This Masters week, take a moment and smell the azaleas
We built him up. We lauded him as a god among men, as “the greatest athlete of his sport,” and possibly of all time. He was untouchable. But then, as soon as he showed any sign of being a mere mortal, we turned on him, if only for a brief moment. Who am I talking about? The one, the only, Eldrick “Tiger” Wood, whose meteoric rise to fame gave us one of the most dominant runs in any sport, and whose fall from grace became a modern day version of watching a gladiator being ripped apart by lions, only we were the lions.
As we sit only one day out from Tiger Woods making his first serious run at a major in years, more questions should be asked. Not about his back, or his knees, or his swing, which has undergone more changes and tweaks than Dolly Parton. We should be asking about his shattered psyche. Tiger was not only once the most physically dominant golfer of all-time, so dominant that golf courses began adding length simply because of him, “Tiger-proofing” their golf courses. This was an edge, sure. But the real edge came anytime you saw “T.Woods” on the leaderboard, within six shots of the lead on Saturday. Tiger closed like a freight train, putting together stretches of unbelievable golf, without ever breaking that steely gaze, or missing a step in his stride as he stalked the greens. When the pressure got on, where regular golfers folded, Tiger Woods rose up. Out of the 14 major victories in his career, all of them have came after he was leading going into the final round. Tiger Woods, simply put, did not choke.
That killer instinct and unbreakable mental strength has been replaced with an uncertainty that most weekend duffers would recognize instantly. In his first attempted comeback after back surgery in 2015, Tiger Woods got the yips. Let me say that again. Tiger freaking Woods got the yips. The man who once chipped in off the green on 16 at Augusta, with one of the most lauded short games ever, got the yips. He could not chip the ball without hitting it fat, or blading it across the green. So broken down was he from the public stripping he got at our hands, he could not do what he had done since he was two years old, hitting on The Mike Douglas Show.
Tiger Woods made golf sexy. Before him it required, as Happy Gilmore famously said, “goofy pants and a fat a**.”
Tiger came in looking like he could’ve been competitive in any professional sport, whereas his predecessors looked like they might’ve just walked right off the street onto the tee box (looking at you John Daly). Tiger stood 6 foot 1, weighing in at 185 pounds of solid muscle, and he hit the ball like an athlete: fast, violently, and far. He replaced the plaid pants and rayon socks with a red shirt and black pants on Sundays, a symbol to the rest of the field that if he was ahead, you might as well stay on the practice tee that morning and save yourself the trouble.
We weren’t ready for Tiger Woods. But how could we be? We had never seen anything like him. Handsome, athletic, personable, rich beyond all belief, and tearing through a game that had frustrated its players for nearly 600 years. Ever since he was two year old, hitting into a net on television and wowing Bob Hope and Mike Douglas, along with the rest of the world, we set Tiger Woods apart. As he became the only player to win three US Amateur Championships and won a NCAA individual championship at Stanford, we already knew who he was. He went from Stanford to the PGA Tour, where he had a hole-in-one in his first pro event. This guy was blowing away golf courses at will, as we saw in the 1997 Masters, where he set the tournament scoring record and blew the field away by 12 strokes. From 2000-2009, he put together a run that is, for me, the most dominant run in the history of sports. This run included:14 major championships, 683 weeks spent as the top-ranked golfer, 142 consecutive cuts made, and only one loss in a playoff (1998 Nissan Open to Billy Mayfair). He was, unarguably, the best golfer and most dominant athlete ever.
The 2018 Masters gives us a small taste of the buzz that surrounded Tiger going into any major when he was in his prime. After back to back top five finishes (second at the Valspar open and fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational), Vegas has Tiger at 10-1 odds to win, tied for the best odds with three other players. Golf ratings are at the highest they’ve been since Tiger last made his comeback at the Hero World Challenge in 2016. His impact on the game, be it culturally, economically, or socially, cannot be overstated. So, heading into the Masters tomorrow, it’s important to realize what we have: a brief second chance to see something we may never seen again.