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Reversal theory used to understand Tiger Woods' dominance in golf

By Earl Smith


Tiger the Golfer

Tiger Woods began his ascent to the top of the golf world early in his career. His father taught him the game of golf and coached him carefully. Tiger strove for excellence and built excellence into his daily training, and he carries this goal with him daily (Peters and Austin 1989). What makes Woods’ dominance all the more remarkable is that, unlike the pioneering Jackie Robinson, whose name is connected for all time with professional baseball mainly because he integrated the game, Woods’ name is attached to golf because of the excellence he brings to his golf game. Even in those tournaments that he does not win, Woods has amassed a record in his 12-years on the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) tour that includes 23 second-place and 17 third-place finishes.

To be where Woods is in the world of professional golf is doubly remarkable in that golf, more than any other sport, was and remains virtually off-limits for underrepresented minority group members, especially African Americans. Of all registered professional golfers, 84 percent are white (Hack 2008; Pells 2005).

Furthermore, much like Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, Tiger Woods has transformed the game of men’s golf. Each in their own way, both Navratilova (who brought power to the sport of women’s tennis) and Woods (who introduced physical fitness, weight lifting, and running to professional golf) remade their respective sports into games of power. Instead of "throwing one down" in the clubhouse before a match-and after it-Woods takes a "systems" approach to his training (Johnson 2007), implementing the kind of regimen that has long been a part of other professional sports such as football and basketball. He says that he was a talented high school athlete, running the 400 m and cross country events (Johnson 2007), and decided to approach golf in similar fashion:

[I] decided long ago to treat golf as a sport. I let other people treat it like a hobby. It would be asinine for someone not to work out and go play football. It doesn’t make sense for golf, either.

So the question that interests me is this: How do we explain the person, Tiger Woods, who treks around the golf course weekend to weekend, tournament to tournament, dominating like no other golfer, against the very best golfers in the world?

Theory of Dominance in Sport

To understand the career achievements of Tiger Woods-how he can continually demolish the best golfers in the world-requires a theoretical perspective not embedded within some unexplainable characteristic to which good performance in sport is attributed, such as race, speed, gender, or height (Smith 2007; Mulkay and Gilbert 1981). While important, these do not help us explain sport dominance.

When persons who are knowledgeable about the game of golf (including golf announcers) tell us what to expect from Tiger Woods, they often talk in terms of dominance (Feinstein 1999, 2008; Wilbon 2005). Week after week, by the time Sunday comes around, the announcers make comments suggesting that Tiger Woods doesn’t play to win by 1 stroke-he plays to win by 10. In examining his record, they note that he plays to beat the tournament records of greats like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus not by 1 victory but by 10. Thus, knowledgeable experts insist that Woods’ motivation involves a desire to perform not simply well enough to win but well enough to become totally dominant-to bury his opponents-and that he is not content simply to have a good day at the golf course (Feinstein 2008).

My observations in following Woods’ career lead to a similar perspective about how far he outdistances other professional golfers, many others share this view. Golf analyst John Feinstein (2008) made the following argument:

Maybe they should make Tiger Woods start playing with one hand tied behind his back. After all, he proved that he’s better than everyone else in the world playing on one leg. Maybe the next step is to make him prove he can win playing with one hand. A few years ago, when the PGA Tour came out with the slogan, "These Guys Are Good," a number of players suggested it be rewritten to say, "These Guys Are Pretty Good, But This One Guy Is Great."

In this vein, two announcers for the Golf Channel, Kelly Tilghman and Nick Faldo, provided some on-air "advice" for golf’s elites, whose combined performances are rarely enough to beat Woods. Faldo (a golfer himself) said that the upcoming players should "gang up" on Woods to beat him at his game. Tilghman then advised PGA Tour players that the only way to prevent Woods from winning virtually every tournament would be for the players to "lynch him in a back alley" (Sirak 2008).

It is of little importance at the individual level whether Tilghman’s remark was intended as racist by her or interpreted as such by him. Enough has been said about this already, including Wood’s own statement that he did not take her comment as racist and that he did not think there was any ill intent (Associated Press 2008). Regardless, such a remark is offensive within the larger African American civil society in that there is a 200-year history of racial lynching against mainly African American men for any number of "reasons," including (most often) any indication of their interest in or relationships with white women (Johnston 1970). Extending the analysis further, scholars of lynching note that it was primarily a tool of social control, a way to remind all African Americans of their subordinate place in the social, political economy of the United States (Davis 1983; Patterson 1998; Hattery and Smith 2007). Lynching was a mechanism for controlling "uppity Negroes" who threatened the social order. In this context, the exchange between Tilghman and Faldo is illustrative of the sheer dominance of Woods’ play and the threat of his dominance to the social order of golf, a sport that remains dominated by white men with upper class privilege.

My attempt at explaining Tiger Wood’s dominance in golf uses reversal theory, which is most often referenced to the work of Michael Apter (1989). According to Apter’s work, reversal theory explains individual behavior; it is framed in three states:

Telic-Paratelic
Conformist-Negativist
Mastery-Sympathy

In Apter’s work, we find that the core of the theory involves individual motivation and the structure of mental life. For Woods, this means-and it has been corroborated-that mentally, he, more than other golfers, can focus on the task at hand, letting nothing bother or upset his concentration. Another aspect of this theory of the structure of mental life is the ability to craft a deep desire from a basic social-psychological standpoint to (over)value winning. This desire is connected to the emotions (some of which we see in Woods when his opponents get too close), and, finally, to the way in which Woods views the world-that is, seeing the world in his own particular way. I would frame this as a positive myopia.

This is an excerpt from Sociology of Sport and Social Theory, edited by Earl Smith.

 




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