We gather here ostensibly to discuss the future and Tiger Woods' place in it. As in, "How's this Tiger thing going to play out?"
It's a fair question. It is certainly an intriguing question.
Alas, it's the wrong question.
When it comes to Woods and the future, it seems to me that the right question to ask is simply what constitutes motivation in the great athletes -- for, at this point, only a sudden absence of motivation is going to keep Woods from an epic second decade of golf.
|Ten Years of Tiger|
|This week marks the 10-year anniversary of Tiger Woods' professional debut. ESPN.com looks back on the last decade of his life -- and what the future might hold -- in this five-part series.|
Jordan is an interesting comparison. When he ascended, Jordan and Nike essentially created the new model for the athlete/business mogul, with zeros and commas attached to endorsements heretofore unthinkable, and controversy thus something to be either handled or avoided altogether.
Jordan appeared to strive to be neither strongly for nor strongly against anything, really. It was difficult to tell what he stood for, other than playing a great game and hawking product with a wink and a smile. There is no question that such an approach served him brilliantly, to the tune of tens and then scores of millions of dollars.
But Jordan was still bound by desire, by his motivation. It was that pure fire that fans connected with, first and last. Whether Michael walked away from the NBA the first time around or was pushed, the larger truth is, he couldn't stay out. The competitive drive was that strong, and even when it eventually left him awkwardly playing out the string in Washington (that was his third time around, after the pair of NBA championship three-peats in Chicago), it felt forgivable. If the worst anyone could say about Jordan as a player was that he just couldn't give it up, that's acceptable as epitaph.
I wonder, at this point, whether there is anything left out there that could lessen the killer motivation for excellence in Woods, one that burns at least as white-hot as did MJ's. If it helps, though, go back through the things that might already have derailed this golf prodigy.
He had $40 million in endorsements before playing his first PGA Tour event. He won his first major, The Masters, in his second year out. He could quit tomorrow and still be argued as one of the greatest talents of the age. He married a model. He took his business interests global, diversified in a way that would almost encourage him to spend way too much attention on them. He suffered the deteriorating health of his father and, finally, Earl Woods' death earlier this year.
But nothing stops the train. Woods has essentially remade himself as a golfer twice, breaking down the most-watched swing in the sport at the risk of ... well, of everything, right? In each instance, Woods sacrificed short-term winning for long-term domination, but each time he did so with no guarantee of the outcome other than that if it failed, he could always go back to what he was doing before. The thing is, Tiger Woods doesn't really do going back.
He goes forward. He is going forward now. If he hasn't yet taken the opportunity to loosen his belt a notch and kick back on the patio, it's hard to imagine what in the near future would cause him to suddenly change his ways.
(Fatherhood? Sure, it's possible. Of course, Jordan had kids, as did Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer, and so on. You don't get far arguing that family compromises motivation in sports. It can, but it isn't necessarily so.)
Though the two probably don't have much in common, I think of Steve Young sometimes when Woods' wealth gets thrown around in the conversation -- the idea that, at some point, Tiger will just have so much that he can't find a compelling reason to head out the door and onto the golf course.
Young, a descendant of Brigham Young, had family money and a $40 million guaranteed contract before he ever took a snap in the NFL, the product of his deal, coming out of college, with the old USFL. After that, Young quarterbacked the awful Tampa Bay Bucs, then was traded to the 49ers and spent several seasons holding a clipboard for Joe Montana.
None of it put out the flame. Nothing stopped the train. Young just kept coming, and when his time with the 49ers finally arrived, he made a Hall of Fame stand of it. He could've quit any number of times along the way and gone on to a rich and varied life. The guy just really wanted to excel at the sport.
Tiger Woods' future? It's pure gold, but you already knew that. Barring some freak physical setback, he is going to take down every significant record in golf. He'll catch Nicklaus in the majors hunt, and he might well push that record out beyond imagination. He will solidify his standing as one of the elite athletes of the age. And all of the above, no matter how outrageous it sounds standing alone, is nothing compared with what his deep-rooted motivation already has produced.
"He's playing in his own tournament out there, isn't he?" Ireland's Padraig Harrington once noted, watching Woods carve up the field at Pebble Beach. It goes on for exactly as long as Tiger wants it to. In that respect, everybody else is still playing for second.
Mark Kreidler's book, "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland," is available from HarperCollins in January 2007. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org