Gandhi and Tiger Woods 

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
July 24 2000 11:30 PM

Gandhi and Tiger Woods 

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"Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity. … He is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations."—Earl Woods, Tiger's father

"Tiger has Thai, African, Chinese, American Indian, and European blood. He can hold everyone together. He is the Universal Child."—Kultida Woods, Tiger's mother

These quotes come from an article by Gary Smith published in Sports Illustrated three years ago. When I first read the article, and saw Earl Woods compare his son to Gandhi and the Buddha, I thought, "Now there's a proud papa! A wacky one, too." But now that Woods has established himself as—and shows signs of becoming the most dominant athlete in the history of sports—other golfers have started talking about him in mystical terms. "He is something supernatural," says Tom Watson, one of the game's greats. And I'm starting to have second thoughts myself. Though I still think Earl Woods suffers from doting parent's syndrome, I do believe that in several senses his son warrants consideration not just as an athlete but as someone of potentially political, even spiritual, significance.

Sense No. 1: Earl Woods, pressed to justify his belief that his son could have greater humanitarian influence than Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, or the Buddha, explained that Tiger "has a larger forum than any of them. Because he's playing a sport that's international." It's true: In the modern world—thanks to CNN, Nike, and so on—a superlative athlete can command global attention and can even cross national and cultural bounds in a way no political or religious leader can.

Of course, Woods won't be shifting his focus from the PGA to Middle East peace talks any time soon. But it would be interesting to see what happened if, years from now, he started dabbling in inspirational speaking, and ventured beyond themes of mere self-help; or just published a best-selling secrets-of-golf-and-life book that ventured there. Woods is clearly a thoughtful person who appreciates the need for intercultural understanding. His parents pioneered the racial integration of a California suburb, and on his first day in kindergarten some older boys threw rocks at him and called him "nigger" and "monkey." I doubt that Woods has transcended this type of personal history in as profoundly reflective a way as Gandhi, but he does seem to more or less follow the guidelines articulated by his father in that Sports Illustrated article:

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

[Y]ou don't turn it into hatred. You turn it into something positive. So many athletes who reach the top now had things happen to them as children that created hostility, and they bring that hostility with them. But that hostility uses up energy. If you can do it without the chip on the shoulder, it frees up all that energy to create.

Sense No. 2: It is common for golfers to stress how much of golf is mental—"a total head game"—but in a way the self-mastery required to reach Woods' level goes beyond the mental into the spiritual. I subscribe to the New Age Theory of Golf: To be a great golfer, you have to do what some Eastern religions stress—live in the present and free yourself of aspiration and anxiety. You can't be angry over a previous error or worried about repeating it, nor can you be dreaming of future glory. Gandhi used to say he tried to strive on "without fear of failure and without hope of success." I've always thought, on the basis of that quote alone, that Gandhi would have made a great golfer if only he'd spent more time at the driving range.

Sure, Tiger Woods has his share of aspirations, and they are what keep him practicing so hard. But once he tees off in a tournament, they vanish; he has talked often about the importance of "staying in the present" and not letting your mind wander to the victory putt on the 18th hole. (Earl Woods on present-mindedness: "Time is just a linear measurement of successive increments of now. Any place you go on that line is now, and that's how you have to live it.")

Sense No. 3: There is another dimension of present-mindedness and another sense in which some great golfers go beyond the merely "mental." In fact, they even achieve a kind of triumph over thought. Though thinking is vital to hole-by-hole strategizing and the year-round honing of your swing, when the moment comes to actually execute your swing, conscious thought is the enemy of success. At the moment of impact, various golf philosophers have held, your mind should be empty—you should be focused on the task at hand in a kind of nonverbalizable way. Many golfers are good at this sort of unconscious concentration, but the utter consistency with which Tiger Woods seems to achieve it almost does qualify him as supernatural. (Robert Cullen, author of the new book Why Golf?, has opined that many pros could drive the ball as far as Woods if they swung as hard, but if they swung that hard they couldn't hit it straight with his consistency. That difference, I submit, is a matter of mind control.)

This paradox—that utter present-mindedness involves a kind of willful mindlessness—is of course quite Eastern. In Zen meditation, one object of the game is to empty your mind of thought. Personally (as {{I've suggested before#79313}} in these pages), I think it's no coincidence that the greatest golfer in the history of the universe has a Buddhist mother. "I believe in Buddhism," Woods has said. "Not every aspect, but most of it. So I take bits and pieces. I don't believe that human beings can achieve ultimate enlightenment, because humans have flaws."

Speaking of flaws: One might ask what qualifies me to preach about meditation and golf. After all, I'm a demonstrably bad golfer and a complete failure at meditation. But that's the point: What makes me such a bad golfer—the constant intrusion of self-consciousness and thought, the utter lack of mind control—is what makes me such a bad meditator. In the empirical foundation of The New Age Theory of Golf, Tiger Woods is the experimental subject, and I am the control group. And a very good control group indeed, if I do say so myself.

Sense No. 4: One hallmark of spiritual maturity is unity of internal purpose—the subordination of the mind's unruly impulses to an overarching goal. On the golf course, as I've said, this involves a kind of micro-discipline: imperviousness to distraction on a second-by-second basis. But beyond the golf course, it involves a kind of macro-discipline; the structure of your everyday life has to serve the larger purpose of perfecting your game. "I like Buddhism because it's a whole way of being and living," Tiger said in the Sports Illustrated article. "It's based on discipline and respect and personal responsibility."

Discipline, respect, responsibility—now there's a guy who could become a major-league role model! And with Woods—unlike, say Michael Jordan—you get the feeling that a) he actually would be a pretty good role model, even if you observed him outside of the sports arena; and b) he actually wants to be a good role model and isn't just saying that to inflate his product-endorsement price tag. "Athletes aren't as gentlemanly as they used to be," he has said. "I don't like that change. I like the idea of being a role model. It's an honor. People took the time to help me as a kid, and they impacted my life. I want to do the same for kids." Woods likes the Asian side of his heritage because "Asians are much more disciplined than we are. Look how well-behaved their children are. It's how my mother raised me. You can question, but talk back? Never."

It is not crazy to suggest that Tiger Woods' discipline and unity of purpose—year-to-year, day-to-day, second-to-second—has been matched by only a few people, including Gandhi. Of course, the two men's goals differ. Gandhi was devoted to human understanding and world peace. Tiger is devoted to being the best ball-whacker ever. But give him time. Maybe he'll branch out.