Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

The Tiger Woods That Saved Golf

July 13, 2011

The 1997 Masters is my earliest golf memory, which probably doesn’t make me unique among mid-20’s Americans. What does make me unique is why I remember that tournament. When asked about anyone in the field catching Tiger Woods after Saturday’s third round, Colin Montgomerie said:

“There’s no chance humanly possible that Tiger is going to lose this tournament. No way.”

I remember being confused. I had played a bit of golf at that point and just began casually paying attention to the PGA Tour. The tour seemed random in a way that nearly turned me off. Every event, from what I could tell, was just a whole lot of waiting around until Sunday afternoon when someone would hit a lucky or unlucky streak, and the tournament would be decided. So, with 18 holes to play, how could there be no chance for Tiger to lose? I wouldn’t really understand for another three years.

The 2000 U.S. Open was the 1973 Belmont Stakes and Tiger was our Secretariat. It was a spectacle masquerading as a golf tournament, featuring Woods, after a rain-delayed second round, building a 1 shot lead into 10 nearly in a single day. He won by 15 in a rout that crystallized the notion of the greatest performance I’ve ever seen. It made sense of Colin Montgomerie’s quote from three years earlier and became the lens that I’d evaluate golf through for the rest of my life. It’s commonly said that golf is a game that can never be perfected, but it’s hard to imagine anything more perfect than Tiger’s assault on the 2000 Open.

Tiger Woods is and will always be a hero of mine. I don’t care about the harem of women he kept at various Tour stops. I don’t care about the rumors of drugs or kinky sex. It’s absolutely irrelevant to me.

I’ve thought a lot about why I feel that way, and the honest truth is that the “scandal” never surprised me. Baseball players take steroids. Football players gouge each other’s eyes out at the bottoms of pile-ups. Famous, rich, good-looking athletes cheat on their spouses. I’d love to design a world where that weren’t the case, but I’m only a spectator in this one and never got that chance. I consider myself a pragmatist and wear that term with honor, so it never made sense to me that anyone would be surprised—to say nothing of outraged, shocked and upset—to learn that the wealthiest athlete in the history of the world, in the prime of his career, would be anything less than faithful. This isn’t a value judgment about Tiger’s decisions. It’s much closer to a question of statistics, of how likely it was that he wasn’t doing these things in the first place. Fantastically unlikely. American sports heroes are false idols, and they always will be. That simple realization makes any salacious reveal the expectation, not exception. Sports heroes are not real people. None of our heroes are, and it’s irresponsible to treat them that way—it’s never been why we’ve loved them, and it’s only peer pressure that turns our love into hatred.

However, after the last three years of trials and tribulations, of tabloids and injuries, I’ve admitted that I’m upset and almost angry at Tiger. It’s illogical to be sure, purely emotional. But that’s little solace in the face of a failing hero.

I’m upset because a source of stability—Tiger’s dominance—was suddenly taken from me. It made for evergreen sports broadcasting fodder to debate whether Tiger was bad for golf. Wasn’t it boring to take the variety out of the winner’s circle? Didn’t all the “Tiger proofed” courses take the beauty out of golf? Of course not. Tiger’s decade on the PGA throne gave golf a story. It gave kids, and really all golfers, a story that lasted more than 72 holes. It questioned the idea of what’s possible in the same way that airplanes and space shuttles must have in their time. It was as close to perfect as an athlete can be in a game that chews up perfection and spits it out.

I’m upset because it’s yet another piece of evidence that my childhood is over. Graduating from school, moving across the country, getting a job and paying bills are easily rationalized by not feeling like a grown up, no matter what the pieces of paper in your mailbox suggest. But watching greatness collapse is undeniable. It’s the most tangible biological clock I have.

But most of all, I’m upset because I can’t tell when it’s time to give up. When Tiger won the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg and then went straight into surgery, a lot of people called a coming decline. In hindsight it’s hard not to say that they were right, but sadly it’s not that simple. The flashes of greatness that have come since are almost the worse possible form of temptation, they make it too easy to still hope against hope.

The 3-iron into the 18th for eagle on Saturday at the 2009 Presidents Cup, the Saturday 66 at the 2010 U.S. Open and the front nine blitz on Sunday at the 2011 Masters were all-too-powerful reminders of what once was. But with each passing week, with each Did not play that gets logged for Tiger in another major, they look more like mirages and less like sparks capable of reigniting the fire that I loved so much. There’s a sense of cognitive dissonance for me because each instance was, without a doubt, as good as Tiger has ever looked, right up to the 5-wood into the 8th green for eagle on last Masters Sunday. It was perfect. It was also fleeting, and that’s the most disappointing thing I’ve ever learned about sports.

For a long time I refused to accept what now seems like a reality, that the Tiger Woods I met at 12 years old is gone forever. In a Peter Pan “never want to grow up” sort of way I had come to believe—even to know—that it was just a matter of time until any bump in the road was smoothed and his spot at the top revisited. In letting go of that faith, I’m reminded of my first memories of golf, that it’s random and not fit for domination. I was lucky enough to grow up at the perfect time to witness one of the greatest aberrations in the game’s history. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t permanent, and I’ve grown to accept its consequences in the last 14 years. I’m no longer upset that golf isn’t a game fit to crown kings and certainly not to appoint dynasties. I miss the thrills they bring, but I look forward to the surprise when they come.

There is a fable that has many versions, but my favorite is one of a king that commissioned a single sentence to make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. It was meant as a taste of humility for the time’s greatest poet. The result is now famous: This too, shall pass. I certainly hope so.

For every time Tiger withdraws from a tournament, snap hooks one out of bounds or shows his age on a major championship Sunday, I’m reminded of the great shots. The 6-iron from a bunker, over water on the 18th at Glen Abbey to a pin tucked on a nothing patch of green; the 2-iron from 260 that flew the green on the 16th at Firestone; the 3-iron trick shot from a bunker over a tree at Hazeltine.

The kick in the chest, after all of this, is how I gave up the battle. It was when Steve Williams went to caddie for Adam Scott in the U.S. Open this year. I have no doubt that Tiger will flash his incredible talent for us again, but when you believe your guy still has it, you don’t moonlight with the competition. And when the insiders give up on the guy, I’m forced to do that same.

  • I got goosebumps reading this post because I remember many of the same shots. The 1997 Masters was also my first golf memory. I started playing a couple of years later.

    I’m not ready to give up on Tiger yet because I’ve always been a fan of his. I sure hope he recovers from the latest injuries and has 10+ years left. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. Watching golf is so much more exciting when he’s in contention.

    • Well, maybe the new Tiger Woods is already out there! I hope so because he wasn’t going to be eternal anyway… We all know athletes tend to stop their careers early for various reasons. Do you have someone in mind?

  • Jes4556

    Nice work ,  I really enjoyed it!!  Shared it to Dean & he thought it was great!   I loved it… let me know how you are doing….. ok??

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