Of Tigers and Outliers

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Of Tigers and Outliers

Sunday, 05 May 2019 | Sidharth Dang

Of Tigers and Outliers

Since 2009, Tiger Woods has seen his reputation severely tarnished amidst a sex scandal that led to divorce, been addicted to painkillers causing his arrest, and dropped out of the world’s top 1,000 golfers. Overcoming these obstacles, he recently won his fifth Masters — 14 years after he last put on the Green Jacket — and that makes his comeback all the more awe-inspiring, writes Sidharth Dang

I used to hate golf. I absolutely despised it being shown on the telly. I couldn’t imagine why people take something so boring so seriously and call it a sport. I don’t even know why I got clicked with Tiger Woods at Madame Tussauds when I clearly didn’t know enough to admire him or the legacy he was creating at that time. Then I grew up. Last month was pivotal in the history of golf, in more ways than one. Tiger Woods winning his fifth Masters, 14 years after he last put on the Green Jacket, 11 years after last winning a Major is nothing short of extraordinary, poetic, superlative, and a touch redemptive. Let’s put this into perspective. Since 2009, he has seen his reputation severely tarnished amidst an infidelity scandal followed by divorce with his Swedish wife, Elin Nordegren, had four back and two knee surgeries, been addicted to painkillers causing his arrest for suspected driving under influence, dropped out of the world’s top 1,000 golfers, amongst many other obstacles that makes this comeback all the more awe-inspiring. When we talk of huge comebacks in the history of sport — not just golf — this will rank as one of, if not the best.

Peyton Manning is talked about in the great comebacks conversation after he endured multiple neck surgeries and was dumped by the Colts but had a late career revival in Denver; an MVP award in 2013 and a Super Bowl title in 2015. Monica Seles was the youngest French Open champion at 16 years of age and the youngest Number 1 in world rankings at that time. She had already won eight Grand Slams before her 20th birthday. Then when she was at her peak, she was stabbed in a bizarre incident on court by a deranged Steffi Graf fan, narrowly missing her spinal cord and organs. But the damage was done psychologically. Seles had to battle depression and eating disorder before returning to the court after two years. She was never the same player again but to even come that far, winning the Canadian Open in 1995 and the Australian Open in 1996, was a laudable achievement.

Niki Lauda had already won one World Championship Title in Formula One racing in 1975. In his second in 1976, his Ferrari swerved off track, hit an embankment, burst into flames and made contact with Brett Lunger’s Ford. Unlike Lunger, Lauda was trapped in the wreckage and suffered severe degree burns to his head and inhaled hot toxic gases, damaging his lungs and blood. Although he was conscious in the immediate aftermath, he later slipped into a coma. Six weeks later, he was behind the wheel at the Italian Grand Prix. Lauda would go on to win two more championship titles before retiring.

Muhammad Ali, widely regarded as the “greatest of all time”, was stripped of his title and suspended for three years after he refused to serve in the US Army during the Vietnam War. His comeback against the undefeated Joe Frazier in the match dubbed as “the fight of the century” ended in his first ever professional loss. He would go on to beat Frazier in a rematch. Then came the much awaited Thrilla in Manila in 1975. Frazier and Ali were both geared up for this, Frazier desperately needing a win for his comeback but Ali would not be denied by him a second time. Ali went on to win that dramatic 14 round fight (the 15th was stopped as Frazier’s eyes were swollen shut and he was badly beaten) and Ali kept fighting till 1981.

Woods, though, was reluctant to claim it was even the best comeback in his own sport. He points to Ben Hogan, who won the US Open a year and a half after nearly dying in a car crash. He does have a point. But the comparisons of comebacks in different sports across different eras is not to diminish one’s significance or impact from the other. It is only to laud the most recent one keeping the others in mind. What separates the story of Tiger Woods from others is that he not only suffered physically but mentally. Of course, any physical injury has its psychological repercussions. But the grit and determination to come out of so many and emerge a winner yet again cannot be understated.

In a multicultural consumerist society like the US that the whole world still pretty much aspires to model itself on, a win like this is monumental keeping in mind the brand value of Tiger Woods before he was stripped of all endorsements following his promiscuity revelations. A win like this changes everything. It’s a literal game changer in every sense of the term. From the way people look at golf to golf as a brand equity itself. In a time when majority of the American intelligentsia is debating and regretting the election results while still reminiscing about the last President, who was incidentally black, Tiger Woods has given them another reason to be proud by coming up “trumps”.

A win like this is astronomical because a win like this transcends sport. With all due respect to the other golfers devoid of such ups and downs in life, a win for any of them would never have generated this kind of hoopla. The fact that we know all about Tiger Woods without knowing the difference between a birdie and a bogey is what makes us sit up and take notice. It’s what instantly puts him and the whole of golf right back on the map.

