The Tension of Opposites
Watching Tiger Woods, reading Mitch Albom
In a couple of months, my son will turn 9 years old. Already, he’s big now. At his last checkup a couple of weeks ago, his pediatrician put him on a scale that showed him weighing just over 70 pounds. He’s always loved to jump on me, but now it’s like catching a giant sack of potatoes thrown from a moving truck. (I’m not exaggerating!)
Earlier this summer, we felt he was ready to see some more thrilling movies in the theater. So, we took him to see the new Jurassic Park and the new Top Gun, both of which he loved. We investigated flight schools right after coming home from Maverick, in fact.
Not too long ago, we would have stayed home and watched movies closer to the likes of Frozen or Aladdin. Or even one of the umpteen movies in the Air Buddies “cinematic universe,” as I like to call it. Now, he’ll more likely want to watch something like Spider Man: No Way Home, as the older animated movies he used to love don’t quite make the cut anymore.
(Note to parents with kids this age: if you haven’t already experienced it, Tom Holland and Zendaya are about to become a very big part of your life 😃)
I’ve even noticed him doing a little trash-talking, if I can even call it that, when he plays games with his friends, in the way boys like to rib each other. It’s only gentle ribbing right now, though I was a boy once too — so I know how things change as boys get older…
However, he’s not grown up just yet. He likes one of us to be there when he goes to sleep in his bed, as the dark scares him. And when he wakes up in the night by himself, he finds it impossible right now to get himself back to sleep, so he comes to our room for reassurance.
In a way, each of his feet are in two different worlds. In one, he’s still the very little boy he has been for a long time, until very recently. In the other, he’s growing into the older, bigger boy he’ll soon become — a change that’s inevitable, I know, but still one I greet with a sigh of melancholy.
All of this has been swirling in my head this week as I’ve seen the photos, videos and stories coming out of St. Andrews, Scotland, where the top golfers in the world will play the 150th Open Championship1, golf’s last major championship of the year, starting tomorrow morning.
If you’re not a golf fan, you can be forgiven for not knowing why this week’s tournament is so special, so let me catch you up: first, it’s being played at the Old Course at St. Andrews — quite literally where the game of golf got its start, stretching back to the 15th century — and second, it will likely be the last Open that Tiger Woods will play on the Old Course in which he has a realistic shot at competing with the best in the game.2
That’s because Tiger is 46 now, on the backside of multiple back and knee surgeries over many years — and, most recently and most dramatically, a horrible car crash last year, in which he very nearly lost his right leg. That he’s walking at all is a miracle, let alone competing in one of the biggest golf tournaments of the year.
It will probably sound ridiculous for me to say I go back a long way with Tiger, but I kinda do. I was born and grew up in Augusta, Ga., the home of the Masters Tournament, which Tiger won for the first time in 1997 at age 21, catapulting him to worldwide fame.
You’ve likely seen his famous fist pump when he holed his putt to win on 18 that amazing Sunday. But just before that, he hit a shot way off the fairway into the crowd — and I was there.
His ball landed just a few feet away from me and my friends; we heard the thud when it hit the ground, and saw his caddie Fluff Cowan hurry over to clear people away from it, so Tiger would have a clear shot to the green. I even found a quick clip of it in this video (if you press play, it goes directly to that shot):
Tiger walked over a moment or two later, and stood right in front of us. He jumped up and down, trying to get a read on the shot. This was history being made, and he didn’t want to mess anything up right there at the end.
If you’re a golf fan, you of course know the rest of the story. He’d go on to win many more Masters, U.S. Opens, PGA Championships and Open Championships after that, including four in a row in 2000 and 2001. There’s no other way to describe it all than with two words: simply amazing.
And I was there in 2005, watching from the stands on hole 16 when he holed this chip shot, and the crowd roared louder than any I’ve ever heard before or since — I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more electrifying moment in sports than this:
I even got to see some of his old magic at this year’s Masters, when I took my son to see him play live and in person — probably the thing that excited me the most about this year’s tournament.
