In the wake of Pat Perez’s comments on Tiger Woods, I have read more than a few pundits who seem to think that this kind of commentary is just what is missing in golf. Some even justify the remarks with the retort that he didn’t lie, that the game needs an infusion of this kind of “honesty," that players far too often speak in platitudes and in so doing, are partly to blame for the game’s failing to connect with a new, younger audience.
Having listened to countless pre-tournament, pre-round and postmortem news conferences I can admit to rolling my eyes a time or two when I hear someone say they need to "stay in the present" or that they are going to "take it one shot at a time." As a former player who has sat in that seat (though not as often as I would’ve liked) and been asked “those questions,” I can tell you that two things are going on in the player’s head.
First, good golf really is quite boring. You hit a driver in the fairway, a 7-iron to 12 feet and you make the putt. Of course the media would love it if a player said his lead was as safe as if it were in the arms of Jesus. Or that a romantic arrangement had been made with his wife, a quid pro quo of sorts, for every birdie made on Sunday and he could promise them a victory but it was going to be a short news conference afterward. As much as we all want to hear and the player wants to be Crash Davis, that's the fantasy; “Nuke” LaLoosh is closer to the reality.
Second, everything a player does in the media room is calculated to give him the best chance of playing well. If he's loose in there, it’s because he thinks it well help him. If he's tight-lipped, it’s because at some point in his career he was tight-lipped and played well. When you hear a player using a media member's name before he answers, as in “Well, Dan, that is a great question…” it’s because that rapport relaxes him and will make it easier on him somewhere down the road, hopefully the next day. When Tiger gave concise but often dispassionate responses it was because that had worked for him in the past and he likely thought it would work for him again.
An athlete’s genius rarely extends to the ability to explain exactly what he or she is doing, a subject that David Foster Wallace in his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” wrote about with an insight that should come as a disclaimer in every champion’s autobiography:
“It is not an accident that great athletes are often called 'naturals,' because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even – and, for the truly great ones like Borg and Bird and Nicklaus and Jordan and Austin, especially – under wilting pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two.”
“The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.”
Given that the conspicuous virtue of an athlete is his skill in the arena, why should we be so disappointed when they fail to give a parallel description of their genius, given that genius is so hard to define? Even the best, most brilliant of writers struggles for an explanation of what they’ve just seen.
Which brings me back to Pat Perez and his comments. Are we so starved at the lack of colorful comment or insight into an athlete that we accept his remarks as “fresh” or “shockingly honest”?
“[Tiger] knows he can’t beat anybody. But what he does, he’s got this new corporation that he’s started so he’s got to keep his name relevant to keep the corporation going. So he’s going to show up to a few events, he’s going to try to play, he’s going to show … the Monster bag, he’s going to show the TaylorMade driver, he’s going to get on TV. He’s got the Nike clothes, he’s got to keep that stuff relevant.”
What athlete isn’t playing to keep their name and “brand” relevant? The only reason Perez is playing golf is because he’s trying to be relevant and in being relevant he hopes to become massively rich. This comment wasn’t as much honesty as it was hypocrisy.
And in presuming to fathom what Tiger thinks, Perez says Woods knows he can’t beat anybody. Tiger won his first major by 12 shots and his 14th major with a broken tibia in his left leg and in between those two victories won four majors in a row. Those events would have a corrupting immortality in Tiger’s mind, such that even in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary, he would still harbor thoughts of sublimity. Even at half-speed. Even on one leg. Even with a bad back.
To think that this would have occurred to Perez is not asking the cognitive equivalent of his obscene talent (Pat is one hell of a player); it is merely asking that he think before he speaks, something that, I can attest to, is not always easy during a live broadcast. But when one has the time to reflect on what he said and then provide commentary, his remarks should not be confused for honesty or for being fresh or even compelling. They were an attempt at insight that had all the volume of a shotgun blast but as much accuracy as if the trigger were being pulled by Dick Cheney.