On the morning after the 1997 Masters, USA Today saw fit to devote space in the paper’s editorial to the extraordinary happenings at Augusta National. They described the 12-stroke victory by Tiger Woods as “a moment of enchanting transition, when a new generation arrives with new ideas and standards”.
“Such moments may be traumatic, of course,” the editorial went on. “But in golf as in all sport — as in all of life — the changeover is thrilling to witness. After all, when you make history, you make the future, too.”
Woods had the world at his feet back then, less than four months past his 21st birthday. Now, another milestone arrives next Wednesday with the celebration of his 40th, an age when Ben Hogan won his fourth US Open and Jack Nicklaus his 16th and 17th Major titles. And we find ourselves wondering if a great career is effectively at an end, given that he has no plans for a return to action following a third surgery on his damaged back.
Whatever the future may hold, it has been an amazing career, characterised by episodes of profound human emotions from love to betrayal and from courage to shame, with liberal sprinklings of hubris, parsimony and obsessive privacy. To borrow a slogan from the departed News of the World, all human life was there.
As the finest golfer of his generation, Woods scaled unprecedented heights, of which a 15-stroke triumph in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach was his crowning glory. On that memorable occasion, nobody was in a better position to assess the quality of Woods’s shot-making in a closing 67 than his playing partner Ernie Els, a two-time winner of the title.
“If you want to watch a guy win the US Open playing perfectly, you’ve just seen it this week,” was the generous reaction of the champion of 1994 and 1997. “Tiger meant business in the final round, I tell you that. He was never in trouble, any kind of trouble. He was very, very calm. He never lost his cool once. His short game helped him out quite a bit on a couple of holes but overall he was just awesome — the ultimate professional.” Els concluded: “It was a pleasure playing with him. Who knows what he’s going to do from here?”
Later that year in the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey, Woods hit what was probably his greatest winning shot in regular tournament golf. It was a six-iron bunker recovery over water to the par-five 72nd which delivered a birdie finish to a closing 65 for a one-stroke victory over Grant Waite. It meant he joined Lee Trevino as the only players to win the US Open, Open Championship and Canadian Open in the same season.
Then, of course, there was his stunning play-off win over Bob May to capture the PGA Championship at Valhalla. And eight months later at Augusta National, he would complete the so-called ‘Tiger Slam’ by winning the Masters for a second time. Championship golf had never previously witnessed such concentrated dominance.
From 11 US events in 2000, Woods won five, had eight top-three finishes, 10 top-five finishes and was 122 strokes under par for 40 rounds.
In July 2011, the lavishly honoured American sports writer Rick Reilly was promoting his latest book titled Tiger, Meet My Sister . . . And Other Things I Probably Shouldn’t Have Said. On the Conan O’Brien show, the ESPN columnist had considerable fun at Woods’ expense.
“I’ve covered [Michael Jordan] his whole career, but I don’t think he can hold a candle to Tiger Woods,” proclaimed Reilly. “You need a court order to get Tiger’s wallet open. It’s unbelievable. He’s always like, ‘I don’t carry cash’. I know a valet here in town that stands between Tiger and his car just to get his $2. He’s really terrible.”
Reilly went on: “I’ve seen Phil Mickelson buy a 50-cent cup of lemonade from a little girl and give her $100. When he leaves the Masters each year, he gives the guys $2,500. Tiger gives them nothing. I was with Phil once, and it was raining. He sees a homeless guy, and he gets out, parks his car and gets out his umbrella to give to the guy. Tiger would charge the guy!”
How Woods crashed from the dizzy heights of 2000 to become the butt of such barbs on late-night TV is one of the most fascinating stories of modern sport. An ideal preamble was provided by Nicklaus, who said in Millennium year: “I think the stability which Barbara [his wife] gave me allowed me a lot more freedom to play golf and do things that many of the other guys didn’t have the opportunity to do. The other guys were still looking around for a wife or a girlfriend or something else.”
The Bear went on: “Just by being there, Barbara helped me mature in myself, which had the effect of improving my golf game. So I think that a good marriage can be a very influential part of a sportsman’s life.”
The gaps which Nicklaus left to one’s imagination with the simple phrase “or something else”, were filled sensationally by Woods in late November 2009. I happened to be in New York at the time and had noted the large display advertisement for the management consultancy firm Accenture in JFK Airport, showing a concerned Woods staring down at his golf ball perched in an extremely challenging position on the rocky ledge of a water hazard. The caption read: “It’s what you do next that counts.”
Six years on, hindsight screams to us how badly the exposure of Woods’s philandering was handled, from the time his outraged wife Elin attacked his car on that fateful Thanksgiving night in 2009.
Some serious commentators took the view that it was a private matter which should not have impinged on his tournament career.
This was to totally overlook the basis on which Woods built huge wealth from golf. The point was well made by columnist George Vecsey in The New York Times when he wrote: “Politicians merely sell themselves; they don’t sell an entire lucrative sport, the way Woods does. He can get back some of his lost image by putting out a plausible story. But at this moment, Tiger Woods has lost his touch.”
Vecsey might have written the press release from Accenture when they split with Woods two weeks later, having found him to be “no longer the right representative”. And though Woods continued to win tournaments, with three victories in 2012 and a further five in 2013, the Major magic had gone.
Like all great champions, however, he couldn’t entertain such thoughts. Rather did he relish slapping down a critical media when the AT&T National delivered his third victory of 2012. “I remember a time when people were saying I couldn’t win again,” he taunted. “That was six months ago, and here we are.”
