We should never again mistake athletic perfectibility for human moral perfectibility, writes Nirmal Shekar

“JUST torture. Awful. [You] don’t want to do this to yourself.”

According to Avi Steinberg in the New Yorker, that is what Philip Roth said last year to an aspiring young novelist who had worshipped the master writer — and had just presented his debut novel to the man who, arguably, is the greatest American storyteller not to have won a Nobel prize for literature in the last half a century.

True to his word, Roth soon stopped writing. While it might be a great loss to the world of letters, I truly wish that decision has made him happy.

Torture

Golfers, especially some professional golfers, are a bit like Roth.

They often wish they had never taken to the sport, that they never had to go through the torture of altered swings, putts that simply wouldn’t sink and balls that would appear to be sworn enemies of the fairways.

And when you throw in devastating problems with personal lives, you can see how very awful it can turn out to be.

So it was for the man widely celebrated as the greatest golfer ever to lift a club in the game’s long history.

Surely, Tiger Woods never had to sit in a lonely suburban home and sweat bullets — read that blood if you wish — over an ageing typewriter. And failing at something quite as banal and quotidian as a golf swing is not quite the same as seeing a pile of crumpled papers in your dustbin after you have decided that the sentences simply don’t sing, simply don’t do their job.

Perhaps Roth was much more than a burnt-out old writer directing his inner cynicism at a much younger writer; or maybe he was merely telling us all the truth about what it takes to bare your soul on paper and the let the world judge you on the basis of your sentences and how much sense they make.

Or, quite simply, it is just that years upon years of stress had taken their toll on the great writer and he simply wanted so save the young man he met from such a life of self-torture.

William Faulkner, perhaps a kindred soul, commenting on novelists, wrote: “I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.”

What was once entirely possible — beating Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18 Major titles — might have seemed impossible, suddenly, not merely to Woods himself, but more importantly, to his rivals, some of whom might have just allowed themselves some schadenfreudian glee when the great man fell from his lofty perch.

Ladbrokes, the English bookmakers, would not have given even-money if you had bet on Tiger successfully crossing Nicklaus’ mark before he turned 40. But all that changed when The National Enquirer broke the most widely read sports story of the first decade of the new millennium in its issue dated November 25, 2009.

Transgressions

In a moment, all delusions of Tiger’s invincibility as a player and his fidelity and integrity as a human being were shattered — perhaps forever.

Or, so we thought for a long time. For, after those self-destructive transgressions, we believed we would never get a glimpse of the Tiger of old.

The man who made an astounding 142 cuts in a row was, in one fell stroke, cut down to the size of blundering mortals to whom the tallest of icy peaks might always appear to be a distant dream.

Fading stars may glow brighter briefly in our consciousness; but they never stop fading. This is especially so in the world of sport where mortality makes its appearance at a relatively young age.

Then again, we should never again mistake athletic perfectibility for human moral perfectibility. They are two different domains.

But the dissonance between Tiger’s public and private personae somehow made us want to believe that the master golfer had plummeted into his own private abyss forever.

Smiling again

This may not be so. Recently, the big smile was back on Tiger’s face when he won his 75th Tour victory at Torrey Pines. It may well be the sort of success — coming as it did in his first tournament of the year — that could have sent out a clear signal to his rivals.

As he slowly emerges from the shadows to light, it once again seems we might yet get to see Tiger at his very best in the not too distant future. And who knows? Tiger Woods Mark II, warts and all, may very well be more acceptable to us than the seemingly invincible Tiger Woods Mark I!

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