Shawn Shinneman remembers when he believed all that stood between his 8-year old self and Tiger Woods was 13 years of experience.
I was only eight years old when Tiger Woods won his first major, but I wonder if I remember anything from the ‘90s as vividly. It was Masters Sunday, Easter Sunday, Sunday, April 13, 1997, a day I’d be moved much deeper by a man in a red sweater than by a man rising from the dead, even as I’d later come to believe the two weren’t so disconnected. I sat in silence in my Grandpa’s den, where I’d snuck in after dinner while the grownups slouched back from the fancied table to talk about work, about life, about dreams boxed out by reality.
My Grandpa’s den is painted a deep red, and built into one of the walls is a giant oak bookshelf and storage unit, with an old Toshiba in the middle. I’ve been in the room probably only a handful of times in my life, but on each occasion I’m reminded of its remarkable tranquility.
Age eight can be an intimidating chapter. It’s post-belief in Santa. It’s pre-braces. It’s right smack dab in the middle of long division. Just months before I sat in my Grandpa’s den that Sunday, I raced my good friend Zach to a painted mark on the worn asphalt of Eugene Field Elementary School’s playground. I’d beaten him in this annual race the last two years. But this year, in front of my second grade classmates and God and everyone, Zach burned my ass. For me, it represented a stark realization of limits; a sudden understanding that maybe Mom was lying to me about more than just St. Nick, about even my own abilities.
That’s a scary realization for an eight-year-old. One minute, you’re coloring with crayons and daydreaming about your future as a pro athlete. The next, you’ve started learning math, you’ve stopped believing everything your mom tells you, and you’re flirting with some conclusions about your future you aren’t ready to reach.
What I remember most from Tiger’s performance in the 1997 Masters was that he was just so unshakable. There was something youthful in the way he won. Of course, Tiger himself was full of youth at age 21. But something in him was younger still as he hit driver off every tee and went after every flag. Tiger was playing the game as if he could execute any shot he could envision, as if nobody had ever taught him to question plan A. He won by 12 strokes.
I don’t think any golfer will ever break Tiger’s record 15-shot major victory, which he set at Pebble Beach in 2000. But I know Tiger never will, even if he regains the golf game he had in his prime. Something’s changed. He won three of his first four majors by at least eight shots. He hasn’t won a major by more than five since.
The off-the-course issues became real to me when, as the news unfolded in the early days after that bizarre one-car accident, I heard a voicemail from Tiger to one of his mistresses, wherein he asked that she delete whatever evidence she had in her phone. It’s one thing to read about the incidents, to watch the newscasters give their reports. But to actually hear him scramble, to listen to the panic in his voice? I hated him for being weak.
I wrote a column for my college paper pledging to never root for him again. I wanted to stick to it, and maybe some people have followed through on similar promises. But I just wonder how. Don’t you guys remember? Don’t you remember 1997?
I sunk back, engulfed in a red leather recliner where my Grandpa spent his nights reading, the rain-soaked grass glistening outside the window. In the quiet, I watched a kid play golf like kids do. He was more reckless than he was supposed to be. Already leading by nine, he made three birdies in the first five holes on the back side of his final round. He really should’ve been playing to avoid the big number.
Tiger’s youthful dominance broke the existence of my own limits—made it impossible to consider them in the moment. There was just something in the way he did it, something relatable in that big uppercut fist pump, the father-son bear hug, those tears. If only for a day, every 8-year old was just 13 years from being Tiger Woods. If only for a day, it was only a matter of time.
I’m 23 now, at that fresh-out-of-college age where half the world views you as a baby and the other half like you’re ancient. I started a new job a couple months ago, and in a lot of ways it’s like being eight again. There are plenty of 23-year-olds doing more, running faster, burning past me like Zach years ago.
Golf looks different to me these days, which I suppose is obvious. How could it not? The more you learn the game, the more you realize there’s something to be said for thinking your way around the course, for hitting an iron off the tee, for laying up. I can’t help but question when players risk the big number in pursuit of the improbable.
I root for Tiger again now, probably with more heart than ever. I don’t think he owes it to anyone—fans, the world, me—to win. If anything, we owe so much to him, forever indebted by the gift he displayed for us: gave to us. I guess I just want to watch Tiger find something within him that used to come naturally. I want to see it again like I did in ‘97, before it all became about strategy and playing it safe. I guess I just want to be back in my Grandpa’s den, rain tapping against the window, watching unrestrained greatness in a still room.
—Photo credit: familymwr/Flickr