As the tournament went on, however, the toll of all the years and all the injuries became clear. On Sunday, I watched him from the stands on one of the back nine holes as he struggled to walk; as heartened as I was just to see him there, his limping gait only underscored the degree to which those magical moments we’ve all experienced together with him are in the rear-view mirror now.
Change is inevitable, I know. The end of Tiger’s playing career was always going to arrive someday; even though it hasn’t quite yet, we know it isn’t far away. And yet I still have a hard time accepting it.
What popped in my mind as I thought of this was a book that became a big sensation back in the late 1990s, Tuesdays With Morrie by the sports reporter Mitch Albom, in which he shares what he learned on a series of visits to see his old college sociology professor Morrie Schwartz.
As the book opens, Albom is in midlife and highly successful as a sports columnist for the Detroit Free-Press and frequent TV contributor. But he feels an ache, that something is missing. And after seeing his old professor on an episode of ABC’s Nightline, he decides to call him up.
Schwartz, he learns, is dying of ALS. Knowing now is probably the only time he’ll get to spend with him, Albom decides to visit and comes back week after week. They reminisce about their time as teacher and student, especially on lessons Schwartz tried to impart about life’s difficulty and impermanence:
“… We begin to talk seriously sometimes, after class, when the room has emptied. He asks me questions about my life, then quotes lines from Erich Fromm, Martin Buber, Erik Erikson. Often he defers to their words, footnoting his own advice, even though he obviously thought the same things himself. It is at these times that I realize he is indeed a professor, not an uncle. One afternoon, I am complaining about the confusion of my age, what is expected of me versus what I want for myself.
“Have I told you about the tension of opposites?” he says.
The tension of opposites?
“Life is a series of pulls back and forth. You want to do one thing, but you are bound to do something else. Something hurts you, yet you know it shouldn’t. You take certain things for granted, even when you know you should never take anything for granted.”
“A tension of opposites, like a pull on a rubber band. And most of us live somewhere in the middle.”
Sounds like a wrestling match, I say.
“A wrestling match.” He laughs. “Yes, you could describe life that way.”
I feel that, in so many ways. I feel the pull back and forth as I watch my kids grow up, knowing that every day they’re becoming what the people they’ll eventually be. (Something that’s true of us, too.)
I feel that when I think about letting go of the people they’ve been and embracing the people they’re becoming — which, when you think about it, as a fan I have to do with Tiger too. He’s not the player he once was, so we need to enjoy the player he is now, and what he can give us.
Near the end of the book, Morrie lays out for Albom why we shouldn’t wait to do this — as he knows from his battle with ALS, we don’t have all the time in the world:
“It’s not just other people we need to forgive, Mitch,” he finally whispered. “We also need to forgive ourselves.”
“Yes. For all the things we didn’t do. All the things we should have done. You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened. That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am.
“I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books. I used to beat myself up over it. Now I see that it never did any good. Make peace. You need to make peace with yourself and everyone around you.”
Albom is brought to tears, but Morrie says it again:
“Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t wait, Mitch. Not everyone gets the time I’m getting. Not everyone is as lucky.”
Lucky? I pressed my thumb into his hardened flesh and he didn’t even feel it.
“The tension of opposites, Mitch. Remember that? Things pulling in different directions?”
“I mourn my dwindling time, but I cherish the chance it gives me to make things right.”
You know, over the years Tiger has made a lot of mistakes. We’ve heard all about them. But I like what he’s doing now, making the most of the time he has left in his career.
The same could be said of each of us, I’m sure, in many areas of our lives. What I want to experience as the Open Championship gets underway — tomorrow! — is one last chance to watch Tiger walk the fairways and battle the challenges St. Andrews has to offer, and cherish the chance to make things right.
I’ll be up early watching — let’s enjoy it together. As always, I hope your running is going great, and be sure to let me know how it’s going — I always love hearing from you.
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If you’re in the U.S., you may know it as the British Open; the Open Championship is the name given it by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, golf’s governing body in the U.K.
The Open Championship rotates each year among a stable of several courses in the U.K. It’s unclear when it will return to St. Andrews (though it generally returns every 5 years).