After the Messiah

There was trouble in the state of Lu, and the reigning monarch called in Confucius to ask for his help. When he arrived at the court, the Master went to a public place and took a seat in the correct way, facing south, and all the trouble disappeared.

—Frances Fitzgerald
    Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam 

Speaking to the BBC about the new season before the turn of the year, Rory McIlroy placidly remarked that “trying to make up for ’13 with two in ’14 would be nice.” Rory’s burden is however not as light as was his tone: only 16 men have done the same since 1922. But Rory’s opponents do not just live in the record books: recently, Tiger Woods’ agent more or less told Golf Digest that Tiger needed to win a major this year. Although it’s possible for both men to achieve their goals, it isn’t likely: the smooth 63 McIlroy put on Woods at Dubai, while playing in the same group, served that notice. But because of something called the ”Tiger Woods Effect,” the collateral damage of this war might include other parties—chief among them the FedEx Cup.

The “Tiger Woods Effect” was named in a 2009 paper by an economics professor: Jennifer Brown of Northwestern University. The paper, entitled “Quitters Never Win: The (Adverse) Effects of Competing With Superstars,” examined PGA Tour results during the early years of the twenty-first century; perhaps unsurprisingly, all golfers, even the best, played worse when TW was in the field versus when he wasn’t. The difference was about a stroke worse per tournament, and when Tiger was really “on,” the other players were about two shots worse. After controlling for other possible explanations, Brown argued that what this might mean is that human beings, faced with the near certainty that no matter their effort they are doomed to second place (even if that belief is misplaced), eventually can no longer give their best efforts. This is what the Effect is.

Once we realize we can’t win—or at least, believe that—human beings will not produce extra effort, Brown’s theory claimed: a theory that the mere existence of the FedEx Cup validates nearly single-handedly. Almost certainly, that is, the FedEx Cup was introduced precisely as a response to the “Tiger Woods Effect”—it was first announced in 2005, around the time that Woods was completing the “Tiger Slam” by winning all four majors in a row. The Cup itself has been “tweaked” every year since it began in 2007, but its basic form has remained.

Throughout the “regular season” players accumulate “points”—which are not just the amount of dollars won in each event. In August, the point leaders gather for a series of “playoff tournaments” whose fields grow progressively smaller, so that by the time of the Tour Championship in September there are only thirty players in the field. As things now stand (after the ”tweakings”), because the four playoff events have higher point totals than the regular season events, it’s theoretically possible for even the 30th ranked player to win the $10 million dollar prize that constitutes the FedEx Cup and the title “tour champion.”

For the PGA Tour, the idea is to generate excitement—$10 million, it seems, is cheap for what it buys. As a Grantland piece (“Putting For Dough” 19 Sept. 2013) suggests, however, there’s something odd about the notion, if you think about it: the problem is, if the FedEx Cup is meant to identify the best player in golf, it’s indisputable that, nearly every year, “Tiger Woods has had the best season of anyone.” Woods won five events in 2013 alone, and nearly $8 million in prize money. How can, in other words, someone get more money than Woods just for playing well at the right time of year? “Golf,” as the Grantland piece puts it, “is a cumulative sport”—the FedEx Cup is a glaring exception to that rule.

The FedEx Cup, in sum, is essentially a way to give a big prize to someone not named Woods at the end of the golf season—depending on the mood, it might be called the “Best White Golfer Award” or something equally snarky. It could be thought of as an example of practical racism at work on par with Jim Thorpe having his Olympic medals taken away, or Jack Johnson pursued by the law, or Muhammed Ali being shut out of his sport for years of his athletic prime. Why not just go off the money list? Why all the finagaling about “points?” Why, in a sport filled with conservative ideologues, should this obviously “socialistic” mechanism exist?

“Never was any such event,” wrote the Frenchman de Toqueville, about the French Revolution, “stemming from factors so far back in the past, so inevitable and yet so completely unforeseen.” Or to put it another way, history proceeds by way of ironies—which is perhaps likely what upsets Woods, if he thinks of it at all. In one sense, that is, there is no better exemplar of the kind of Ayn Randian John Galt-type hero in golf than Woods, and yet it seems that golf has gone out of its way to avoid rewarding him properly.