Still, others were shocked by his inability to add to his tally of 14 Majors, which he has remained stuck on — four short of the Bear’s record — since the 2008 US Open triumph at Torrey Pines. These included Pádraig Harrington, who remarked: “I honestly thought he was stronger, mentally.”
A troubled mind, however, was only part of the problem. His inability to forge lasting relationships with people, specifically his coaches, was another significant issue. It seemed that when people became famous through association with Woods, their future was immediately under threat.
Most threatening of all, however, was the pressure he put on his body through violent swinging of a golf club from an early age. When one considers a club-head accelerating from nought to 100mph in less than 0.4 seconds, we can hardly be surprised that medical experts describe it as the most traumatic phase of the golf swing.
This is the downswing, which can be as quick as 0.23 seconds for a professional compared to 0.82 for the backswing. Not surprisingly, it accounts for 50 per cent of all golfing injuries, generally involving the wrist, back and elbow. And among amateur players, the most commonly injured area is the lower back.
With Woods, however, significant problems also centred on the left knee, which has to absorb serious forces at the hit. This came as something of a shock to observers who had imagined he might somehow be impervious to the sort of injuries which befall the rank and file, simply because of his remarkable talent.
In the event, he proved to be just as susceptible as his rivals when it came to coping with forces as much as 4.5 times his body-weight, generated by the golf swing at breathtaking speed. Indeed studies have shown that it would actually be less stressful to jog the 18 holes of golf than to play them.
Meanwhile, the only prospect Woods has of definite involvement in top-level golf next year is as one of Davis Love’s vice-captains for the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National. And while Rory McIlroy has expressed concern that his one-time idol might not return to the competitive arena, the game has found new heroes in Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and McIlroy himself.
From a personal standpoint, I miss Woods’s explosive talent from my TV screen and I’m sure there are many others of similar mind. But there are also those who subscribe to the Reilly view that El Tigre is “not golf’s Pope anymore”. The American scribe went on: “You’re not divinely entitled to greatness. Your talent used to forgive your lack of grace. Not anymore. All you are right now is a guy with injury problems, swing problems and monstrous public-relations problems. You’ve lost your wife, your swing, your coach, your caddie, your health and your good name, all in 18 months.” Then came the intriguing line: “As a wise man named Gerry McIlroy once said, it doesn’t cost anything extra to be nice.”
Another American scribe, Matt Brennan, questions the actual contribution that Woods has made to golf in general, other than to thrill TV audiences. Brennan wrote: “Between 1995 and 2000, at the height of the rivalry between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and concurrent with the professional debut of the Williams sisters, the number of recreational tennis players increased by 28.5 per cent, from nearly 18 million to nearly 23 million, while the number of recreational golfers increased only seven per cent, from 23.7 million to 25.4 million.
“Recreational golf’s growth after Tiger burst onto the scene was not especially remarkable even by the sport’s own standards. Compared with the three per cent increase in participation between 1990 and 1995, the actual ‘Tiger effect’ fell short of the rapturous expectations: Woods was a prodigy, not a prophet.”
This view has been endorsed by Greg Nathan, senior vice president of the National Golf Foundation, which provides market research to more than 4,000 member courses, clubs, and businesses. “Tiger Woods’s effect on recreational golf has been marginal,” said Nathan. “People play golf because they like the activity, not because Tiger is an all-time great golfer, a compelling personality and global sports icon.”
In his 1992 autobiography, Charlie Sifford, the father-figure of African-American golfers, wrote: “What golf needs . . . is a black man with a great deal of personal magnetism and a whale of a game who can demonstrate that blacks can fit into the game.” It was a time when the emergence of a hugely gifted young amateur who competed as a 16-year-old in the Nissan Open at Riviera CC prompted the locker-room line: “What do you think of Tiger Woods?” To which Sandy Lyle is supposed to have replied: “Don’t know — haven’t played them.”
Five years on, Woods seemed to launch the game into a new era, with more talent than even Sifford could have imagined, as the first black golfer to have made an impact on the US tournament scene, only to be controversially denied a Masters invitation. In the aftermath of the 1997 Masters, The Augusta Chronicle carried a photograph of the champion’s father, Earl Woods, being congratulated by Ron Townsend, the first black member of Augusta National.
“After this, we will have a situation where no one will even turn their head to notice when a black person walks to the first tee,” said an emotional Lee Elder, the first black man to actually play in the Masters in 1975. Sadly, such perceptions proved to be illusory.
Woods has been a thrilling, fiercely competitive champion who aspired to nothing less than the highest standards of golfing achievement. Serious doubts about reproducing anything close to his old skills, however, are making the pain of rehabilitation all the more difficult to bear. For him, they can be only a winner’s skills. So it is that deep down, he has probably given up on the wild dreams of youth, spawned by the Nicklaus Major list which he pinned to his bedroom wall.
As he carries a broken body into his 41st year, the future may be determined by a charming image from the weekend of his Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas earlier this month. Away from the heat of battle, he was to be seen with a loving arm around his eight-year-old daughter, Sam. She and her younger brother, Charlie, could be the ones to remove the death-sentence from enforced retirement and bring peace to his troubled soul.
Sunday Indo Sport
The emergence of Jordan Spieth, the Major breakthrough by Jason Day, and Rory McIlroy's season of joy and tears produced a compelling narrative throughout the golf season on both sides of the Atlantic. This is the way the Year of the New Big 3 unfolded: