Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Et tu, Hank?

“Golf can be taught,” that great American comedian and archetypal duffer Leslie Nielsen (Airplane, The Naked Gun) once quipped, “It just can’t be learned.”
That hasn’t kept golf instruction from becoming a multibillion dollar business.   The likes of Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler – self-taught pros with funky homespun swings – have become rare exceptions.  Every other pro seems to have been coached from the cradle.  Their grooved swings are as bland as a vanilla milkshake at the clubhouse grill.  The most famous golf teachers have become celebrities in their own right.  David Ledbetter and others command profitable empires of videos, books, academies, and Golf Channel appearances.   Even we amateurs no longer “play” golf.   We’re supposed to “work” on our games with the right drills, instructional apps, and guidance from of our teaching pro with his taped video camera feedback.   
It remains golf’s greatest illusion to think we can revolutionize our game with just a few small adjustments.   We’re convinced, as the wry golf writer Herbert Warren Wind already observed a half century ago, that by modifying the way “we bend our left knee” or “position our right thumb” that “even-par scores will be no trouble at all.”  That eternal hope of getting it right, if only for a day, is part of the game’s allure.   Golfers are like Coyote.  We’re always ready to chase after the Roadrunner again no matter that we know that our game will likely blow up somewhere along the way before we can grab that juicy low score.
No less a golfing god than Tiger Woods turns out to share the hacker’s illusion about the possibility of perfection.   He’s now reinventing his game for the third time, with a third instructor.  His swing has become golf’s most famous science experiment.  One wonders, of course, whether Tiger might play better if he stopped worrying so much about his downswing plane angle, right shoulder tilt, and other arcana, and instead just hit the ball.  But Tiger, so unique in other ways, has the mentality of Joe Duffer in hoping that his latest swing makeover will change everything. 
We get an insider’s look at Tiger’s struggles in Hank Haney’s The Big Miss.   Thanks in no small part to Jaime Diaz’s fine ghostwriting, the book is a great read, and high on the bestseller lists.   Haney himself comes across as a man of many contradictions.   He affects an aw-shucks, Mr. Nice Guy persona, and yet clearly loved the limelight of being Tiger’s teacher (and has busily milked it with his dreadful “The Haney Project” on the Golf Channel and now this book).  He claims not to be defensive about comparisons with his predecessor, Butch Harmon, but includes a long appendix supposedly showing that Tiger did just as well under his tutelage.  And Haney professes admiration for Tiger, while depicting his former employer as cold, selfish, and arrogant -- and a cheapskate to boot.  With friends like Haney, as they say, Tiger doesn’t need enemies; he has his share of those already between his jilted caddies and mistresses.
My favorite moment is the tale of the popsicles   According to Haney, when he’d stay with Tiger, they’d watch tv in the evenings.  Tiger would sometimes fetch a popsicle from the freezer during commercial breaks.   Not once, Haney reports, did the golfing god ever offer to bring one for his houseguest.   Haney admits it may sound petty to make much of this, and, in fact, it does a bit.   But it’s just another example of what Haney judges to be Tiger’s rudely imperious self-centeredness, not to mention his banal alpha male obsession with hardcore military training and always having the upper hand.  The Big Miss is the doorman’s revenge, Haney’s payback for the poor way he felt Tiger treated him while Haney collects some hefty book royalties in the bargain.  It’s not a flattering portrait of Woods.
Golfwise, Haney recounts Tiger constantly mulling over swing mechanics.  When his teacher made suggestions, he’d accept some, dismiss others.   Clearly, Tiger, like the rest of us, enjoys fiddling with his swing, and the pleasure that comes with the prospect of fixing something broken and imagining that our best still lies ahead.   And yet, of course, the former Zeus of the golf world must also hate it that his powers have diminished at least for now; he seems to hold himself to a standard of perfection that may now be more hindrance than asset in his quest to regain his divine form.  It was Tiger’s pursuit of something yet better that led to his split with Haney.   Now he has still another coach, Sean Foley, and one wonders how long this one will last.  Coaching Tiger is like being one of Henry VIII’s wives, an uncertain proposition that can end on the chopping block.    
I recall a story about Giotto, a genius of the paintbrush and not the fairways.  To pick a painter for a large Vatican commission, the Pope sent messengers to Italy’s most famous Renaissance artists for a sample of their best work.   Giotto, when the emissary arrived to his Florence studio, pulled out a sheet of paper, drew a perfect circle on it, and then handed it to the man.  Is this all, the puzzled courier asked?  Take it to your master, replied Giotto, and he’ll understand.   And the Pope, indeed amazed that Giotto had drawn such a circle by his eye alone, awarded him the commission. 
But even Giotto, also an architect, surely knew that it’s actually impossible to draw a circle that’s truly faultless down to the very last millimeter.  He sent his off to the Pope anyway.
What you can do with your own astonishing talent, if you’re a Giotto or a Tiger Woods, may be close enough to perfect to proceed without worrying too much about it.
I’m not sure Tiger has quite learned the same lesson.



A bit of promotion: my new book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal is now available in print and for Kindle and other e-readers.

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