate everyone else to the position of failure, no matter their stated goals.

Even so, people on Twitter and other sources used Woods’ birthday as a platform for further speculation about the most speculative question in the game today. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering he placed such lofty expectations on himself before the masses also wielded this anticipation.

For most, birthdays are reason for revelry and jubilation, with a hint of ennui toward turning a year older mixed in for good measure. For Woods – and for those of us who follow his career – it’s another reminder that with each year that passes, he’s either closer to reaching his goal or closer to coming up short. That’s a hell of a burden to have to bear.

As one person tweeted to me Sunday morning, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Perhaps that bit of Shakespearean wisdom could be amended to he who chases a crown, as well.