One of my favorite stories from Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi) is the story of the fighting cock:
Chi Hsing Tzu was a trainer of
fighting cocks for King Hsuan.
He was training a fine bird.
The king kept asking
if the bird was ready for combat.
“Not yet”, said the trainer.
“He is full of fire.
He is ready to pick a fight
with every other bird.
He is vain and confident
of his own strength.”
After ten days he answered again,
“Not yet. He flares up
when he hears another bird crow.”
After ten more days,
“Not yet. He still gets that angry look
and ruffles his feathers.”
Again ten days.
The trainer said,
“Now he is nearly ready.
When another bird crows,
his eyes don’t even flicker.
He stands immobile like a block of wood.
He is a mature fighter.
Other birds will take one look at him and run.”
He just won the US Open on a bad leg. His leg had just been operated on. His doctor thought he should be on crutches, not golfing. He managed to pull it together and beat everybody else.
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The Frozen Gaze
Rocco Mediate’s head swiveled about as he walked up the fairway of the sudden-death hole of the U.S. Open on Monday. Somebody would catch his attention, and his eyes would dart over and he’d wave or make a crack. Tiger Woods’s gaze, on the other hand, remained fixed on the ground, a few feet ahead of his steps. He was, as always, locked in, focused and self-contained.
The fans greeted Mediate with fraternal affection and Woods with reverence. Most were probably rooting for Rocco, but only because Woods, the inevitable victor, has risen above mere human status and become an embodiment of immortal excellence. That frozen gaze of his looks out from airport billboards, TV commercials and the ad pages. And its ubiquity is proof that every age finds the heroes it needs.
In a period that has brought us instant messaging, multitasking, wireless distractions and attention deficit disorder, Woods has become the exemplar of mental discipline. After watching Woods walk stone-faced through a roaring crowd, the science writer Steven Johnson, in a typical comment, wrote: “I have never in my life seen a wider chasm between the look in someone’s eye and the surrounding environment.”
The coverage of him often centers upon this question: How did this creature come about? The articles inevitably mention his precocity (at age 3, he shot a 48 on the front nine of a regulation course) and provide examples of his athletic prowess: Once Woods tried out four drivers that Nike was experimenting with and told the lab guys that he preferred the heavier one. The researchers thought the clubs were the same weight, but they measured and Woods was right. The club he’d selected was heavier by the equivalent of two cotton balls.
But inevitably, it is his ability to enter the cocoon of concentration that is written about and admired most. Writers describe the way Earl Woods, his lieutenant colonel father, dropped his golf bag while Tiger was swinging to toughen his mind. They describe his mother’s iron discipline at home. “Old man is soft,” Kultida Woods once said of her husband. “He cry. He forgive people. Not me. I don’t forgive anybody.”
Tiger was the one dragging them out on the course to practice. At age 6 months, he was put in a baby chair and had the ability, his father claimed, to watch golf for two hours without losing focus.
As an adult, he is famously self-controlled. His press conferences are a string of carefully modulated banalities. His lifestyle is meticulously tidy. His style of play is actuarial. He calculates odds and avoids unnecessary risks like the accounting major he once planned on being. “I am, by nature, a control freak,” he once told John Garrity of Sports Illustrated, as Garrity resisted the temptation to reply, “You think?”
And for that, in this day and age, he stands out. As I’ve been trying to write this column, I’ve toggled over to check my e-mail a few times. I’ve looked out the window. I’ve jotted down random thoughts for the paragraphs ahead. But Woods seems able to mute the chatter that normal people have in their heads and build a tunnel of focused attention.
Writers get rhapsodic over this facility. “Woods’s concentration often seems to be made of the same stuff as the liquid-metal cyborg in Terminator 2: If you break it, it reforms,” David Owen wrote in Men’s Vogue.
Then they get spiritual. In Slate, Robert Wright only semi-facetiously compared Woods to Gandhi, for his ability to live in the present and achieve transcendent awareness. Analysts inevitably bring up his mother’s Buddhism, his experiments in meditation. They describe his match-mentality in the phrases one might use to describe a guru achieving nirvana. He achieves, they say, perfect clarity, tranquility and flow. We’re talking about somebody who is the primary spokesman for Buick, and much of the commentary about him is on the subject of his elevated spiritual capacities.
And here we’re getting to the nub of what’s so remarkable about the “Be A Tiger” phenomenon: He’s become the beau ideal for golf-loving corporate America, the personification of mental fortitude.
The ancients were familiar with physical courage and the priests with moral courage, but in this over-communicated age when mortals feel perpetually addled, Woods is the symbol of mental willpower. He is, in addition, competitive, ruthless, unsatisfied by success and honest about his own failings. (Twice, he risked his career to retool his swing.)
During the broadcast of Monday’s playoff round, Nike ran an ad that had Earl Woods’s voice running over images of his son: “I’d say, ‘Tiger, I promise you that you’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life.’ And he hasn’t. And he never will.”
You can like this model or not. Either way, the legend grows.