On Woods and Ochoa

When I read that Lorena Ochoa, one of the best contemporary women professional golfers who would have been a shoe-in for the LPGA Hall of Fame if she’d only played two more years on the tour, announced her retirement from golf to pursue personal/family goals (including having children with her husband of a few years) and devoting more time to charitable work, I couldn’t help but think of the contrast with Tiger Wood’s brief “retirement” after being caught by his wife and the media living a lie.

Based on what I’ve read and witnessed from a distance it’s clear to me that the two examples of living with extreme talent and fortune, albeit in fundamentally different performance spheres, exhibit starkly different levels of mindfulness (that ability to live in the moment with sensitivity and openness to one’s surroundings while maintaining the focus on the task at hand) and character (that sense of one’s humanity that respects in a mindful way one’s spiritual and physical relationship to one’s environment and to the reciprocal desires and obligations for living life fully engaged).

Let me begin with important similarities: Both are people of color and as such, at least in golf which remains at the highest levels white (especially in the men’s professional tours), exceptional not only because of their physical abilities, but because of their impressive mental competency. Indeed, one of the cliches of the sport is that most of the game is mental: patience, focus, strategic and creative thinking, and ingrained repetition under stressful competitive conditions have made players with less strength and weaker mechanics winners against those with emotionally volatile and pretty swings.

They have also both used their golfing success to positive charitable effect despite the glaring the disparity in income between them individually and the PGA and LPGA tours overall. Of course, this is the least expected by the rest of us less talented folks who want something back from our financial and emotional investments in our cultural icons and heroes.

But that’s where the most of the similarities end, I think.

Ochoa evidently is adored not only by her fellow touring pros, but the fans and workers she encountered wherever she played. Her openness toward and awareness of the community of players, fans, and golf course workers is noteworthy. The oft repeated story of her conscientiously engaging golf course work crews was particularly important because many, maybe most, of these workers were Latino or Mexican. Taking the time to visit with them, to share and prepare a meal with them, to acknowledge their humanity and the value of their work that allowed her to perform with such excellence is the essence of mindfulness.

Ochoa’s mindfulness toward the historic debt owed to the women who preceded her on the tour, who made her “fortune” even imaginable was just another sign of her emotional courage and mental focus that played out not only on the golf course, but with everything that had to do with her love of golf and its practical and symbolic meanings.

It is this mindfulness that the 28 year old Mexicana, Ochoa embodied that endeared her to all who knew her. This was what seems to be central to the loss that her retirement from the tour symbolizes that is at the heartfelt center of comments like Judy Rankin’s, an LPGA Hall of Famer and TV golf analyst: “I’m just crushed….We won’t get to see her play golf. Mostly, we won’t get to see her.”

My disappointment in Tiger Woods since his fateful crash into a fire hydrant last November opened to public scrutiny a life story and personal character that was anything but mindful and fundamentally disrespectful to himself and others was what was clearly a blatant, disrespectful hypocrisy, especially for someone who had previously advertised a Buddhist commitment to mindful living.

And my skepticism of his publicly, self-indulgent, ongoing attempts to control the narrative, and displace his frustration onto the media was reinforced with his self-indulgent Masters performance.

Despite all the pretense of a changed attitude that was supposed to be more humble generally speaking and respectful of the game and fans specifically, the mindless, petulant, impatient Woods increasingly became more visible. The interview with CBS on course analyst Peter Kostis was illuminating for its presentation of an unchanged, unrepentant Tiger.

I’m not interested in enforcing a certain kind of character for Tiger; he can live however he wants to live for all I care. It is his pretense to be something other than what he really is, this creation of a faux public persona as a commodity in order to satisfy sponsors, consumers, and protect what seems to be a lifestyle and attitude of entitlement and unaccountability that has nothing to do with Buddhism that is at the core of my commentary on Tiger’s inauthenticity. It is this which is at utter odds with the example of Ochoa’s mindful choices that, for me, is compelling in the context of  her announced retirement.

I don’t speak, I don’t like even to think in terms of “role models.”  It’s a mindless, even dangerous notion to pattern one’s life on someone else’s. (There disappointment often lies because such icons rarely fully embody the necessary and sufficient qualities and principles for patterning a life.  Even the Buddha taught this, that no one ought to pattern their life after his. All he could offer were practices where each person could learn to develop their own mindful practice.).

Such models are fictions because they’re imperfect stories wrapped up in pretty packaging. And too often they’re self-promoting much like Tiger Woods’ has been.  Just remove a layer or two and, viola, you begin to see the ugly mess inside, the incoherent, unglued, disorganized, unfocused bits and pieces without clear rhyme or reason.

And all one can do is try to hide the mess, the chaos from public view because the source of it can’t even make sense of it. And nothing from outside its origins will clarify what goes where either, unless one begins to pay attention, to gather one’s inner forces, to play with what one finds there. One must first accept the mess, respect it, maybe even honor it because it’s there for a reason; an historical, cultural, ideological one. And then one must then begin to figure out why and how it got there to even begin to reimagine it.

For Tiger to begin to practice a more mindful Buddhism, if he is really sincere about his professed intent, he’s going to have to come to terms with his inner mess, sorting out where his desire and craving detoured his ability to pay attention to what’s most important to his personal and public success.

Clearly he’s not there. He was finally caught red-handed last November (after previous rumors of infidelity had been successfully quashed) and doesn’t seem honestly ready to acknowledge any need to change fundamentally. (As he responded to Kostis’ regarding his lack of emotional control on the course after finishing his final round at the Masters golf tournament–“I think people are making way too much of a big deal of this thing”–he seems to think that others are the source of his problems, not him!)

Tiger clearly still has his playing skills and will likely break Jack Nicklaus major championships record of eighteen because he is that talented. And he should be able to accomplish the feat despite his apparent lack of mindful Buddhist practice. Indeed, his will to win, his intensity which is often mistakenly confused by many, I think, with an incredible ability to focus (I’ve challenged that notion of his supreme focus before and will continue to argue against the false notion) combined with a need to intimidate (that need to emasculate another to prove one’s masculinity, just another false notion of strength and superiority) may work for him in the run to prove his mastery.

But those qualities will do little to support a legacy like the one that will accompany Lorena Ochoa that developed in the few years she dominated the LPGA with love and devotion to all who watched her with love and devotion. She may not leave behind a record for the ages, but her mindful imprint will remain where it’s most important: in the hearts and minds of those who knew hers.

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