I just took time out to watch a few highlights from Tiger Woods performance at the 2000 US Open. It’s widely and rightly regarded as the pinnacle of Tiger’s incredible career, and the greatest performance in the history of golf. Playing at Pebble Beach, that most fabulous of golf courses, in the 100th playing of the Open, Tiger was in a different world. He won by fifteen shots, at twelve under par. No-one else in the field even broke par.
Having seen the broken man of the last few years carting his body around the course, shoulders often slumped, I was also struck by the sheer athleticism of his swing back then. Golf’s always been a languid sport, but Tiger hit the ball like an Olympian. He changed the sport of golf forever. And now he is gone.
This week Tiger gave an interview to Time magazine in which he all but called time on his golfing career. The nerve in his back just isn’t getting better, and after three painful surgeries and a lack of full recovery, Tiger’s clearly wondering whether there’s any point, or any hope, in trying to get his body right one more time. He turns 40 at the end of this month, and despite his hugely competitive nature, the writing is on the wall.
If this is the end, then it brings down the curtain on a career that has been astonishing, unprecedented, heart-breaking and on some occasions so breath-taking it’s brought me to tears. Twice, actually. Both those moments are worth dwelling on.
In the 2005 US Masters, Tiger found himself in an impossible situation on the back of the green at the 16th, and produced the most famous recorded shot in golfing history, somehow chipping the ball up a hill, and letting it roll down to the cup where it hung for one second, nicely displaying the sponsor’s logo, before dropping in. You’ve all seen it on youtube. Most of you probably haven’t seen another golf shot on your computer. I was on the sofa with my five-month old daughter, and shouted out so loud she burst into tears. Sorry Liv.
In 2008 Tiger played the US Open with two fractures in his tibia – or what you and I would call a broken leg. As the tournament wore on it became clear that it was getting worse, not better. Tiger would openly grimace on his follow-through. He could barely walk. His caddie Steve Williams recalled the ‘sickening click’ of bones as Tiger came through the ball. But Tiger played on, and well. When his game looked to be falling apart late on the Saturday, he managed to play the last five holes in five under par, putting them in from all over the place. I watched the 40-foot putt he holed on the last and burst into tears. It was just too much. Williams called the win the most heroic thing he’d ever seen.
And that was the thing with Tiger. He played professionally for fifteen years at a level of such consistent brilliance that I found myself over and over saying the words ‘I can’t believe what I am seeing’. When he needed a putt, he always, always got it. It was almost super-natural.
Then it all came crashing down. Just months after winning the US Open with a broken leg, a strange incident brushed off as a parking error was revealed to be Tiger’s wife attacking his fleeing car with a seven-iron at two in the morning. Turns out Tiger had been sleeping with every woman this side of the Wailing Wall. He admitted 120 affairs to his wife, and that’s 119 more than most women will stick around for. Elin left in a flash, and suddenly Tiger couldn’t play golf any more. For one reason or another, the magic was gone.
Tiger Woods brought a professionalism and a level of fitness to the game that had never been seen before. Where once the game was won and lost by fatsos like Craig Stadler, Tiger looked like an adonis, and hit the ball as if his life depended on it. He took golf courses apart, driving the ball prodigious distances and needing a nine-iron in when other guys were hitting a three. Commentators started using words like ‘ridiculous’. But the wear and tear on his body, and his back in particular, must have been prodigious. Golf doesn’t look like gymnastics, but you actually need to be fully fit to play it well. No other player hit the ball harder, no back on the tour would have seen such punishment.
Yet for all his fourteen majors, Tiger seems to have been brought down by his own success, and by a side to his personality that he let entirely slip. It’s a biblical morality tale about a man who, like Icarus, touched the sun, but fell to ground. Perhaps the moral of the story is this – if there is an aspect to your life that is out of control, and you choose not to address it, it can consume and destroy you.
Still, it’s hard to feel sorry for the man. He’s got about $600 million in the bank, and every material item you could ever want. His yacht is 155-feet long. It’s real nice. But you can’t help think that in his heart of hearts he’d trade all this for a body that would work. His entire life was built around getting himself into contention and in the roar of the crowd on the back nine on Sunday. And now not only can he not win, he can’t even play.
Tiger appeared on the Mike Douglas show as a two year old, such was his talent. He out-putt a bemused Bob Hope. Age three he hit 48 for nine-holes of golf. That’s right, 48. Aged 3.
By the age of five he was a phenomenon. How many five-year-olds appear in Golf Digest magazine. His father Earl was an extremely talented amateur, playing off a low handicap. Earl knew he had something special, and kept a diary of Tiger’s childhood progress. When Tiger was eleven he beat his dad for the first time. He never lost to his father again. He went past him.
Tiger won three US Amateur titles, an astonishing feat. By the time he turned 21 he was a professional making his debut at the Masters. Playing with reigning champion Nick Faldo, the world was watching as Tiger duffed the front nine in 40, but played the back in 30, and continued on from there, streaking away from the field to win by an incredible 12 shots, and becoming the youngest Masters champion in history. As Faldo put the green jacket on his shoulders, a generation passed.
And now the cheers have died. And it’s going to be very interesting to see what he does with the rest of his life. It could well be the measure of the man. But in truth, I fear he may just fade into the background, unable to successfully tailor his life to any requirement except that for which he was born. Winning golf tournaments.
I’m going to be very, very sorry to see Tiger exit the game, as I suspect he will before the Masters next year, although I’ll miss what he brought to the game more than the man himself. Tiger never had the charm or courage of his convictions like the other transcendent black US athlete, Mohammed Ali. Where Ali defied the establishment, Woods was the company man who turned up, flashed his million dollar smile, said all the right things and took home another fat cheque. Tiger put his name to some very questionable golfing developments. Ali refused to fight the Vietnamese. Only one can be truly considered great.
He didn’t always speak empty epithets, however. Tiger genuinely loves the game. He’s made it his life. And he’s conducted himself with integrity and sportsmanship of the highest order throughout his long career. He is an ornament to the game. Perhaps life on the outside will free him up, and we’ll see another side to this guarded man.
It’s hard to over-state just how conservative a world Woods had to take on. Golf was the whitest and most conservative sport in America. On several occasions he was subject to overt racism. Let’s take just one. On being told Tiger Woods was in charge of the champions meal after the Masters, ex-winner Fuzzy Zoeller called Woods ‘boy’ (a loaded word in the South), and told a TV-crew he hoped Woods wouldn’t serve fried chicken or collard greens, ‘or whatever the hell they serve’.
Every time race reared it’s head, Woods dealt with it with a calm dignity that is to his eternal credit. And he not only won, he dominated golf, in a way I have never seen before. Tiger is the greatest sportsman, and the greatest athlete I have ever seen. I’ve never seen someone play golf like he did, or find the cup when he needed it most, again and again and again. His life does seem like a moral parable. But his glittering career can never be tarnished.