August 12th, 2015
Reed: Looking for Tiger of old
Surely Tiger Woods has one more major golf championship left in him. Surely, for four days, he will turn the clock back a decade or so and mesmerize us as he did in his glory years. That’s not an unreasonable expectation, is it? He’s young enough. He’s fit. He still can do things with a club that few in the game can match.
That’s been in the back of my mind before every major for the past five years. At his peak, Tiger’s willpower was as amazing as his confidence. It can’t be completely gone, can it? Won’t he wake up one of these days and feel like the old Tiger again?
To refresh your memory, Tiger won 14 majors between 1997 and 2008. As a man of color, he was golf’s Jackie Robinson. It seemed a foregone conclusion that he would smash Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 victories in the four major championships — Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.
Until the 2009 PGA at Hazeltine in Minnesota, Tiger never lost a major that he led after 54 holes. But that tournament was a turning point for Woods, a precursor of the disasters to come. On the final day, instead of building on his two-shot lead, he shot a 75 to finish second, three strokes behind the victorious Y.E. Yang. It was the first clue something wasn’t right in his world.
Then came the infamous night of Nov. 29, 2009, when his wife, Elin Nordegren, chased him out of the house brandishing a five-iron and he wrecked his Cadillac Escalade on the street outside. Shortly afterward, pressure from the international media forced Woods to admit he had cheated on his wife multiple times.
When that news broke, it made me look back and wonder about that year’s PGA Championship. Who knows what Woods was doing the night before the final round? Was he partying instead of preparing? Had his wife confronted him? Whatever, Tiger Woods simply does not shoot 75 in the final round of a major.
And so began the six-year struggle in which Woods has appeared as often in the tabloids as the sports page. He and Elin divorced. He had a highly publicized fling with skier Lindsey Vonn that ended last spring. He changed golf coaches and swings like some people change the oil in their cars.
He also has not won another major. That somebody so gifted could go so bad for so long is one of strangest stories in sports history.
On the way up, he and his father, Earl, rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Earl believed it was preordained that his son would be the greatest golfer in the sport’s history, and he had no problem with saying it repeatedly in public. Tiger believed his father’s every word and, unfortunately, that led him to adopt an attitude of arrogance, contempt and impatience.
But whether you liked Earl or not, he kept Tiger on a short leash. Earl forced his son to think about little except golf. So when Earl passed away, Tiger lost more than his father. He lost his moral compass. It’s no coincidence that the philandering started after Earl’s death. What’s a guy to do when he’s got all this money and fame and women are just throwing themselves at him?
The scandal cost Tiger his family, his dignity and his reputation, not to mention a lot of endorsement money and fans. But he also lost that supreme confidence with which only a special few are blessed. Muhammad Ali had it. Serena Williams has it. All they have to do is show up and everybody else turns to jelly.
So right before our eyes, Tiger became human. He lost his ability to make miracle shots. He agonized over putts. And the more human he became, the more he lost his ability to strike fear into the hearts of his opponents.
I must not be the only one who hasn’t given up hope that Tiger will become Tiger at least once more. Before every major, he’s still as much a topic of discussion as Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Zach Johnson, Dustin Johnson and the other young guns who grew up idolizing Tiger.
I was disappointed in Tiger’s personal behavior, but he’s hardly the only athlete who has let fame go to his head in a disastrous way. To his credit, he went to rehab for 45 days, he has apologized repeatedly and he has maintained a good relationship with his ex-wife for the sake of their children. A lot of golf fans will never forgive him, but I have to wonder this: Is that because of his philandering or because they feel cheated by losing Tiger in his prime?
Nobody before or since has driven interest in golf like Tiger. Even if you hated him, you tuned in to root against him. He had the perfect rival and foil in Phil Mickelson, the lovable lefty lunkhead who seemed to be as nice as Tiger was arrogant. But the scandal stopped the rivalry before it could bloom as it should have.
I am resigned to the probability that Tiger will not beat Nicklaus’ record. But surely it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he’ll win one more major before he hangs up his Footjoys for good. Yet even Tiger seems to recognize that his day has passed. Earlier this week, the told reporters as Whistling Straits in Wisconsin that he’s just looking for improvement in this week’s PGA Championship, a tournament he won four times between 1999 and 2007.
Tiger Woods, only looking for improvement? Say it ain’t so, Tiger. Say you’ve still got one more major in you. We all know that would be as good for the game as it would be for your legacy.