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Woods and Wie: Is love what they're missing?

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More than perhaps any current or former tour pro I’ve known over the years, Brandel Chamblee is a thinker, a man of introspect and observational intellect. Now that he’s a Golf Channel analyst, your opinion of his opinions is none of my business, nor do I care for it to be, but as a colleague of Chamblee, I consider his voice a refreshing departure from many of those who once played the game for a living.

Something Chamblee said after Tiger Woods’ second-round loss at Dove Mountain has stuck to me like a tribe of cactus thorns: “There’s a difference between doing something for the joy of it and doing it to prove yourself right.” If it was nothing more than a snapshot assessment of Woods’ current string of woes, Chamblee’s take on the New Tiger was profound – more than heavy enough to spur my own thoughts as to whether loving the game is requisite to playing it at the highest level.

I certainly would believe so, although I have never fired a final-round 63 or cashed a winner’s check large enough to purchase a six-bedroom house. What I do know is, the Guy Who Never Missed a Putt He Had To Make pushed a 5-footer on the 18th green to lose to Nick Watney, and a day later, Michelle Wie shot 81 in the second round of the LPGA gathering in Singapore.

Wie would finish the week 22 over par, 32 strokes out of a four-woman playoff. For those who don’t see the connection, I see two of the world’s most famous golfers – one of them historically successful, the other a monumental underachiever – struggling not so much with expectations, but a sense that the relentless burden has surpassed their desire.

That isn’t to say the battle can’t be reversed, although I am far more inclined to believe Woods will find his way back to greatness before Wie discovers her competitive inner fire. Having met the young lady in Honolulu a couple of months after her 13th birthday, one thing clear from the outset was that she played golf because she was supposed to, because she was so good at it, not because she had this overwhelming urge to play. Her success would become a means to an end and define her life with a purpose, which isn’t a bad thing unless that purpose is defined by someone else.

Sure, lots of kids feel the avalanche of parental pressure, but in Wie’s case, there was a fleeting rise to fame – a head-spinning peak of performance when potential was all she had. Before we knew it, she was competing against grown men at the game’s highest level, trying to climb a mountain that couldn’t be scaled. Nowadays, even the plateaus have become difficult to navigate.

So she turned pro and went off to college, an oxymoronic career path which stated Wie’s independence and satisfied the business sensibilities of all the pilots around her. Perhaps this is the best of both worlds, so to speak, with one providing a built-in excuse as to why she wasn’t excelling in the other. It makes perfect sense that Wie loves the Solheim Cup. In a team event with emphasis on the group, not individual performance; Michelle found comfort in the crowd. She found a place to hide.

A longtime member of the Wie camp once told me the girl didn’t play a round of golf without her parents watching until shortly before she enrolled at Stanford. It’s hard enough to wrestle the alligator that is greatness. Imagine trying to do it while mommy and daddy control your limbs with strings from above. In retrospect, I don’t think B.J. and Bo Wie had any idea their constant presence was feeding the beast that has become the anti-champion in their daughter.

They say what you don’t know can’t hurt you. I say no mulligans, partner.

In Tiger’s case, golf isn’t so much a chore as it is a proving ground – a forum. If you won 14 major titles in 12 years with two of the game’s most renowned swing coaches, what on earth would compel you to blow up the bridge? More than ego, Woods seems to consider it his God-given privilege to be “correct.”  He’s too preoccupied with technique, otherwise known as the Wrong Side of Town for a guy with perhaps the greatest competitive instincts in golf history.

And what’s even worse, people still seem to buy into every explanation Woods offers. Many couldn’t stop drooling after Eldrick got up and down from a bunker to salvage his first-round match against Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. Are you kidding me? A short-sided 9-iron into the sand with the game on the line, and we’re heralding his grit?

By the end of his match against Watney, Tiger was a cat with all nine lives in the rear-view mirror. He said he’d been pushing his putts all day. Why not aim a little more left? The irons he keeps hitting too far – is it the vengeful emergence of several random factors or the somewhat obvious perception that he’s just not sharp? Still, plenty of folks buy in. They anticipate the reappearance of Tiger 2000 or even 2006 while loading their shotguns with rounds of I-Told-You-So.

Maybe golf made Woods famous, and maybe that fame bit him on the backside. Maybe his backside still hurts. Maybe Chamblee was right. Arnold Palmer, an icon for whom high-profile failure became a significant element in his career, still plays giggle golf with the fellas, forever embracing the challenge of a game that didn’t always hug him back. Jack Nicklaus, meanwhile, headed in another direction, not so much bowing to his uncompromising competitive standards, but finding other ways to appease it.

There’s no law that says you have to love golf to be the best at it, but then, “love” is one of those four-letter words that means a lot of things to a lot of different people.

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