Clem Sunter

Crouching tiger, stripy fox

2010-02-24 08:44

When Chantell Ilbury and I wrote The Mind of a Fox, we decided to make Tiger Woods our icon of how foxes think. We published the book in June 2001, just after he had won four grand slam events in a row (but not in the same year).

The choice was not based on how accurately he could drive the ball down the fairway. Rather it was his powers of recovery after hitting a bad shot - the way he adapted his strategy to achieve the same result which was either a birdie or a par. Equally, his impeccable compliance with the rules of the game of golf, including etiquette, caught our eye.

So he fitted in with one of the principal messages of our book, namely there are always rules of the game and uncertainties beyond your control in business. You have to comply with the one and adapt to the other. That is how you win business games in the manner of a fox.

Hence, like many others, we were saddened by the tumultuous events at the end of last year when his infidelities to his wife Elin were exposed. At the press conference he gave a few days ago, he admitted that fame and fortune had led him down the slippery slope of believing that no rules applied in his private life. That is exactly what hedgehogs believe - their cause and their success are so strong that they can make the rules. They are in total control of their own universe.

I remember Chantell and I were regularly asked whether there was any factor that could turn a fox into a hedgehog. We said arrogance ensuing from success. As frequently, we were asked the contrary question of whether there was any factor that could turn a hedgehog into a fox. We said humility derived from failure. I guess if we had given the answers in Ancient Greek, we would have mentioned hubris in the first instance and nemesis in the second instance. For as we all know from the proverb, after hubris comes nemesis.

A good sign that this is at work in Tiger's case - in other words he is on his way back to being a humble fox again - is the fact that he did not, like many expected, announce a scheduled comeback date. People in the golf media had speculated that it might be in the tournament prior to The Masters. By contrast, he said he did not know when he would be in the right frame of mind again. He is obviously still very concerned about the future of his family and saving his marriage.

There are now essentially three scenarios. The first is that he never comes back because the experience has caused too many emotional scars. I think this is unlikely. He has a lot of golf left in him and providing he shows - as I think he has done - genuine remorse for his foolishness, his fans and the public will forgive him.

The second scenario is that he makes a return, but he simply does not get back to his winning ways. Given the mental toughness and focus required to be the world's number one golfer, this is not an unreasonable scenario. When you are standing on the tee knowing what people around you are thinking and that any weakness in your game will be voraciously analysed by the media, that adds to the pressure. I also would not be surprised if one or two ribald comments are made by members of the gallery as he tees his ball up. That will hurt him badly.

The third scenario is a triumphant return where he goes on to eclipse Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 grand slam event wins. I give this scenario fair odds of materialising, but one must not underestimate the monumental challenges involved.

Should he do so, he will confirm my and Chantell's opinion that he is the fox of all foxes at adaptation, but in a way we would never have anticipated when we wrote the book. The future is indeed unknowable. Look at Bill Clinton's renaissance.

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