The news of Tiger Woods winning another Masters hit me in three stages. First was that of shock. I was (and I’m sure many of you were too) genuinely surprised to see him not only competing amongst the best but beating everyone again to be the best. After all, that’s occurred. After all that’s passed. After all that he must’ve faced. After all those nights he must’ve spent waiting for this fine day. I cannot even fathom the turmoil that must’ve gone through that mind of his. Just like I couldn’t fathom hearing what all he had done to put himself in that position. But I came to a realisation that people like him aren’t mere mortals. And maybe, just maybe, that’s the reason they don’t have flaws like the rest of us; something akin to a Greek tragedy. Their flaws are tragic and fatal. They’re capable of extraordinary things in their field of specialty. They always have that extra mile in them, whatever the circumstances. And like any other Greek tragedy, their story has the element of fate centred around them.

Speaking of fate and the role it has to play in the making or breaking of a genius, Malcolm Gladwell reiterates over and over in his book, The Outliers, that there are no geniuses in this world, just people who happened to be in the right place at the right time. In his words, “No one — not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses — ever makes it alone.” Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, the Beatles etc all had vision and talent, but they were successful only because of a certain turn of events that went in their favour. Gladwell notes that success “is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky”. But for that rub of the green (the phrase ironically originating from golf) to even work, you have to have the building blocks in place first — namely talent, hard work, and an undying will to succeed.

Tiger Woods had everything as do most champions in any sport. But what makes his story unique is that he was brutally brought down from his pedestal when the scandal broke out. He wasn’t the god of golf anymore. He was the proverbial Greek god. Suddenly, he had everything to lose again and had to start from scratch. To do that at this age is what makes his comeback all the more commendable.

At the end, it all comes down to man’s inherent drive to be the best. To be better than the rest. And you can’t inculcate that drive. Another thing I was shocked about (albeit pleasantly) was the kind of reaction he is receiving. It’s almost as if everyone has forgiven him for doing the wrongs he did. He has paid the price. He has spent his time in hell. And now it’s his time to shine. But why was I surprised that people reacted so positively in the first place? Which brings me to the second thing that hit me: Happiness.

Everyone wants to identify with your success but never your failure. I’ve seen that all too well from close quarters. Failure is an integral part of the success equation. By identifying in the phenomenon of a successful comeback, we are in some way relating it to our own journey. His victory is somehow our victory. His win is somehow our hope. And his story is somehow our source of happiness. People want to identify with your story because that makes it more real, more tangible. And there’s nothing more relatable than the raw emotion of a comeback. There’s a reason why the Manchester United gathered an extraordinary fan following in terms of numbers in the Nineties and Noughties. It’s because their golden period of comebacks coincided with the stratospheric rise in TV coverage and Premier League revenues. More the number of exploits from the undisputed “comeback kings” (Liverpool fans would argue otherwise), more the viewers developed an affinity for the club and hence more the fan following. It’s not as if comebacks weren’t being accomplished before or after that era. It’s just that in this case, they happened to be the ‘outlier’, the club at the right place at the right time.

But all that is okay. The real question is how do these individuals muster up the courage, the determination, the same intensity and mindset to be able to compete at the same level and win against all odds? The answer again lies with the Gladwell school of thought. They always had it. This was always part of the script. The falling down wasn’t. Once that was dealt with, coming back up was no doubt difficult but the most natural thing to do. It gave him hope. It gave him purpose. It gave him his raison d’être.

In the words of Gladwell himself: “There is something profoundly wrong with the way we look at success. We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.”

Eldrick Tont Woods, nicknamed Tiger,  was always the outlier from the very start: A child prodigy who was introduced to golf before the age of two by his athletic father, Earl Woods. He already had the proverbial ‘10,000 hours’ under his belt way before he started competing professionally. And although the 10,000-hour rule is more fiction than fact, it does hold significance. It does give you pointers. It does give you the extra edge before anyone else. He was an outlier not only in terms of being an early starter and having the kind of resources and golf courses only few could afford, he was also the outlier in terms of when he was born. Augusta barred African American players from the Masters until 1975. Augusta National had no black members until 1990. Tiger Woods’ birth year? Yep, 1975. He didn’t have to deal with the racial barriers, the death threats, the prejudice. He started his career when all of that had been a thing of the past and golf was ready to usher in the era of the greatest African American to ever grace the sport. Was all this a coincidence? Fate. The rub of the green. Outlier.

The third and last emotion that hit me was that of belief and inspiration. His story gave me the motivation to get up from the tangles of misfortune I find myself in. Every comeback victory has a certain human element attached to it. Everyone loves a rags to riches story, a come from behind victory, an underdog turnaround, an inspiring feat to talk about. In more ways than one, Tiger Woods was all of them. His reputation was in tatters, his health was nowhere near the previous standards, he was already being tagged a “former golfer”, his comeback attempt was written off before he even started, no one gave him a chance of competing in the Masters again. But did it matter though? And more importantly, should it matter? What the world thinks of you shouldn’t come in the way of your “personal legend”, as Paulo Coelho calls it. Because if it does, you’ll never achieve it. And then the world will have one less inspiring thing to talk about. “You never give up,” says Woods. “That’s a given. You always fight. Just giving up is never in the equation.”

The writer is a doctor by profession and writer by passion