As prologue, I offer two anecdotes dealing with sporting champions of the past.
Jimmy Connors once said that there’s one thing real champions in ALL sports have in common:" They all hate losing. They HATE losing. A LOT more than they like winning. If you’re going to be a champion, you have to get sick to your stomach when you see some other son of a ___ holding up YOUR trophy."
A year or so before his death, I remember seeing the old Dodger pitcher, Don Drysdale, doing a TV interview. For most of the interview, Drysdale was charming, funny, warm, friendly, jolly… the quintessential nice guy. At long last, the interviewer noted Drysdale’s friendly, laid-back demeanor, and then asked him: Don, in your playing days, you were known as a headhunter, a MEAN pitcher, the type who’d knock down batters or even bean them with impunity. You seem like a genuinely nice guy. How did you get into a frame of mind where you could knock down or hit, say, Ernie Banks or Henry Aaron?
Now, remember that Drysdale had been retired a loooong time at this point…
Still smiling, Drysdale began to reminisce about his days with the Dodgers in the early 60s. “You have to remember,” he said, “that in my day, we didn’t make all that much money. So, I was always worrying about how I was going to afford the new house we were going to need as my kids got older… how I was going to afford to send my kids to college. For me, that World Series check wasn’t just a perk, I really NEEDED it. That World Series check was the difference between paying my mortgage and not, between sending my kids to college and not. ANd here comes Henry Aaron up to the plate. He’s trying to beat me. He’s trying to keep me out of the World Series. Damn it, that (expletive) is trying to keep my kids out of college. He wants my kids out on the street.”
I swear, though Drysdale hadn’t pitched professionall in about 20 years, you could see by the look in his face, he’d talked himself into hating Henry Aaron. Drysdale was ready to throw a high, hard one at Hank Aaron right then and there. He’d worked himself into a state where he viewed Hank Aaron as the scum of the Earth, as his mortal enemy. He HATED Aaron that moment enough to do ANYTHING to beat him.
Okay, that was a long intro, but I DO have a point. I firmly believe that, in order to become a champion, an athelete needs the two attributes I noted above. He needs a healthy hatred of losing, and of his opponents. He can be a nice guy in his private life, but when he’s playing, he has to hate losing and his opponents passionately.
In most sports, that attitude is common. In golf, however, historically, you’ve never seen that attitude. Historically, when a golfer has finished 3 or 4 shots off the lead at the Masters or the U.S. Open, he seemed reasonably pleased with himself. He’d say things like, “Well, I played well today. I made some shots, and put myself in a position to win.” That was the standard, old-school golf attitude- play your best, week in and week out, put yourself in a position to win every week, and every now and then, you’ll come in first.
That’s STILL the attitude you see on the PGA tour, for the most part. And that’s a BIG part of why Tiger Woods is so dominant. Yes, Tiger is physically talented, and works extremely hard. But I think what makes him so UTTERLY dominant is that he doesn’t think the way other pro golfers think.
When, say, Tom Kite finishes in third place, he may be a little disappointed that he didn’t win… but he DOESN’T feel as if he “lost”! He tells reporters, sincerely, that he’s pleased with the way he played, then showers and goes out to dinner.
I guarantee, though, that when Tiger Woods finishes in third, he’s livid with himself. He’s thinking, "Damn it, I LOST!!!’ He kicks his locker, then goes out on the putting green and practices a few more hours, so he won’t lose next week.
Not only do most pro golfers not share Tiger’s hatred of losing, almost none of them seem to hate Tiger himself… or if they do, they keep that very quiet. All go out of their way to say nice things about him. They almost seem tranquil about the way he stomps them… just the way African Olympic teams that played against the NBA stars in 1992 seemed pleased as punch when Michael Jordan scored on them!
Tiger is already immensely talented, highly disciplined, and one of the hardest workers in sport. He’d be tough to beat under ANY conditions… but he’s going to be impossible to beat, so long as the other players retain the old-school golf attitude. Tiger wants to win every time; the others hope to win occasionally.
That’s why I believe that NONE of the current pros will ever provide Tiger with the kind of rivalry we all want to see. EVENTUALLY, some years down the road, such a rival will come around… but it’s likely someone in high school right now. Someone too young to have absorbed the old-school golf mentality. It’s going to take someone who’s grown up watching Tiger, and shares his determination to win EVERY time.
And it will help if that someone grows up with a visceral dislike of Tiger.
No current player will ever be McEnroe to Tiger’s Borg, Frazier to Tiger’s Ali. When he FINALLY gets a worthy rival, it will be a much younger guy, one who’s been chomping at the bit for YEARS to kick Tiger’s backside.