“I’m certainly more appreciative of the game of golf and what it has meant to me and what it has allowed me and given me the opportunity to do,” he said. “Twenty years ago, it was a totally different deal. I was trying to just play and compete and beat everyone. Now I’m appreciative of having the opportunity to come back and play again.”
There’s no tale quite like this Tiger tale. Let’s go, well, back. From 1994, when teenaged Woods won the first of three amateur US titles, he bestrode the game of golf for 15 years. “We see him in the same vein as Shakespeare,” said Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, authors of the Tiger Woods, the latest of 20 books about him. “Someone no-one had ever seen or will see again.”
In that time, Tiger’s back was all that his peers and contemporaries could see as he walked off with title after title, cheque after cheque. They knew him by the red polo shirt and the red numbers, and not much else. “No-one’s ever played golf as well as he played it, I’m sure of that,” said Australian golfer and connoisseur of the game, Mike Clayton.
By his early 30s, Woods was worth billions, the second-richest American of colour behind Oprah. Golf at that time out-rated the NBA and the NFL on television. This was all his doing.
But something was missing. Woods’ late father, Earl, was a lieutenant colonel in the US Army, his mother Kutilda literally a tiger mum. To them, he was “the chosen one”, and would be a “cold-blooded assassin”. They planned their only child’s life like a military campaign. “Earl assembled his son in a garage,” wrote Tom Callahan in His Father’s Son, “but he left out some of the human parts.”
Customised and channelled, Woods was a golf nerd, who despite having the best game in the world kept tinkering with it. Australian acquaintances once were pleasantly surprised to discover that he knew all about Kel Nagle, the 1960 British Open winner.
But there wasn’t much else. “Tiger doesn’t have manners,” American author and critic Rick Reilly once said. “He swears. He doesn’t tip. He doesn’t pick up the tab. Every joke is dirty.” In a game arranged to mark the opening of his foundation, Woods cold-shouldered Bill Clinton for 18 holes, because of a perceived slight. Clinton was then president.
Miserliness became his undoing, said Rob Lusetich, another chronicler, when two Las Vegas showgirls of his “acquaintance” felt undervalued and went to the Enquirer, unloosing an avalanche. “No-one ever told him no,” said Lusetich. It was Thanksgiving, 2009, but not in the Woods household. A messy and luridly public divorce from Elin followed, and sex-addiction therapy, “the worst experience”, he said. He was immortal, but not to a T, evidently. You might have called his condition Tiger’s back.
“Suffice to say that Earl had an enormous influence on many aspects of Tiger’s life,” said Benedict and Ketyian, “including his attitude to women.”
In a stagy apology the next year, Woods said success and celebrity had misled him to believe that he was entitled to enjoy all temptations. “I was wrong. I was foolish,” he said. “I don’t get to play by different rules.” Standing, prowess and hairline all receded apace, and not even Nike’s brim could cover up all that. He hibernated, slipped to No. 58 in the world, regathered, but it was three years before he returned to No. 1.
But there was more. As Woods’s life straightened up, his body developed a kink. He was no longer broken, but he was bowed. He had four back operations in four years, the last a spinal fusion in which a disc from his lower vertebrae was replaced by a plastic implant. He missed tournaments, hobbled out of others, stopped playing altogether and plummeted to No. 1198. In 2017, he was arrested when found asleep in his car, KO’d not by alcohol, but a cocktail of pain-relieving drugs. He thought he was in California when he was in Florida. He thought it was all over. It was Tiger’s back.
Again, he felt his ginger way back into tournament golf, but aimed low. If he said it once, he said it a dozen times: he did not expect to be Tiger Woods again. Jollied by the new generation, he appeared as non-playing assistant captain at the 2017 Presidents Cup in New Jersey. “Mentally it gave me a shot in the arm,” he said. “The guys really encouraged me to come back and play. They were offering whatever – dinner or practice rounds, or practice – let’s just get me a part of the game of golf again. I said, I know if I can do it or not. Give me a couple more months. Lo and behold, a couple more months, I’m playing and competing again.”
