"In youth we have warm hopes, which are soon blasted by rashness and negligence," wrote the great sage Samuel Johnson. "In age, we have knowledge and prudence without spirit to exert, or motives to prompt them."
Yet there are rare youths whose talent and intensity fan warm hopes into brilliant blazes. Rarer still, a few gifted spirits defy age to make dazzling use of their hard-won knowledge. Most rare of all is the human being who is both brilliant in youth and dazzling in age, having come through the blast of negligence and hubris with something tempered inside.
The Tiger who changes his stripes.
Few youths have burned brighter than Tiger Woods, nor suffered such blasts of his own rashness. When the most brilliant dozen years in the history of his sport came to a crashing end, he had only himself to blame. That was 2008. Knowledge and prudence were hard-won in the intervening years, while the world began to wonder whether the spirit survived to exert them.
Now we know. A ripened, deeper man wore the trademark red and black for the final round of the Masters golf tournament this year. What Woods accomplished belongs to a realm of talent barred to most of us. But the wisdom that made it possible is available to us all.
It showed itself on the 12th hole, the most famous test on the most famous course in the United States. Its manicured beauty frames a severe test of skill; less obvious is the test of character it applies.
The landscape, set off against dark foliage and pastel blossoms, seduces and gulls even the most experienced eye. A creek runs like a dark mirror between the golfer and the hole. Behind the creek, a low but steep slope leads to the putting green, which is wide but not deep. Much of it is almost invisible, enfolded among bright white sand traps. But there is a lovely patch of perfect green to the right of the sand as the golfer faces the hole, and that's where the cup is sunk for the final round each year.
For professionals accustomed to smashing golf balls almost beyond the range of sight, the little shot to that perfect green patch tantalizes, almost as if a big fellow could reach out and simply drop the ball beside the hole. The green oasis beside those gardens of sand beckons like a picnic blanket spread out on the beach.
At 43, Woods is old in golf years. The rash power of his youthful swing has taken its toll through four back surgeries. So when he stepped into the tableau of the 12th hole on Sunday, his dream of winning another major title seemed just beyond his grasp. Having started the day two shots behind the leader, he was still two shots back with 11 holes finished. Only seven more to go.
If ever a moment cried out for heroics, surely this was it. Take aim at that seductive patch of grass. Give one whoosh of the club. Gamble on the sequence of motions habituated by a lifetime of practice. Throw caution to the lightly swirling winds above the Georgia pines. Stick the ball so close to the hole that the soft thud of impact shakes up the entire contest. Such feats of the young Tiger fill a dozen highlight reels.
But that's not what he did.
Half the men in the hunt for the title tried it. Francesco Molinari, Tony Finau, Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter each drew a daring bead on that little patch of grass, and each fell short, ending up in the water. Woods played conservatively, knowledgeably, prudently, taking aim at the big white beach and landing his ball safely on the green between the traps. Two putts later, he walked away with a share of the lead and a clear path of victory - his 15th in a major championship, his first as a man in full.
"I was just trying to plod my way around the golf course," Woods said, employing a verb both perfect and surprising. As a young man, he was anything but plodding. He slashed, he whipped, he crushed, he conquered. Now he was content to be "as patient as I've been in a number of years." He worked on "control of my emotions."
These are the gifts of age. In youth, Tiger thrilled the world by blowing through barriers and landing impossible shots. He soared as if freed from gravity. He defied all limits, in sport and in life, right up to the point that the limits took hold. They always do.
The defining shot of his life was the shot he didn't attempt, the risk he was too prudent to take. Not all greatness is reckless or heedless. Tiger is back, yes, but now he's grown up.