Maybe Tiger Woods Really Wants Redemption

Now that Tiger Woods has returned to the game of golf almost six months after it was discovered that he had multiple extramarital affairs, the world is waiting breathlessly to see if he can return to form and win this year's Masters. As Shaun Powell wrote for NBC Sports: "It's all about the golf now. It's about birdies instead of floozies, threesomes instead of twosomes." Except, it's not. Sure, the PGA is no doubt glad to have the income an appearance by Tiger guarantees, and fans of the game will be glad to see him. But winning probably isn't going to fix his marriage or repair his relationship with his mother and friends. As Tiger himself said at his Masters press conference, "It's not about the championships—it's about how you live your life." He went on: "I haven't done that the right way for a while. I needed to change that. Going forward, I need to be a better man than I was before. I'm trying as hard as I possibly can every day."

Of course, many of my colleagues would have you believe that this is a PR move on Tiger's part or an attempt to shift the emphasis from his personal life to his athleticism. But maybe golf is the only thing that makes sense to him right now—especially when his world is in pieces and there's nobody to blame but himself. I don't know. I haven't guessed a single detail of this scandal right yet. But what I do know is that Tiger is a fierce competitor who can seemingly overcome the most crippling disadvantage—whether it be coming from five strokes behind at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2009 or winning the 2008 U.S. Open two months after a third knee surgery.

So if Tiger wants to be a better person, he has the mental toughness to do it. But why do I care? Not because I'm a big fan of golf or overly enamoured of athletes. But I do recognize something of myself in Tiger—I bet most of us would, if we could see past our schadenfreude. Every single one of us has made mistakes, hurt or disappointed people, acted abominably under pressure, or worse. And, unless we're sociopaths, we've also all felt the desire to make amends and do better.

But how is it exactly that we become better human beings? Is it by accepting our mistakes and misdeeds as unalterable and simply becoming a better bad guy? Or is it by recognizing our flaws and working to survive them? This is the backdrop against which we should be observing Tiger Woods's return to golf. Not all of us have to see our bad behavior hashed and rehashed on the covers of tabloids, but all of us have gone looking for redemption. What makes the difference between those of us who find it and those who simply backslide? Turns out, it's many of the same traits that get people through blizzards at the top of Mt. Everest or POW camps. As Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club, told me, "Tiger has an incredible number of the strengths that survivors and thrivers have." Sherwood lists those traits in his book as adaptability, resilience, faith, hope, purpose, tenacity, love, empathy, intelligence, ingenuity, flow, and instinct. "Tiger certainly has resiliency and adaptability," Sherwood continued. "That's the definition of his golf game." I also think it's safe to put tenacity, intelligence, and ingenuity on the list as well. In Tiger's case, "surviving" may not mean repairing his marriage or even fully restoring his public image. But Tiger can be the kind of person who looks back and says, "I can't believe that jackass was me."

I don't want to minimize what he did or discount the pain and suffering he caused his wife, Elin. But Tiger's journey fascinates me because he seems to be showing signs of what psychologists call posttraumatic growth. Dr. Lawrence Calhoun, a professor at the University of North Carolina and an expert in the study of posttraumatic growth, defines it as positive psychological development brought about by the struggle to deal with horrific events. Or, put more simply, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. But posttraumatic growth isn't about life's little dramas. As Calhoun says; "The event needs to be seismic; it needs to shake the foundations, maybe even destroy the way people understand the world and their place in it. In the process of repairing or rebuilding that understanding, and of dealing with very challenging circumstances, lots of people (but not all) experience growth." I remember once, in the throes of a bad breakup, a friend said, "Everything happens for a reason." At the time, I was broke, unemployed, and emotionally devastated, so my response was something in the vein of "[Expletive]. What's the reason? [Expletive]. God hates me? [Expletive]." But with time and a little introspection, I was eventually able to see it as one of the best things that ever happened to me. My mom and I refer to it as "The Miraculous Apple-Fritter Intervention." The details are too kooky to relate—you wouldn't take another word I said seriously. But suffice it to say that I used my own strengths to survive and thrive. I made the breakup the line between the life I learned with and the one I lived after that, to paraphrase Glenn Close in The Natural (another great examination of sports, squandered talent, and redemption). That's posttraumatic growth, and I hope for Tiger's sake, and for the sake of his family, that's what's motivating his actions—not simply the urge to get Gatorade back as a sponsor.

I'm lucky that all I had to deal with was a bad man—others, like Aron Ralston, had to saw off their own arms to live, or, like Dr. Alfred Nobel, spend the rest of their lives atoning for their work. But, no matter the tragedy, there is always the choice between giving up and starting over. Or to put it a bit more poetically, as the Japanese samurai and dedicated Buddhist Hirate Masahide wrote sometime in the early 16th century, "Barn's burnt down—now I can see the moon." Over the years, that has become a mantra for people struggling to find their own posttraumatic growth after a crisis. I hope that sometime soon both Tiger and his family will be able to see the moon.

Jim Flick, Jack Nicklaus's golf teacher and a legend in his own right, once said that "the game of golf begins in your mind, more than athletic ability, more than technique, more than practice or ability or anything else. The mind-set you bring to the game determines not only the enjoyment you desire from golf but also the level of proficiency you will achieve." And if that's true, then I suspect we'll see whether Tiger is really a changed man somewhere on the back nine this weekend. I think that's what Tiger is counting on too. PR stunt or stab at redemption, either way, the result is the same: Tiger is playing to win at the Masters. And I'll be rooting for him.