Solving Big Problems

tigers-boulder-plaque Pious platitudes and self-help advice on how to cope with life’s challenges are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to think lemonade when life dumps a load of lemons in your lap, but when the obstacles blocking our chosen or desired path in life are a million times bigger than a lemon it’s a lot tougher to know what to do.

I never know when inspiration or a life lesson will appear, but I got one recently when I least expected it. I was watching the Phoenix Open golf tournament on TV and learned about an unusual golf moment that occurred at that event 6 years ago. I’m a big golf fan; so I’m not sure how I missed this for that long, but here’s the story.

There is a plaque in the ground near a large boulder along the 13th fairway at the TPC Scottsdale course that commemorates the day in 2011 when Tiger Woods hit a wayward tee shot that ended up with a large boulder blocking his next shot toward the par 5 green. Commentators estimated the rock weighs close to a ton, and with his ball lying perhaps 3 feet from the rock there was no way even for Tiger to hit the ball over the rock. That would mean taking an unplayable lie and a one-stroke penalty for almost every golfer in the world.

But Tiger had two things going for him that most of us don’t. He knew the rules of golf very well. Two earlier interpretations of the rules of golf were relevant to Tiger’s predicament, and he wisely appealed to a tournament official for a ruling. The first ruling states:

“23-1/2: Large Stone Removable Only with Much Effort
Q. A player’s ball lies in the rough directly behind a loose stone the size of a watermelon. The stone can be removed only with much effort. Is it a loose impediment which may be removed?
A. Yes. Stones of any size (not solidly embedded) are loose impediments and may be removed, provided removal does not unduly delay play (Rule 6-7).”

The rules official determined that the big rock was not “solidly embedded” in the Arizona desert and could therefore be moved legally. But there was one large problem. Remember the boulder weighed 2000 pounds. Enter ruling #2”
“23-1/3: Assistance in Removing Large Loose Impediment
Q. May spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., assist a player in removing a large loose impediment?
A. Yes.”

Now many serious golfers may have known about those rules, but very few of us have a large and strong enough group of friends and fans to move a 2000 lb. impediment! Tiger of course always has a large gallery following him around the course, and several fans volunteered to help. With a bit of effort they were able to roll the stone away, and Tiger then had a clear shot to advance his ball toward the green.

If you’re thinking “So what? This is just a silly game rich people play for ridiculous amounts of money!” I get that. I also know Tiger is a controversial figure; so please bear with me and suspend whatever feelings you have for him as a person or a golfer. The life lessons I got from this story would be true no matter who was involved. One of the reasons I have persevered for decades as a not very good golfer is that the game has taught me more times than I care to remember how important it is to take responsibility for my mistakes, try to keep my composure when I hit multiple balls into the same lake, learn from the past, let it go and move forward and deal with the current circumstances I can’t change.

This particular story reminded me that we all encounter obstacles, large and small in our lives. Some of them look as insurmountable as a 2000 lb. boulder, and when that happens we have choices. We can give up, take whatever penalty is involved, and proceed. Or, we can stop and assess the situation and explore whatever alternative solutions there might be that are at first not apparent. One of the many things I love about my wife is that she is a problem solver. I, on the other hand, am more of the “this will never work, I give up” school.

One of the reasons I give up too quickly when life drops a boulder in my path is that I tend to only rely on my own resources and knowledge to look for solutions to a problem. That is very ironic since I spent 18 years promoting and teaching collaboration earlier in my life. (I’m sure there are psychological issues at play here, but as Scarlett O’Hara would say, “I’ll worry about those tomorrow!”) I do know that to ask for help carries with it a feeling of weakness or inadequacy for me. There’s a little voice in my male ego that says I should be able to figure this out on my own, and far too often it seems easier to just give up than to admit I need help.

I know how foolish that attitude is, and the Tiger Woods rock story helped me see that again. First of all Tiger realized the big rock was not “imbedded” in the sand. Too often I see a big problem and assume it is unsolvable when it really isn’t. Secondly, if Tiger and his caddy had tried to move that rock on their own it would have been hopeless. Even if his playing partner and his caddy joined in they would have been wasting their time and risking injury. But by drawing on his knowledge of the rules and the resources of others at hand the problem was solved. None of those people who helped move the rock could play golf as well as Tiger. Even in his declining years he still scores better than most of us amateurs can ever dream of. But the combined strength of the crowd provided something that only they could offer at that moment. Sure Tiger could afford to hire a back hoe to come in and move the rock, but that would have broken the rule by delaying play. He knew the rules and he knew to ask for help first from the rules official and then from the gallery.

So, even if you have no interest in golf or Tiger, we can all remember the next time an illness, a family crisis, a problem at work, or in the community, or even routine problems like car trouble, or frustrations with technology that won’t work—don’t surrender to the problem too quickly. Problems are often not as “imbedded” as they appear. Assess the problem, inventory the resources at hand to address the problem, know what’s possible, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If you want to see a video of Tiger’s friends in action go to

Three Brothers and the Hidden Treasure

I first heard this story many years ago, probably around the campfire at church camp. I don’t know the source or author, but I have always remembered it as a great parable about the joys and frustrations of exploring the mysterious depths of faith questions. (If anyone knows the author or source, please let me know.)

