Even when he was losing, Tiger was still a superstar
Woods wins his first PGA title in years, but he was always the biggest name in golf
Quick, who won the Masters earlier this year?
It was Patrick Reed who donned the green jacket (and seemingly never took it off) after a stellar, pressure-packed performance. He shot 15 under par, 3 strokes off the tournament record, to eke out a narrow victory.
It was memorable work, yet it is probably remembered only by dedicated golf fans. And we can all agree that its impact pales next to Tiger Woods’ dominating 1997 Masters win, when he set a course record and ran away with golf’s most prestigious prize by an astounding 12-stroke margin.
That victory propelled Woods to superstardom and made his tournaments must-see television, even for many people who had never picked up a golf club. Woods played like a superstar for more than a decade before things started to fall apart in 2009. Injuries and personal turmoil caused him to plummet in the rankings. The man who had a 281-week run as the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer found himself out of the top 1,000 less than a year ago.
Before his victory Sunday at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Woods had not won a golf tournament in more than five years. Yet, he never really relinquished the mantle of superstar.
Even at his lowest point, Woods remained golf’s most compelling competitor. The spotlight was his as he struggled through injury and personal scandal and tantalized us with brief flashes of his former self. He was like Michael Jordan during his days as a Washington Wizard: an often diminished performer, but still the brightest star on the court.
Such is the power of an athlete who has performed his craft at a level few others have attained. Every sport has an ample roster of top talents, but the truly transcendent are rare and precious. Joe Frazier was a beast of a boxer, but he was not Muhammad Ali. James Worthy could really play, but not like Julius Erving. Larry Fitzgerald has been catching passes in the NFL for 14 years, but he’s unlikely to ever catch up to Jerry Rice in the record book or in the public imagination.
Great golfers such as Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson have tried to fill the void left by Woods during his struggles, but they have done so incompletely. Sure, they won tournaments while playing the athletic style of golf popularized by Woods, but they would be the first to admit they have not achieved his status.
Only Woods can claim to have altered the culture of the game. He drew casual fans to golf, both as spectators and weekend duffers. He dominated his sport like few before him. With this latest win, Woods is just two wins behind Sam Snead’s record 82 PGA Tour victories. And he remains just four behind Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major victories.
At his best, Woods has been nearly impeccable on a golf course: powerful, strategic and skilled. Aggressive and thoughtful. Off the course, he is more like the rest of us — complex and hardly perfect.
Beyond his marital indiscretions, Woods has never been an outspoken social activist. The self-styled “Cablinasian” has been reluctant to play the role of racial symbol. Yet, the substantial work of his foundation, which has spent tens of millions of dollars on college scholarships and after-school centers for low-income students, and his own comments about golf’s troubling racial history reveal a serious social consciousness as well as a keen understanding of how his own example could unravel old stereotypes. Perhaps in that way, too, he has been like Mike, who does not speak out much but has hired many black executives both for his sportswear brand and his basketball team.
When unthinking comments, or even racist ones, have come his way, Woods has brushed them off with the confidence of a superstar. Fuzzy Zoeller thought it was funny to say that Augusta National might start serving fried chicken and collard greens after Woods’ historic 1997 Masters victory. And golf commentator Kelly Tilghman playfully observed that Woods’ rivals might have to “lynch him in a back alley” to curtail his dominance.
Those remarks did not provoke a public explosion from the tightly controlled Woods. He simply expressed his disappointment and moved on. Every right-thinking person knew who the fools were in those situations. To borrow a phrase from former first lady Michelle Obama, when they went low, he went high.
In a social media era where seemingly no opinion is too inconsequential to ignite a war of words, Woods is sometimes criticized as anodyne, and even unduly concerned with the feelings of white folks. But another way to think of him is that he has the inner confidence of a true superstar. Woods had to look no further than the throngs who followed him from the gallery over the years to know that many fans of all races idolize him. Why get ruffled by random remarks from relative nobodies?
After all, he is the one hailed as one of the greatest golfers of all time. He is the one with a net worth that Forbes magazine pegged at $740 million in 2016.
Woods himself has always said the sweetest revenge is winning. He knows that excellence and success are ultimately unassailable, and that has driven him through adversity. And, at least for now, he is back on top.