If I May: Reflecting on Tiger Woods

On Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, Tiger Woods won his first golf tournament since 2013. Later that evening, I cried real tears. Because of a Sunday commitment, I was not able to watch the end of the tournament live. In fact, I didn’t even know he had actually won until I got a text from my dad, the man who introduced me to golf and Woods, which simply read “Tiger!” Upon completing my commitment, I went back to my dorm room and searched for the highlights. I clicked the link, skipped to the very end and paused the video to survey the scene.

In his traditional Sunday red shirt, Woods stood on the 18th green, his ball inches from the hole. Thousands of fans were crowded around the putting surface on all sides, as they had been allowed to march up the 18th fairway along with him. I pressed play. Woods put his putter down and tapped the ball in the hole. It was over. He had won. At that moment, I paused the video again, feeling my eyes welling up. I took a deep breath and pressed play. After holing the short putt, Woods tapped his putter against the grass before picking the ball out of the hole, taking an extra second to savor this moment with himself. He then picked the ball up and raised both hands, biting his lip as he fought tears. At this point, I was fully crying. I urge you, even if you’re not a fan of golf, to seek out this video.

Woods has now won 80 golf tournaments. From the year 1997 through 2009, Woods absolutely dominated golf. Winning was the norm for him. He was perhaps the most famous athlete on the planet during that time, and, coincidentally, my favorite athlete. He seemed poised to overtake Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, winning his 14th at the 2008 US Open.

Then, over Thanksgiving of 2009, it all fell apart. Reports of his serial infidelity coupled with crippling back injuries drove him away from golf. From 2010 to 2015, he attempted numerous comebacks to varying degrees of success, and after each failed comeback, he would insist that once he was healthy he would return to form. This was consistent with the aura that Tiger had established during his dominance — he was a winning machine, barely a human being. He was polite, but brief with fans and media. His emotions (other than the too-frequent curse word) were largely in check on the course. Even during the infidelity scandal, Woods’ statements were calculated and somewhat cold. Through serious injury, Woods continued to insist that he would soon be back on tour. At that point, it seemed the machine was simply broken, and once it was fixed, it would return to doing what it was supposed to do.

However, in late 2015, Woods’ language changed. He began to express uncertainty, explaining that he didn’t have a timetable for a return. In 2016, for the first time in his career, he missed all four major championships. In 2017, Woods said in a press conference that he didn’t know what his future held, implying that he might never play professional golf again. Through it all, he was working tirelessly to rebuild his relationship with his children and his ex-wife, Elin. By all accounts, he is a committed father (he mentioned at the PGA Championship in August how much it meant to him that his kids could see him play well again), and he and Elin get along well. Obviously, the public does not know the entire story. One thing, however, is clear: during these years, Woods turned from machine to man.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Woods returned to golf. He underwent a successful back fusion surgery and decided he was healthy enough to play again. But we had heard this story before. We wouldn’t fall for it this time. Except Woods began to play well, and he was swinging in a way that looked sustainable. At the Open Championship in July, he finished in sixth place, at one point holding the lead in the final round. A month later, at the PGA Championship, he finished in second place, capping off the tournament with a final round score of 64, six-under par. Then, this past weekend, Woods finally won again. Only this time, the win felt different. This was not Tiger Woods, The Winning Machine. This was Tiger Woods, The Man.

As I watched him tap in the final putt, I felt differently than I had watching Woods win in the past. It used to be a feeling of awe — at times, his dominance was intimidating. This time, though, I didn’t feel awe. Instead, I felt a great sense of pride, as if I were watching a family member triumph. I struggle to find the words to end this article; there doesn’t seem to be one sentiment that sums this all up. I suppose that is fitting — Woods is a complicated man whose life and journey is unlike most in the world. For a few years, it seemed that this journey had, at least publicly, come to an end. But, as Woods showed us this past weekend, perhaps the journey is just beginning.