Okay, so I’m going to open this blog with a disclaimer. I cannot play golf. I have no ambition to play golf. And, other than having once found myself being soothed by the dulcet tones of Peter Alliss commenting on the Open at St Andrews as I lay on the sofa convalescing from a particularly nasty bout of the flu, golf is not a ‘thing’ I take an interest in. I do however find myself eternally intrigued by the rise and fall of Tiger Woods.
First lured into his orbit by Nike’s 1996 ‘I am Tiger Woods’ commercial with its beautifully shot photography and implicit message that it was about more than selling sportswear (even when we knew it really wasn’t), it was hard to look away. There stood a phenomenally talented young golfer who didn’t just beat opponents, he obliterated them. Woods put himself in the lead just by showing up.
The ascent of Tiger Woods was akin to a modern-day retelling of the classics in which he plays the role of epic hero upon whom the gods had bestowed superhuman powers. And in this role, we were quite prepared to gloss over Woods’ competitive arrogance and volatile temper. We could turn a blind eye to the palpable disdain he showed for the press, fellow professionals and even his fans. Why? Because he was just so damn good.
However, tabloid scandal, debilitating back injury, and his haggard face in a video following an arrest for driving under the influence of prescription drugs all combined to derail his playing career and strip him of the respect he’d once commanded. The bigger they are the harder they fall; and so it was that Tiger Woods’ ‘fall from grace’ was as spectacular as his rise. The greatest player of the modern era was widely pronounced incapable of ever making it back.
So while the footage from last weekend of Woods taking the 2018 PGA Tour championship in Atlanta (his first win since 2013) felt familiar; there was something distinctly different. As he choked back tears and told us ‘I couldn’t have done this without the help of everyone around me’ we were privy to something new. Tiger Woods demonstrated genuine humility.
In his triumphant, yet outwardly modest return to the winners’ circle, having only recovered from back fusion surgery a year ago, we saw Tiger Woods lean right into the experience of being humbled. Staging a joyful hug-a-thon with his caddie and various of the golfing elite he eloquently told us that he’s no different to you and me after all.
So, what’s my point? Why am I retelling the story of a man who, against the odds, found a way to make golf magic happen once again when I’m a comms professional who openly confesses to having limited regard for the sport?
Obviously Woods timely resurgence couldn’t have slotted in more perfectly with Nike making kneeling San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick the face of its latest campaign. Even after the USA’s Ryder Cup defeat by Europe this weekend, when a despondent Woods admitted he was a ‘contributing factor’, his legend appears stronger than ever. All eyes are on him and Nike is certainly reaping the benefits of sticking by its man.
However, the debate about Nike’s moral vs. commercial intent is for a different day. For me it’s rather the lesson this latest chapter in the Tiger Woods story teaches that is more enduring. Weaving together the classic story-telling motifs of the great being humbled and a phenomenal comeback, the resonance of this tale reaches beyond the game of golf and into the realm of corporate communications.
As my colleague, Camargue’s MD Jo Lloyd (@phenelloyd) argued in her blog published last week ‘Sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word’. But humility isn’t an innate character trait – it’s something that’s learned through experience and acceptance of limitations. Other sport stars such as Maria Sharapova and Lance Armstrong have also recently found this out, with varying degrees of success.
So for as long as we have sporting or business leaders standing at the apex, supreme in their self-belief and basking in their perceived indestructability, those who work alongside them are often happy to accept that leader’s dominance. They’re also more likely (and again there’s the subject for another blog here) to turn a blind eye to them flaunting that power, letting them behave in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be tolerated.
But make a mistake and that gap closes. Stripped of their aura of infallibility, we expect a ‘leader’ to be honest and open. In the event of messing things up, they need to own their mistakes, admit to their struggle and genuinely demonstrate that in salvaging their reputation (both personal and corporate) and building themselves and their businesses back up they have indeed been humbled. Do that and they could find that by being humble, open and real, as the standing ovation Woods got from a largely European crowd at the Ryder Cup opening ceremony evidences, the wider community is only too happy to welcome them back – in some cases cheering louder, longer and harder than ever before.
Beth Motley is an associate director at Camargue