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A practice round for the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills in June of 2018. (image: PeetlesNumber1 via Wikimedia under CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Return of Tiger Woods

Thankfully, things didn’t turn out the way many expected.

It was 1996 and I was sitting in what my fellow classmates derisively called ‘charm school’. It was the place we had been sent after the companies for which we had been working had merged and was intended for those considered ‘surplus to requirements’. How to put together a resume was pretty useful information and the practice interviews had some practical value. But the rest of the curriculum was pretty disposable and left lots of time to read the newspaper. That and talk about our pretty lousy golf games which had gone nowhere over the waning summer.

What caught my attention, and that of a few others, was a small article about an amateur golf phenom out of Cypress, California with the improbable name of Tiger Woods. He had just quit the economics program at Stanford University and was turning pro at just 20 years of age. I think I recall somebody saying “he’s going to regret quitting Stanford!” Now I think about it, that could easily have been me. At that time, however, Stanford was already known for churning out soon-to-be Silicon Valley millionaires. It seemed folly that even if Tiger was there a golf scholarship, he had still managed to get himself into one of the most prestigious schools in the United States. “He should stick it out for another couple of years just in case the golf thing doesn’t work out,” I remember thinking, enviously. I also remember somebody else, not me, remarked “do you suppose that he’s going to have a line of clubs called Tiger’s Woods?”

This was a time when professional golf was still most closely associated with doughy white men playing in tournaments before modest, polite crowds which mirrored the demographics of the players in many ways. Fitness was not a high priority. Stories abounded of Sam Sneed swinging his club only slightly faster than if he simply let it fall out of his hands and have gravity do the rest. Corporate rounds of the game even tolerated a little alcohol while on the course and you have to love a sport which permitted that. Augusta National, where Tiger Woods would make an indelible mark less than a year later, was only six years on from inviting their first African-American member. It was still 16 years away from inviting women to do the same.

If ‘we the surplus’ had taken the time to find out, we would have known that Tiger Woods had startled the field at the 1995 Masters where he was the only amateur to make the cut and placed a very respectable tied-for-41st. Crowds were already beginning to swell at whatever hole Tiger was playing and those in-the-know knew something was up with the tall, rail-thin but freakishly strong 19 year old. Most players’ tee shot swings made a pleasant whipping sound followed by an innocuous ‘clack’. Tiger’s swing had an eery, high pitched hissing sound followed by a metallic snap which must have been the sound of the ball begging for mercy. As the New York Times’ Larry Dorman wrote at the time, Tiger’s drive “flew off the club face…and just kept going, high enough to take aerial photos of Faldo’s [drive]…stopping…a good 70 to 75 yards past the two-time Masters’ champion”.

Later, Nick Faldo was asked for a quote about his practise partner on that day, to which he would only offer: “[h]e’s just a very talented kid. Let’s leave it at that. He’s better than me, sure, when I was that old.” Dorman, in the same article, wrote “[s]ome day, Woods might even be a more important golfer than Faldo.” What Dorman forgivably didn’t predict, along with many others, is Tiger Woods’ perfomance at Augusta just two years later, this time as a newly-minted pro. By that time, he wasn’t just an “important golfer”. Tiger Woods demolished the Masters’ field by a previously unimaginable 12 strokes finishing an astonishing 18 strokes under par. Both the margin of the win and total score are still records which stand today.

Simply put, Tiger Woods was playing an entirely different game than everyone else.

Earl Woods passed away in May of 2006. Tiger’s father had been directly responsible for his son’s education in golf starting when he was just 11 months old. Earl cut down one of his putters and gave it to Tiger as a gift. Earl had seen Tiger through endless junior tournaments while also arranging television appearances for the golf prodigy. First on The Mike Douglas Show in 1978 — where he putted against Bob Hope — and then again on That’s Incredible! with Fran Tarkenton in 1980. Up until turning pro, Earl Woods continued to provide coaching advice to Tiger. Without a doubt Earl did the same after Tiger turned pro as well, although by that time the golfer had acquired an entourage of those who would help build Tiger’s game to the next level. However, it is indisputable to say the one person most directly responsible for Tiger’s success — other than Tiger himself, of course — was Earl Woods.

