It happened last summer. I became one of those people. Not simply a Tiger Woods fan, but someone who only tunes in when he’s playing (well, maybe not only, but with more interest), who only wants to see his shots. I’d always hated those people, and I‘ve encountered lots of them.
I started covering golf in 1998, the year after Woods turned pro, and for the 14 years I worked at Sports Illustrated I covered golf full-time for seven of them. During those years I watched just about every minute of PGA Tour coverage that went out over the air.
I knew the names of every guy who swung a stick at a dimpled white orb, whether in anger, infamy or ecstasy. I hung on the Masters and the U.S. Open and all the big events that were packed with the big-name stars, but I also cared about those other tournaments, the John Deere Classics, the Memphis Opens.
The ones Woods couldn’t be bothered with and that his “fans” therefore didn’t care about.
Those people were missing so much, so many great shots and good stories. I was a golf fan. They were Tiger Woods groupies.
Then something changed. Well, lots of things changed.
A different Tiger
Woods last won one of golf’s four major championships in 2008, and that has been the least of his problems.
A year later he was caught with his pants down; a series of tawdry affairs came to light, ending his marriage, forcing him to publicly cop to a sex addiction and turning him into tabloid fodder.
There was a DUI, rehab, fired swing coaches and caddies. He was top-of-the-hour news on both ESPN and E!. Sponsors dropped him. Friends and former colleagues condemned him.
Around the same time, his body began to break down. Over the years he’s had four knee operations and four back surgeries — the latter often a death knell for duffers. As recently as 2017, he could not even swing a club.
So when the last of those operations, a spinal fusion, allowed him to return to the game, he was a different Tiger Woods. The conventional wisdom held that he had been humanized by his struggles. Where he had once been a god, he was now just a guy, which broadened his appeal.
What I heard
As I found myself more drawn to him, I accepted that line of thinking without challenge. Why not? In the intervening years Tiger had lost his father and so had I. His children had grown up and so had mine. His body and game were creakier and so were mine. He was more relatable.
But as I watched Woods make his way around Augusta National Sunday morning, stalking and finally taking the lead in the 83rd Masters, something else hit me.
Tiger is old. He’s 43 on the calendar but has the body of a 53-year-old and the life experience of a 63-year-old. The sports world had concluded that while he was tending to his failing health and diminishing abilities, he had been surpassed by a group of younger players who grew up rooting for him and came to the game along the path he had cut. In 2019, golf is full of Tiger cubs, athletes who hit the gym hard and the ball harder.
The game had passed Woods by.
That certainly seemed to be the case when the tournament announced that it would start play earlier on Sunday to avoid bad weather — meaning Tiger would tee off at 9:20 a.m. instead of somewhere around 3 p.m.
Woods acknowledged that in order to get himself physically prepared to play, he would need to rise at around four in the morning. And photos of him in the gym at 5 a.m. found their way to social media.
But given the chance, Woods arrived at the first tee ready to go. As the day progressed, he stayed patient and relied on his knowledge of his game and Augusta’s quirks to beat back the horde of millennials trying to claim the title.
About 10 hours after that wake-up call, when Woods tapped in a short putt to win, he raised his arms and let out a series of whoops and screams.
If you listened closely though, the sounds actually said something else: Although the world may tell you that you’re no longer the equal of your former self, that the mental, emotional and physical wear you have endured hinders you and that newer and younger is better, if you prepare well and play to your strengths, you still have so much to offer.
At least, that’s what I heard.