With his win at Bay Hill yesterday, Tiger Woods ascended to #1 in the world for the first time since that fateful Thanksgiving weekend. Here, we rerun an article that ran last year after Tiger’s first tournament win in 30 months.
He’s back. Just about 30 months after his life and career imploded, in a fashion that, at the time and in the agonizing months since, would seem to be irrevocable, Tiger Woods has again won a golf tournament. The 73rd tournament of his career, in fact, tying him with his boyhood hero, Jack Nicklaus, for second on the all-time PGA list.
Though many people doubted he ever would again, and though a lone win does not mean he will attain the same level of success he had before that Thanksgiving weekend in 2009, Sunday Tiger looked like the Tiger of old. He even gave one of his now-patented fist pumps after chipping in from off the 16th green.
I’m not sure anyone should be surprised by this. Yes, the humiliation Tiger experienced in the wake of revelations of numerous marital indiscretions, and the pain that must, even for someone who appears to be as programmed as Woods, have accompanied the break-up of his family, would have laid the best of us low. Perhaps even permanently.
But Tiger Woods isn’t your typical human being and he certainly isn’t your typical athlete. I believe I can state this categorically: Tiger Woods is the mentally toughest athlete I’ve ever seen. Though it can be detected in his record when leading major championships going into the final round of play—a record which would, had he matched it, have produced at least a half dozen more majors for Greg Norman—the best examples of the singular mental focus Tiger once brought and, I suspect, based on yesterday’s victory, will again bring to golf are the year and a half from 1997 to 1998 when he struggled to win any tournament, never mind a major, and the 2000 Canadian Open.
Yes, I realize those dates and tournaments may be somewhat obscure references, but let me explain. Tiger Woods burst onto the golf scene in 1995 as the low amateur at the Master’s. In 1996 he won his third consecutive U.S. Amateur Championship and then promptly declared pro in August, winning two tournaments and becoming Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. In April 1997, he won the Master’s, his first major championship, by an unseen 12 strokes.
What did he do then? Well, what he did was completely reconstruct his swing—from the ground up. He and his coach Butch Harmon decided that, though clearly good enough to win the Master’s, Tiger’s swing wasn’t consistent enough for him to achieve his ultimate goal, which was, to put it baldly, to become the greatest golfer who ever lived.
The result was that Tiger won only one tournament in all of 1998. How many athletes would be willing, after already achieving one of the highest distinctions one can in his sport, to start over? That is essentially what Tiger Woods did. And my how it paid off.
Between 1999 and 2002 Tiger Woods won 27 tournaments and 7 major championships, leading the PGA Tour in earnings each year. The pinnacle of this amazing stretch was the year 2000, perhaps the greatest year a professional golfer ever had. That year Tiger won 3 consecutive majors, the last of which, the PGA Championship, he won in a thrilling duel with the unheralded, hell, the unheard of, Bob May.
To put this in perspective, what Tiger Woods accomplished by winning three major championships in the same year had not been done since Ben Hogan did it in 1953. And, to celebrate this singular achievement, to mark what had already been among the greatest, if not the greatest season in golf’s history, what did Tiger Woods do? Why he went out and won the Canadian Open not three weeks later. When almost any other human being on this planet, any other athlete, would have gone on a month-long bender to celebrate what he’d achieved, Tiger was back out on the course winning a tournament few people outside of golf even care about.
It is this almost maniacal focus on his game that has always been the key to Tiger’s success. I have never seen it in another athlete, certainly not other golfers, who tend to wax to the gregarious. When he is on a golf course, and I suspect when he is anywhere else, Tiger Woods is programmed to do one thing and one thing only, and that is to win golf tournaments. He is not there to make small talk with the marshals and fore caddies. He is not like other human beings.
And it is precisely this quality that, like a tragic flaw, brought about Tiger’s temporary downfall. For years Tiger had been trying, at least publicly, to pretend to act like other people. And my hypothesis is that this pretension was driven, at least in part, by Tiger’s corporate masters.
Upon turning pro in 1996, Tiger was immediately signed to endorsement contracts by Nike and Titlelist. He would eventually add such brands as Gillette, Buick, Gatorade, and American Express. His were among the most lucrative endorsement contracts in history. In return, the companies whose products he was endorsing expected Tiger to project an image that would, frankly, sell their products to an audience that, let’s face it, didn’t exactly look like him.
Along the way Tiger married and had two kids. As he turned 33, he seemed to have it all. He was well on his way to achieving his goal of being the greatest golfer ever. Between his earnings and endorsements, he was worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And he had a beautiful wife and children to boot. What few people realized is that Tiger didn’t want those last accoutrements. He wanted to have sex. A lot of it and with a lot of women.
Some people consider this immoral. Personally, I don’t. Tiger Woods is an adult and he can have sex with whom he chooses, so long as it is consensual. The problem was that Tiger got married. He took a vow. He started a family and then tore it apart. If Tiger wanted to have sex with multiple partners, he should have remained single. Other high profile men—Derek Jeter and George Clooney immediately come to mind—have remained single while being in the spotlight and I suspect it is because they would like to date and bed multiple women, just as Tiger has. They have chosen to do it, however, outside of the institution of marriage. If Tiger wanted to sleep with all the women he slept with, he should have done the same.
But why didn’t he? Again, it is only my untested hypothesis, but I believe Tiger got married to please the corporations that helped make him fabulously wealthy. As I said, some people believe sleeping around is immoral. Many of those people are white. Many of those people hail from the middle class. And many of those people play and watch golf.
It was bad enough that Tiger was bi-racial. Worse that he wasn’t a hail-thee-well-met kind of a fellow. Worse still that he was a whore. That wouldn’t do. Tiger needed to reflect middle-class Middle America’s values. That was the only way the endorsements were going to work.
But the truth came out. The life that Tiger really wanted to lead was revealed. The companies dropped him. His wife divorced him. He went into hibernation and, perhaps worst of all for this athlete who had worked with such repetitive fervor to commit it to muscle memory, he lost his swing. And for two and half years it didn’t look like we would ever again have the pleasure of watching Tiger Woods stalk a course with nothing but victory in his eyes.
Until yesterday. I, for one, can say I am glad he is back. Golf missed him. In his absence, it has become a sterile sport played, at least in its American version, by men who seem to have been built by focus group. Keegan Bradley and Bubba Watson are safe young men, the kind you’d bring home to your mother, and certainly the kind any company would want promoting its products. Rickie Fowler, he’s the bad boy the same way Justin Bieber is. There’s no real edge there, only one artfully created to walk a fine media line.
Yes, the crowds have embraced Tiger these past lonely months and will continue to do so as his comeback continues, as I suspect it will. But the relationship will never be the same. There will always be doubt. There will always be the nagging suspicion of the lover who may have forgiven the partner who cheated, but can’t quite forget. The relationship will forever remain a tense one. And that’s a good thing. Professional golf needs that tension and the adrenaline that comes with it. It has been lacking it since, well, Tiger’s career took a hiatus some 30 months ago.
AP Photo/Tony Dejac