June 07, 2011
I remember the first time I saw Tiger Woods swing a golf club. I was a snot-nosed sixth-grader who had as much interest in golf as I did in the Quadratic Equation, but my dad told me one humid afternoon to watch some golf with him. It wasn't a professional event, but this kid, the one he kept talking about, had something nobody else did. At just 17, he was a man amongst boys, and he showed it by winning his third U.S. Amateur in a row.
Still to this day I think about that feat. Tiger winning three amateurs after winning three U.S. Junior Amateurs in a row. He went six-for-six with the USGA before he decided to turn pro. He wasn't a golfer, he was a legend, and even in sixth grade I knew that. I could tell by his swing and his swagger and his dominance over his opponents. They didn't want to be there, but he sure did.
The rest is history with Tiger. He won the Masters by what seemed like a hundred strokes. He went through some swing changes only to come back stronger and more dominant. He won four majors in a row, something that even today seems like a fairytale, especially considering that people like Steve Stricker, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson and Ian Poulter still haven't won one.
He was as much of a freak as you can be in a game that pits you against a golf course, not against an individual. Tiger stood miles above the rest.
The strange thing is, even to intelligent people, it never seemed like Tiger would come back to reality. He always seemed a step ahead of everyone, and even when he'd go through swing changes or go through a slump, you expected the next major to be the one Tiger broke through in again, and the golf world would become his once more. It happened during the David Duval era. It happened when Vijay Singh became the No. 1 player in the world. And it happened when Phil Mickelson won three out of six majors.
But as we now know, life was never as easy as Tiger had made it out to be. You know those friends of yours that always seem to catch a break? The ones that break up with the coolest, hottest girl in the world for no apparent reason, only to find an even cooler and hotter girl to clutch their arm? The guy that never seems to be stressed and is always on top of his game? To me, that was Tiger. Cocksure to the fullest, always catching breaks, but with someone deep inside of him he never wanted to let out.
When his personal life crumbled to the ground, it was hard to figure what would happen. We all knew it would be a struggle for Tiger to regain all of his fans, but you would be hard-pressed to find a golf fan, even an expert, that didn't have Tiger bouncing back on the links. The spotlight off the golf course might have always been too hot for Woods, but the cameras and the flashes on the greens were his favorite. He played like Palmer, had the competitiveness of Nicklaus and was as entertaining as Trevino. Golf wasn't made for Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods was made for golf.
But then came the reality of this dimpled ball and the fact that Woods had been playing a competitive sport for nearly 30 years. Say what you want about golfers as athletes, but if you ever watched Tiger swing a driver, you knew he was far from the weekend hacker that downs bratwursts at the turn and carries as many pounds in his gut as he does in his golf bag. Tiger was a fit specimen that changed the game, but eventually the strain he put on his body caught up.
His knee had to be worked on. Then came an Achilles problem. Then more knee work. It seemed that with every bad swing came a wince out of our once immortal star. Zeus needed Advil as well, it appeared.
It seems the Tiger we once knew is all but gone. No more pointing a birdie putt into the hole as it is still rolling. No more predictable fist pumps on the 18th green when everyone in the crowd knows the ball is going to disappear. No more "why did anyone else show up?" conversations between golf fans when Tiger opens with a 65 at a British Open and everyone, including the players, knows what will happen 54 holes later.
Tiger will probably win again. He might even win a major or two, but the likelihood of him breaking a record he once had pinned to his wall as a kid seems unlikely. Even as you read those words it probably hurts a little piece of you, because for so long, as a sports fan, you wanted to see it happen. You wanted to be around when someone took down number 19. You want to relive it with your dad, or your son, or your grandson. You wanted to talk about the Masters or the PGA or the Open when Tiger finally closed the door on a record most thought was invincible. But like Tiger, what we've learned is no matter how great something is, and no matter how hard it is to believe something might stop, the game of golf has no friends, no captains and nobody in charge of it.
One day you have it, the next you don't. That's the motto of any golfer in the world. But for those stretches of years when Woods was so perfect on the course, it never seemed like it belonged to him.