Is Tiger back and ready to roar again?
His play this season and at the Masters shows that anything is possible
“This course will test you.”
— Tiger Woods speaking after his first round in the 2018 Masters
Last week, Tiger Woods began competing in the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. He walked the way he always walked. He smiled the way he always smiled. And he sought to play the way he used to play. Which is to say, the four-time Masters winner sought to come back from the dead.
To be sure, Woods hadn’t actually died. It’s just that many sports pundits and commentators had performed the last rites on the 42-year-old’s career. After all, they said, age and injury had laid Woods low. And a tawdry sex scandal had scattered dirt on his humbled body and reputation.
During the run-up to the Masters, Woods played well in two tournaments. He has talked like a man just happy to be alive: playing the game he loved pain-free.
Still, as had been the case for most of his adult life, he entered the Masters encumbered by great expectations. Although Woods hadn’t won a golf tournament since 2013 (the 11th and most recent time he was the PGA’s Player of the Year) or a major tournament since 2008, the crowds and many of the media had begun to follow him the way they had 15 or 20 years ago: as if they thought they might see something they’d yet to see.
This is a miraculous era in big-time college and major league sports. The players are so skilled and talented. The best coaches and managers are so discerning and well-prepared. What’s possible gets redefined by each dazzling catch, thunderous dunk or stunning upset.
Star athletes such as LeBron James, Tom Brady and Serena Williams treat advancing age the way Muhammad Ali treated lumbering foes in the ring: as an unworthy challenger to be pummeled with stinging combinations, skill, guile and fitness.
And, of late, great athletes have been coming back from their sports deaths.
Serena and Venus Williams have defied their sports deaths so often it would seem that cats with only the proverbial nine lives would nod to them in appreciation and respect. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have survived the numerous wakes being thrown by the sports media to win Grand Slam tennis tournaments in the past year.
And now, Tiger hopes it’s his turn to emerge from the crypt so many sportswriters and commentators had built for him — and the one he had built for himself through his reckless behavior.
Tiger, like the Williams sisters and LaVar Ball’s basketball-playing boys, was groomed for greatness by a father on a mission: Earl Woods, a former Green Beret officer and a trailblazing black baseball player at Kansas State.
Still, it was the influence of his Thai mother, Kultida, that helped give him his preternatural calm on the golf course. While at Stanford, he won three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles. He left college before graduating, winning his first Masters title at 21 in 1997. He’s won 79 tour events (second to Sam Snead’s 82) and 14 Grand Slams. His majors haul is second only to the 18 that Jack Nicklaus, Tiger’s idol, has won.
At his best, Tiger appeared to become one with the golf course, the event and the moment. The ultimate front-runner, once he shot to the top of the leaderboard, he calculated the shots he had to make and made them, narrowing his opponents’ path to victory with every deft stroke. He became so dominant, especially when he was playing what he called his “A-game,” some golf courses were altered to make it more difficult for him to win. He won anyway.
Because of his multiracial background, Tiger’s mom called her son a universal child. Publicly apolitical, Tiger embraced his white, black, American Indian and Asian heritage, calling himself a Cablinasian. And he was admired by golf fans and admirers of sports greatness all around the world.
Golf made him rich and famous. And he raised the level of play and interest in his sport.
Then, in 2009, his serial infidelities were unmasked. Married and the father of two young children, he’d treated women as if they were disposable: faceless people to be balled up and forgotten once his encounters with them had lost their flavor.
Because of his sex scandal, he lost his marriage, most of his endorsements and some of his fortune. Having also lost his father and mentor in 2006, he lost his way.
Through the years, he’s had multiple operations on his back. He’s done stints in rehab for sex addiction and prescription drug abuse.
On Thursday, when Tiger approached his first tee at the Masters in three years, he was clear-eyed. The grass was green. The sky was blue. He looked fixedly across the course. Perhaps he could see where he had been and where he was going. He rested on his club. He took practice swings. He stepped to the tee. He stood with his feet apart, as if one foot was planted in a personal rebirth and the other in a career resurrection. He swung. The crowd applauded politely.
It was on. For a moment, the person born Eldrick Tont Woods could have been any other man or a new man. For a moment, Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer of his era, could have been any other golfer at the Masters. Or he could have been his old self.
The course Tiger’s life has taken has tested him and the loyalty of his fans.
Last week, Tiger Woods came home to the Masters. He came home to find his way. And there is no better place than home to continue a journey of self-discovery, on and off the golf course.