It’s in that way, however, that Woods shares the most with the man Tiger’s father always asserted would be the standard to measure his son by. In the years since Martin Luther King’s assassination, the congruence between one aspect of King’s legacy and a certain capital-friendly American ideology hasn’t escaped the intellectual grasp of some on the right. John Danforth, for instance, was a Republican senator from Missouri when he championed the notion of a holiday to honor Dr. King: to Danforth, King symbolized “the spirit of American freedom and self-determination,” as a recent article in Salon tracing the history of the holiday’s establishment notes. Tiger Woods’ ascension to the world’s most successful pitchman in history, in other words, is likely the result of many factors, deep forces that can only be glimpsed, and not fully understood, by those moved by them.

Woods’ nearly monomaniacal work ethic, for example, doesn’t have its source solely in his father’s service in the United States Army. Almost certainly, even if Woods is unconscious of it, it has roots that go back long before he, or even his father, was born. Just as certainly, it has something to do with the real legacy of the civil rights movement in general and Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular.

“My father,” wrote Hamden Rice recently in the Daily Kos, “told me with a sort of cold fury” just what it was that Dr. King had done for the South when, as a “smart ass home from first year of college,” Rice had dared to question King’s real contribution to the civil rights movement. “‘Dr. King,’” Rice’s father said, “ended the terror of living in the South.’”

What Rice’s father meant was by no means figurative: what he was referring to was the fact that Southern white people “occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them.” What King’s movement had done was ended that—something that usually gets glossed over when MLK Day runs around: the fact that, in America, sometimes some people got randomly murdered with, essentially, the blessing of the state.

The connection between this state-sponsored terrorism and Woods’ career isn’t entirely psychologically implausible if Rice is correct about the effect the terror had. Remembering those days prior to the movement, Rice recalls how his father taught him “many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people.” His point is that centuries of horror drilled in codes of behavior—ones that, in fact, it was precisely King’s mission to teach Americans (all of us) to unlearn.

Where the codes taught behavior designed to avoid what were, to be euphemistic, poor outcomes, King taught people to confront their fears. Be reprimanded, be fired, go to jail. Be beaten. And, if necessary, die, rather than continue to submit. The civil rights movement taught, as Rice says, “whatever you are most afraid of doing vis a vis white people, go do it.” Or, as we might say, just do it. King’s message was that African-Americans could only achieve their freedom themselves—which, at the end of the day, is just what the civil rights movement was.

Yet, while of course such a kind of attitude is necessary to throw off the yoke of the Bull Connors of the world, it’s also an attitude that might be outdated. No one’s ever questioned Woods’ work ethic, for example—but a viable question to ask about Woods is whether his ferocious ability to put in the time hasn’t actually hurt his career. Woods’ left knee, among other injuries, essentially shattered because of all the pressure put on it over the years—pressure that included endless hours on the range perfecting all of the various swings he has caused to be taught to him.

No golfer in history has had so many swing coaches, nor different swings: Tiger’s won majors with at least three different methods of hitting the golf ball, which might be some kind of record itself. Tiger’s continuing search for the perfect swing is a kind of metonym for his own “search for excellence,” as the management theory books put it—but might it also be a sign of an engine, with nothing else to work on, tearing itself apart? Rather than something praiseworthy, isn’t there something a bit much about tearing down a perfectly functioning machine in the hope of building something fractionally better?

In that sense, then, it’s possible to read the FedEx Cup as not just a lavish reward for the Best Non-Tiger Golfer. It’s possible to read the FedEx Cup not just as an anti-Tiger manifesto, but an argument for a different set of values: the FedEx Cup celebrates the latecomer versus the early-riser, the “brilliant” rather than the “hard-working.” It’s Romantic against Classical; Dionysian versus Apollonian. It, nearly literally, rewards what some might term a certain kind of lackadaisical, nonchalant approach: the kind of behavior that, one suspects, drives Woods himself apoplectic.

The kind of behavior, that is, that might lead a golfer to be late for an important tee time, for example. Rory McIlroy, who arrived for his singles Ryder Cup match in September of 2012 so late that he arrived in a police car, may know something about that.