There have been more successful athletes, although they aren’t easy to find. There have certainly been more engaging ones, too.
He never made headlines for his political stances the way other top-flight sports stars do, and his off-the-course exploits will serve as an irremovable blemish on his character.
All that said, I’m not sure there has ever been an American sports story as compelling as Tiger Woods. I don’t know that any athlete has ever gripped an audience for this long and with this much fervor.
A few days ago, we could have lost him when his car tumbled off the road and caused serious fractures in his right leg. It got me thinking — will we ever see someone like Woods again?
Tiger is different from a Michael Jordan or a Muhammad Ali or a Michael Phelps in that he was in the spotlight from the word go. He appeared on the “Mike Douglas Show” alongside Bob Hope at age 2 and on the “Today Show” at age 5. There has never been a phase in his life in which he wasn’t swarmed with attention, whether he was winning junior amateur titles or scorching the Southern California high-school golf scene.
And yet, despite the Himalayan expectations the world placed on his shoulders, he pole-vaulted over the hype with 20 feet to spare.
Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes and the 2000 U.S. Open by 15. Nobody had ever finished better than nine strokes under par at a U.S. Open before, and he did it in a year when the runner-up finished +3.
In his prime, Woods was winning half the golf tournaments he entered, which is sort of like a basketball player making half his half-court shots. Normally, if a golfer can win one out of five he’ll walk away with Player of the Year honors.
Woods didn’t dominate for as long as Jack Nicklaus, but in his heyday, I’m not sure any athlete had created more distance between him and his peers than Woods did. I remember telling a colleague once that there were five major sports leagues in America: The NFL, the NBA, MLB, the NHL and Tiger Woods.
The galleries and TV ratings certainly backed that up. As did his status as the world’s highest-earning athlete. The man was universally beloved.
Until one day he wasn’t.
The reaction to Tiger’s cheating scandal was akin to how I imagine people would have reacted if they found out Mr. Rogers had a double life as a kingpin. The cleanest image in sports had just fallen face first into a puddle of mud.
Sponsorships fled. Female fans tuned out. Rooting for him without restraint just didn’t quite feel right.
His game suffered as a result. The aura of invincibility that regularly vanquished opponents had disappeared entirely. But something happened during those dormant years — when injuries or missed cuts or rounds in the high 70s seemed to become the norm: He became human.
Nobody rooted for Tiger because of his charisma with the press or his rapport with other players. They rooted for him because he was a force of nature seemingly birthed by the gods. His interviews were rarely interesting. His only interactions with fans were when he was yelling at them for talking during his backswing or trying to sneak a photo.
But humility did something to Woods: It made him lighten up.
This was part of the reason the gallery was so boisterous when he won the Masters in 2019. Yes, people love a comeback story — but they really love it when it involves someone who fell from grace before earning his way back into people’s hearts. That’s why you heard people chanting his name for minutes after he sank the tournament-winning putt. That’s why he was high-fiving fans in a way you’ve never seen him do before.
When Woods was winning in the early 2000s, he was seen as a divinity. This time, he was a man of the people.
I don’t know what’s next for Tiger. I have no idea whether he’ll compete professionally or hoist a trophy again. What I do know is that his story — from his rise to fame, to his sustained excellence, to his PR nosedive to his climb back to the top — is unlike anyone else’s in sports.
Hopefully, he’ll give us more down the road. It’s OK if he doesn’t, though. He’s given us enough.