What’s less obvious is the role Tiger’s mother, Kultida, played in all of this. A concrete hint is a brief appearance on the That’s Incredible! episode in which Tiger was featured. Kultida sat next to Earl on a couch in complete, stonefaced silence. Her fearful expression, as she looked across at Earl talking about their son, I still find deeply disturbing.

By the time of Earl Wood’s passing, Tiger had accumulated 48 professional tournament victories. A legitimate question, given the overwhelming influence he wielded over Tiger’s life, was whether Tiger’s game would continue at the same level. That question began to be answered less than three months later when Tiger won The Open Championship played that year at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club. Tiger continued to rack up tour victories at a rate even greater than before his father’s passing. His golf game had survived without Earl Woods and while not necessarily as a result of that, actually improved in his father’s absence. Once again, those who might have predicted it would all fall apart for Tiger were proved almost entirely wrong.

It may be the most important qualities instilled in Tiger by his father were determination, focus, work ethic and self-discipline and Earl constantly reinforced their importance in Tiger’s life. So it stands to reason that without the constraint of Earl’s influence, Tiger may have finally acted on impulses he wouldn’t have been able to easily explain to his father, or that Earl would have found acceptable even if Tiger had been able to explain them. The first evidence the legendary self-discipline was slipping exploded in November of 2009 when the black Cadillac Escalade Tiger was driving wound up hitting a tree and a few other stationary objects. The crash made news around the world. That had come after a salacious article published in the National Enquirer reported the first of many marital infidelities. This initiated a period where after a number of statements of mea culpa apologies, Tiger dropped from view and also left golf for a time. Obviously, he needed to focus on more pressing family matters. Some things really are more important than golf.

A punctuation mark on that period came in the form of a Nike TV ad which ran in April of 2010. It was shot in black and white and featured a single take of Tiger looking directly into the camera but without uttering a single word or even noticeably altering his expressionless expression. The voiceover, however, was chilling and highly controversional at the time. The producers of the ad stitched together separate soundbites of Earl Woods, at that time deceased nearly four years, into what can only be described as Earl expressing his disappointment in Tiger. Like many high achieving kids, Tiger’s dad didn’t have to yell at him to make him feel bad. He only had to clearly and quietly articulate his disappointment. If Earl had been alive, he most certainly would have been disappointed in Tiger’s behaviour during that period. In that sense, the ad was beautifully made and highly effective in making its point.

It also clearly articulated another important message. Although some argue it wasn’t nearly high enough, Tiger had paid both a personal and professional price which included, in August of 2010, divorce from his wife who was the mother of their two children. He had provided very public apologies and had sought treatment. He clearly had done what he felt he had needed to do. But it did not prevent those of us who probably had unreasonable expectations of Tiger’s character feeling extremely let down.

Regardless, with that spooky Nike TV ad, Tiger declared this troubled period of his life was over and he, at least, was moving on.

It would be two-and-half years after his victory at the BMW Championship that Tiger would once again find his winning form, this time at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in March of 2012. Tiger would win twice again that year, and then five more times in 2013. After a period where he had dropped to as low as № 58 in the world golf rankings, he once again attained the № 1 position by March of 2013.

But many had a sense that at 37, Tiger’s best days on the course might well be behind him. Winning was no longer a distinct possibility every time he competed in a tournament. At the same time, it came to light the legendary Tiger Woods’ swing had, indeed, proved too much for even a body as strong as his. His back wasn’t right which eventually led to multiple surgeries and a number of false starts to regain his form. From late 2015 through to early 2018, Tiger played in just a single tournament. At the Champions Dinner at the 2017 Masters, in which Tiger simply could not play due to his back problems, he could barely walk without the aid of strong medication. As a direct result of that experience, Tiger committed to make-or-break spinal fusion surgery later that same month, followed by a commitment to an extended period of recovery.