Three brothers lived in a rustic cabin deep in the woods. They had no neighbors and rarely any visitors; so they were surprised by a knocking at their door one night during a nasty thunder storm. When Jacob went to the door he found a very wet old man who had lost his way in the storm. The old gent said he didn’t want to impose, but if he could get some shelter for the night in a shed or barn he would be most grateful.

Jacob scoffed and said they would never think of putting a needy traveler in the barn. He invited the old man into the cabin where the brothers fed him, loaned him dry clothes and provided a comfortable bed for the night. The next morning they fed him a hearty breakfast and gave him food and water to take with him as he prepared to continue his journey. The old man was so grateful for their hospitality he pulled a tattered piece of paper from his knapsack and said he wanted them to have it. When Walter, the youngest of the three tried to decline the offer their guest insisted. He said it was a treasure map. “I’m too old to continue the search,” he told them, “but I want you to have this as a token of my appreciation.”

Thomas, the middle brother, saw it would be ungracious to refuse the gesture; so he took the map and put it in a desk drawer after the man was gone. He had never said where he was going, and the brothers thought it was a little odd; but they were soon preoccupied with their daily chores and forgot about the map.
They speculated a bit that evening at dinner about their mysterious visitor, and Walter wondered out loud where the treasure map might lead them. Jacob and Thomas were both skeptical but decided to humor their younger brother. So they carefully unfolded the map after the dinner dishes were cleared from the table. There were some recognizable landmarks in the mountains to the west of their cabin and not that far away was the traditional “x” marking a spot where they assumed the alleged treasure should be.
Since it appeared to be only a half day’s hike and their chores were mostly done, they agreed to satisfy their curiosity. As Walter argued, “What have we got to lose? If it’s a hoax we’re only out a day’s journey. But if there really is a treasure there, we don’t want to miss it!”

So they set out the next morning at sunrise and followed the map through the woods, forded a stream and climbed into the foothills. By late morning they arrived at what seemed to be the location marked on the map. Nothing immediately appeared to be of any value, but upon a more careful search of the area Thomas found an entrance to an abandoned mine that had been hidden by the underbrush. They cleared some debris from the entrance and carefully crept into the mine shaft using the flashlights they had brought along just in case.

They had not gone 20 feet into the mine when the beam of Walter’s flashlight reflected off of something bright and shiny. They carefully moved some timbers that were in the way and could not believe their eyes. They were staring at a chest with brass hinges, and when they opened it they found it full of jewels and gold and silver.
When they recovered from their amazement they began to make a plan of what to do. The chest was much too heavy for them to carry back home; so they decided to take as much of the treasure as they could carry in their back packs and come back later for the rest when they could bring a cart. They hid the chest a little deeper in the mine under more timbers and dirt, camouflaged the mine entrance as best they could with tree branches, and hurried back home, so excited they forgot to eat the lunches they had packed.

Back in their cabin they spread their loot out on the table and began dreaming about what they could do with their new-found wealth. They were all too worked up to sleep much that night, but decided they would hike into town the following morning and have their treasure assayed so they would know just how filthy rich they really were.
There was a jeweler in the county seat, and he was the one who broke the bad news to the brothers. He examined most of their “treasure” very carefully shaking his head and muttering before he finally said, “Boys, I’m sorry, but what you’ve got here is just cheap costume jewelry. It’s not worth more than a few dollars.”

The brothers were devastated. Why would that nice old man play such a cruel joke on them? They made the long journey back home in silence, each lost in his own thoughts. They didn’t talk about what happened much, but in the days and years that followed the three brothers each reacted to this disappointment in very different ways.

Walter coped by simply refusing to accept the fact that his “treasure” was worthless. He wore different rings and watches and chains proudly everywhere he went. People laughed at him and some pitied him, but he refused to give up his belief that he was a rich man.

Thomas was simply angry. He felt cheated by the cruel hoax that had been perpetrated on them. He could not get past his hostility toward the old man who had given them the map, and he withdrew into his own world and died a lonely and bitter man.

Jacob shared his brothers’ frustration and confusion. He did not understand what had happened either, but he could not believe that the kindly old traveler had intentionally duped them. He pondered the situation for some time and kept wondering if there was something they had missed on the first trip. For some reason he didn’t fully understand he had kept the treasure map; so he packed camping gear and tools and returned to the site.
It was a hard dirty job on his own, but he worked his way carefully further into the mine, passing the place where they had found the chest. He had to shore up the shaft in several places where the timbers were rotten, and he made multiple trips to town for more supplies. Some days he was exhausted and wondered if he was the real fool; but he didn’t give up, he kept digging deeper.

One day his labor paid off. The light from his miner’s cap glinted off something. He dug a bit deeper in that spot and uncovered one of the richest veins of gold ore ever found in that area. He was truly a wealthy man.