As Tiger Woods glided to victory at Sunday’s Tour Championship, as he has dozens of times before, he stuffed us witnesses into a time machine and bore us back a decade or more. Beer bellies disappeared, foggy memories cleared up and the thrill of watching to the greatest golfer of all time win took us to an era when memories were not yet memories, but fresh revelations.
I’m 28 now, still young in absolute terms but in a very different part of life than I was in Tiger’s first prime. I was seven when he won the 1997 Masters by 12. I was ten when he blitzed Pebble Beach, winning the 2000 U.S. Open by 15. I was 18 when he won the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg at Torrey Pines.
For reasons that grow more inexplicable every day, I wasn’t really a “Tiger guy” back then. I remember being annoyed at how often he won, and how easy it seemed to come to him. I was a child, but I had some idea of how inscrutable this game is. How could this guy flush wedges, shape long irons and flight fairway woods like that? How could he drive it so far and so straight? How could he drain putt after pressure-jammed putt?
I should have been awestruck, but instead I was envious. I had no right to be. Like the rest of the world, I will never have Tiger’s physical gifts or his stunning work ethic. Recognizing it should have delighted and inspired me more. But whether it was the ignorance of youth or some sour spot in my character, I simply couldn’t appreciate just how rare he was at the time.
Societal trends notwithstanding, the last decade has made pundits out of every golf fan, from the casual armchair viewer to the industry insider. The months of service time Tiger missed after knee surgery in 2008 raised legitimate doubts about his career longevity, and the personal scandals that came to light in 2009 turned him into late-night TV fodder, not to mention gossip topic #1 in golf circles. Extracurricular personal conduct that golf media types would whisper about (and traditionally politely decline to report) received blaring worldwide exposure. The fracturing of the public image of a godlike figure confirmed plenty of negative opinions.
It took time, but Tiger came back, against the odds, winning eight times in 2012 and 2013, before his back crumbled. This golf demigod could barely get around the golf course, collapsing to his knees after otherwise routine shots. Amateur and professional commentators alike seemed sure he would never win again.
Strangely, my own Tiger Woods fandom increased as his body seemed to desert him. Watching this mythic figure thrash against the chains the years had wrapped around him made the feats he did when spry shine brighter in my eyes than when they were new. How could I have missed the magic when it was actually happening? Given another chance, I wanted to be able to appreciate the greatest practitioner of the game I love in real time.
Over those lean years, when Tiger wasn’t giving the world new highlights to fawn over, fans were forced to relive those great victories and moments and appreciate the incredible records and statistics that he had left behind. All the runaway victories. All the multiple victories in the same event. The 142-made-cut streak. Numbers-runners gave us new ways to ponder his greatness now that it seemed it – he – was done.
“Done.” That was the word we read in countless tweets and heard from television, radio and idle chatter at every golf course. Even when all signs heralded his demise as a player, I didn’t want to accept it. I was stuck in the denial stage of grief, even when words out of Camp Woods itself suggested the end might be near. I was foolish for taking him for granted; was I a fool again for believing he still had a future in competitive golf?
But somehow, throughout 2018, and culminating Sunday, golf fans everywhere got a mulligan. Tiger has aged, as we all do, but an iron will has borne him through a would-be career-ending set of challenges, self-inflicted and otherwise. He wasn’t sure he would walk again – something a younger Woods never would have admitted – and yet he strutted to victory in the Tour Championship, giving us moments we had been sure were only memories. He will probably never be as great as he was all those years ago, but he is already great again now.
The mass of humanity that surrounded him and threatened to overwhelm a battalion of security guards up the 18th hole at East Lake Golf Club Sunday screamed “Tiger! Tiger” in ecstasy. That joyful noise filled, for the first time in years, the Tiger-sized and -shaped hole in the game that no Rory, Jordan, Justin or Dustin can plug.
Tiger is back, and it’s a beautiful thing.
For the record, I don’t recount my blind optimism as a crass “Told you so.” I'm in no position to pat myself on the back now, as ignorant as I was years ago. I wasn't right or prescient in sticking by him; I just got lucky.
And alongside fellow fans, I'm lucky to get to see him play highest-level golf again. I foolishly missed the chance to revel in his golfing success the first time around. But I am ready to join the millions who are savoring this new chapter.