But rock bottom had not yet been reached. A little less than two months after the spinal fusion surgery, Tiger was arrested near his home in Jupiter, Florida for allegedly driving under the influence. Not of alcohol, as many conclusion jumpers posited, but rather painkillers related to the continued back pain he was experiencing. The mugshot blank stare of a noticeably heavier Tiger Woods made many of us who had followed him since the beginning feel a sense the end of his once-in-a-lifetime career was close. This was our time to be disappointed in the way it had spiralled down. While many of us secretly wanted Tiger to play — and win — again, most reasonable people thought those days were gone forever and with them, a bit of what made life exciting over the previous two decades.

I had long since stopped stopping on The Golf Channel to see if Tiger was playing on the weekend. I had some vague understanding that after his surgery in 2017 he had committed to a long term program of recovery but, candidly, the odds seemed so stacked against him, and there had been so many false starts, I stopped trying to keep track of it all. Like many others, I really hadn’t noticed Tiger’s quiet arrival back on the professional golf scene. Maybe that’s the way he wanted it. In March of 2018, Tiger tied for second at the Valspar Championship. In July he tied for sixth at The Open Championship at Carnoustie, Scotland. Then, at the season ending Tour Championship held at East Lake Golf Club in Georgia, after 1,879 days since his previous tour win, Tiger Woods finally returned to the winners circle beating Billy Horschel by two strokes.

Past winners of The Masters have a standing invitation to play in the tournament for the rest of their lives. As such, I assumed that Tiger’s appearance there in 2019 was more in line with that qualification as opposed to any serious prospect of winning or, indeed, making the cut and playing the weekend. I was that out of touch with the progress Tiger had been making in the preceding months. While it was possible he could play in the final rounds, I didn’t feel it was necessary to rework my Sunday afternoon schedule, as I had in the glory days, to accommodate what seemed highly improbable. Even if Tiger was two shots off the pace on Saturday night.

Just two years after not knowing if he would ever play competitively again, the enormity of what Tiger Woods just accomplished at The Masters is really hard to contemplate. It’s most compelling when it’s looked at purely by the numbers. At 43, Tiger was ten years older than the average age of the next 20 finishers. That ‘next 20’ were an average of just under 10 years old on the day Tiger turned pro. Runner up Xander Schauffele, who played magnificent rounds to finally come up just one short at the end, is 18 years Tiger’s junior. The next players on the leaderboard in their forties were tied for 12th. It was 14 years since Tiger had won his previous Masters’ title and 22 years since he had won his first. Only one other player, Jack Nicklaus, was older when he won it last. Only one player, also Jack Nicklaus, has won it more times: a total of six as compared to Tiger’s five.

All this in a tournament which an almost infinitely small fraction of professional golfers ever get to play, let alone win. Even once.

But, in addition, in between Tiger’s first Masters win and his most recent, the game of golf has changed dramatically. The ‘next 20’, almost without exception, have all grown up in the Tiger era. This is characterized by anything less than Tiger-like commitment to the game almost guarantees relegation to trunk slammer status and play at lower professional levels. All players have been challenged to up their game to keep up. What’s more, courses have become more difficult in what some refer to as ‘Tiger-proofing’: adding distance and obstacles to courses to better match the higher level of play first established by Tiger’s game. So winning the Masters, against all that fierce competition, is harder than it has ever been.

The lasting impact of Tiger’s fifth and perhaps most extraordinary victory at The Masters I think is best thought of like John Glenn going back to space after 37 years. It would have been easy for Glenn to think the possibility of topping his 1962 achievement was not very likely — unthinkable, in fact. But what inspired me about Glenn’s return to space is that as life stretches out before us all, it allowed us to believe it’s just possible the best of our lives is yet to come.

Tiger’s win sort of made me feel the same way.

Given his unparalleled ability to focus on the task at hand, I’m sure Tiger did not doubt he at least had to will to return to form and once again compete at the highest level, even if the body was reluctant.

The rest of us, admittedly, might have thought otherwise.

©2019 Terence C. Gannon

Thank you so much for reading. You can also listen to this essay as an episode of the Not There Yet podcast, read by the author.

Not There Yet.

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