This week the PGA Championship will be held right up the road from me at Bethpage Black. (As you’re reading this Wednesday, I’m at the site watching the gents practice.) Because there’s almost nothing happening around the Bears, I’m writing about golf to commemorate the event.
Tiger Woods wasn’t made a human.
His father Earl, the sporting world’s Victor Frankenstein, never concerned himself with such trivial things as “human” in the lab. Yes, Earl and his wife Kultida gave their son a human name – Eldrick, for those of you who don’t know. I’m sure they even taught him to use a toilet for both numbers one and two. But creating a fully-functional human male was never the priority. Hell, it barely made the to-do list.
Earl set out to make a monster and that monster would play golf. A couple years into his life, Eldrick no longer existed. At two, “Tiger” Woods was whacking a 3 wood on national television in front of Mike Douglas and Bob Hope. At three, Tiger shot 48 on a nine-hole course. At eight, Tiger broke 80. At twelve, 70. By then, Eldrick had almost never existed. Because once the grip of a golf club touched his tiny paws, Tiger was all that could be.
In the inevitable documentary series on Tiger Woods – one that will strike up a media bidding war for his participation – Chapter One will be everything from his birth until April 1997; the creation and emergence of Frankenstein’s golf monster. If there was a junior or amateur tournament to be played, Tiger played it. And dominated it. Multiple times. The specter of this phenom lingered over the PGA Tour like a dark storm cloud on championship Sunday. The Craig Stadlers and Lee Janzens knew he was coming. They just hoped they could get their rounds in and a post a score.
Chapter Two will be the transition of that dominance to the tour – from a twelve-shot victory at the 1997 Masters to beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff at the 2008 US Open on a broken leg. There’s very little drama during this stretch of Tiger’s career. Just win after win after win after win.
But Chapter Three will be the one that draws the ratings and it began in the darkness of Thanksgiving night 2009 with an SUV wrecking in a Floridian driveway and an angry Swedish wife attacking Tiger with, what else, a Mike Douglas 3 wood.
On that night, Tiger became Eldrick again.
Eldrick Tont Woods, just a dude in his 30s caught cheat-texting a sidepiece from his couch. A guy who had done so many seemingly impossible things on the golf course was doing something thousands upon thousands of idiot guys have done on couches around the world: sending a message to someone they shouldn’t.
What followed that night was not just the downfall of one of the world’s greatest athletes. It was the total collapse of a human being.
It started with the women. One after another they came forward. And Eldrick had no choice but to watch his sexual history play out on the front pages of newspapers across the world. Nobody felt sorry for him. He made his own bed. (Or in these cases, the chambermaids at whatever Four Seasons he brought the ladies to did.) But each story still made us cringe. The details. Flights to Australia. Chain restaurant hostesses.
Sponsors deserted him. The golf media he’d kept at a distance for years relished their opportunity to take shots. There was an embarrassing public speech and a 45-day rehab. (For what, who knows?) And soon it didn’t take long for the off-course mess to find it’s way onto the fairways.
[Author’s Note: There is so much to list during this period. Here is just a sampling.]
- 2010 – 2012: The gradual decline of Woods’ golf game and world ranking. He fires his caddie, Stevie Williams. He begins missing large chunks of the PGA schedule due to nagging injuries.
- 2013: Five wins. He was back. “Winning takes care of everything” was the new Nike slogan. But the injuries continue. WDs all summer long.
- 2015: Tiger Woods couldn’t chip the golf ball. And in many ways, this might have been the most embarrassing thing he endured.
- 2016 – 2017: Back gone. Spinal fusions. Reports from the Masters champions dinner that Woods couldn’t even stand up and sit down at the event, even saying to several in attendance that he was “done”. DUI mugshot. It was over. And everybody knew it.
From 2014 through 2017, Tiger Woods would only play 6 of the 16 majors. He would only make the cut in 2 of those. This was Tiger Woods?
There are so many images from this period. The Santa photo. The details in Wright Thompson’s brilliant profile. Pissing in a bucket beside the bed. The monster who did not seem beatable was so thoroughly beaten.
Except somehow, he wasn’t.
He showed up in 2018 and looked healthier. He spoke differently about his expectations. He seemed patient, yet supremely confident he could return to the game’s elite. He contended throughout Florida and had legitimate chances to win the final two majors of the season, at Carnoustie and Bellerive. His patience was finally rewarded with a victory at the Tour Championship.
Now we knew he could win again. Now he knew he could win again. And the scene of the adoring crowd following him up the 18th fairway at East Lake became the definitive image of Golf 2018. But was this going to be another 2013-esque mirage? Was that scene in Atlanta going to be the end of Chapter Three and perhaps the end of Tiger’s story on the golf course? Was that going to be Tiger’s ’86 Masters?
No, Tiger’s ’86 Masters was seven months away.
April 14, 2019. Tiger wins at Augusta National. I won’t bore you with a half-assed game story because there are plenty out there for you to read and many good ones. I’ll make this personal.
The early tee times due to coming Augusta storms meant Tiger going off early that Sunday morning. I dropped down to my local, The Copper Kettle in Woodside Queens, my black TW cap clenched tightly in my fist. One would think I’d be drinking alone in a bar at 9:30 AM watching golf. One would be wrong. My neighborhood is Irish – real Irish from Ireland – and we love golf. Quinn and Cannon and Gaynor and an English cat named James who goes by “English James” were there with fresh pints and white pudding looking up at them. Everyone knew what was possible. And Francesco Molinari winning his second major championship wasn’t it.
I was nervous. I’d been a Tiger Woods fan since Tiger Woods began but I’d never been nervous before. I didn’t think about why in the moment but I realize now that his winning in the past had been a foregone conclusion. If he was on the leaderboard come the weekend, he won. There was no reason to be nervous or have any emotional investment in the result. The result wasn’t in question.
And being someone with only one team in his life, I wasn’t used to the emotion. When Tiger won I walked out onto Skillman Avenue and let out a scream so as not to bother the brunching families that had since filled the bar and restaurant. It was cathartic. I was a fan of Tiger’s in 2008 – when he won his last major – but I’d become obsessed with the game and his career in the years since. Finally, I got to feel the moment. Feel the victory.
Because I was rooting for the man. Not the monster. I was rooting for the guy loopy from painkillers and limping off the course and reading about the girl from Applebee’s. The most unlikely comeback in sports history was now complete and I was thrilled for the man who completed it.
And when he hugged his son Charlie walking off that green, I mean, come on.
Augusta National was not going to have the green jacket ceremony outside in 2019, concerned about that weather. They had no choice because as the ceremony took place in Butler Cabin, the gathered hordes, pimento cheese dripping off their chins, chanted “Tiger! Tiger!” Out came the man in red and black. Out came Patrick Reed holding the coat.
Tiger felt that love deeply. Just look at his face in the video above. Fans had always rooted for him. Fans had always admired him. Players had always feared him. But did anyone truly love him? Is it possible to love someone who so obviously doesn’t need your love?
Noah and I started this blog in 2005 because it seemed the logical place to put my opinions on the Chicago Bears. It’s never made me rich and it never will but it’s given me more experiences and friendships than I ever imagined. I have made it one of my life’s passions for the last 14 years because I still find a thrill in writing about sports. And Sundays like April 14th don’t happen very often. They almost never happen.
And now all I can think about is…will there be a Chapter Four? the Jack Nicklaus story as an athlete ended in 1986. Sure, he built golf courses and hospitals but those achievements are the postscript to his story in the game. Who knows what Tiger will do next? But I can’t wait to find out.
This post will live here until Monday as the site takes a few days break. Wood returns Monday.