Last year, he won the Tour championship in Atlanta, his first trophy in five years. A noticeable change to him was that no-one clapped any more, because they all held phones. “So they yell,” he said. Down the 18th, the yells became a roar, the Tiger roar. “I was having a hard time not crying on the last hole,” he said. It was Tiger, back.
“The fans have been so much more into my rounds,” he said. “Maybe they realise that I may never have played again. But I’ve come back and started playing again, and they’ve come out and supported me. They’ve been so great. I think that was the culmination of all this anxiety and just all this anxiousness about my comeback.”
Then it was the full Tiger. This year, he won the Masters, his first major in 11 years. At 43, he was the second oldest to win the tournament, behind only the master, Jack Nicklaus. By the last round, it was the good old days all over again. At the driving range, Michael Phelps jostled for a look. After Woods shaped a shot around a tree at the 11th, fans stopped to touch the divot, like a holy relic. The break came at the 12th, a fiendish par three. Contenders floundered, but Woods’s nine-iron “landed on the green and stayed there, like a good little ball”, wrote Rosenberg in SI.
When the last putt rolled in, Woods let it all out, or as much of it as golf approves. Before he signed his scorecard, he hugged his mother and children. After signing, he hugged six peers, most top-tenners, who had waited. “This is not a normal scene,” wrote Rosenberg. “But this is not a normal week.” For years, the young guns had said they wanted to test themselves against Tiger. “The hell you do!” David Duval would reply. Now they understood.
Another victory in Chiba, Japan, made 82, equalling Sam Snead’s record. When Tiger was six and Snead 70, they’d played two holes together. Now the virtuous circle closed.
Outwardly, the restoration is complete. Clayton the savant sees only the unabridged Tiger who could go rounds at a time without using a wood, was unmatched in his short game and deadly on the greens, too, who always had something up his sleeve. Woods demurs. “Physically, I can’t do any of the things I used to,” he said at Chiba. “That’s just the way it is. Four back surgeries and my body just can’t do what it used to do, but I can certainly think my way around the golf course. I don’t hit anywhere near as far compared to the field. Three hundred yards used to be a good thing; now it’s chump change. (But) I can still manage my way around a golf course.
“I didn’t really know that I would come back and play at this level, but I could get down and read putts again, something I haven’t been able to do for in months. Something very subtle and simple like that makes a difference. Then I felt more comfortable with my putter, because I was able to build a better stance. Swing-wise, my speed started coming back. Ironically, my back has been less sore because of it. I’ve been able to rotate better. It’s always going to be sore, but it’s just less sore.”
That week, as if there was any doubt, Tiger Woods the Presidents Cup captain picked Tiger Woods the player in his team. “I want to compete,” he said. “Being a vice-captain the last couple years, you realise you really don’t control the play. You have to sit back and watch. And as a player and as a competitor, you want to always be in control and be able to compete and play.
“There was no better example of that when Ernie (Els) and I went into a playoff (in 2003). I probably would have had a heart attack if I had to watch another player go into a playoff and control the Cup.”
So now Tiger’s back, in Melbourne. All this unravelling, and re- and un- and re- has happened since 2009, when he made the first of two successive government-funded mega-hyped appearances at the Australian Masters. The story of his infidelity began to break while he was here and exploded soon afterwards. He was a rock star one year, a rocked star the next. Politicians flocked and fawned the first time, sent their apologies the second.
It’s been 10 long years, and a long 10 years. Benedict and Keteyian are sure that he is a changed Tiger in all his stripes. “That’s not all that surprising,” they say. “It’s like anyone who reaches his 40s. His body is different. His perspective has changed. There are new priorities.”
The pain has gone, from his back and his heart. “Tiger was the best in the world at one thing. To suddenly be unable to do that one thing is devastating,” said the biographers. “But to regain that ability is no doubt exhilarating and gratifying, and to a certain degree humbling … he’s given everyone – golf fans and everyday people – a reason to root for him again.”
All that said, Woods is still only 43. He’s three majors behind Nicklaus, who was still winning them at 46. There’s no-one else ahead. He’s got Snead covered already for overall titles. Snead won his last at 52 and played to 75. Tiger’s back, and it’s almost as if he never went away.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.