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Even as he lay in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles back in February, after upending his SUV driving at almost twice the legal speed limit in a 45mph zone, the world was planning for Tiger Woods’ triumphant return to the golf course. The 45-year-old may have had a rod implanted to support multiple fractures in his right tibia and fibula, and pins and screws inserted in his ankle and foot, he may have been drifting in and out of consciousness, but bookies were already offering a price on him winning another major in 2022. Because this is what Tiger Woods does: he comes back.
And how we need him to. For many of us he embodies the paradigm of resilience. For the past dozen years he has provided concrete proof that ignominy, physical deterioration, addiction, even time itself, can somehow be overcome. When it comes to defying the odds, he has long been the role model for our times.
‘As [revered US golfer] Jack Nicklaus says, never bet against this guy,’ says Michael Bamberger, author of The Second Life of Tiger Woods and a long-time Tiger watcher. ‘Anything you think about this guy is probably wrong, because you’re using the standards of normal human behaviour to judge him. They’re not applicable.’
On Thursday, the US Open – the third of the season’s four majors – begins. While Woods remains sequestered on his Florida estate, barely able to walk unaided, alone except for visits from his children and his current girlfriend, restaurant manager Erica Herman, his presence looms large. In his first interview since his crash, conducted with Golf Digest magazine in May, he was asked the inevitable opening question: could he come back? His answer was equivocal. Even for a man who has been through as much pain as he has, he reckoned his injuries from the crash the most dispiriting he has faced yet.
‘I understand more of the rehab processes because of my past injuries,’ he was quoted as saying. ‘But this was more painful than anything I have ever experienced.’
Yet still the questions persist, framed in the context of his return. Yes, but when will he be back? Does this mean he can’t come back? Does he even want to? And the biggest question of all: if he doesn’t, what then?
The truth is, right now there is a Tiger-shaped hole in the middle of professional golf, one that many fear will never be filled. As journalist Robert Lusetich, who has known the golfer throughout his career and wrote Unplayable, a brilliant account of his seminal 2009 season, says, ‘Tiger is a once-in-a-century-level talent and a perfect storm of a narrative for a sport like golf. The game needs him far more than he needs the game.’
All that will be in evidence at Torrey Pines, the course in San Diego that is hosting this year’s US Open. The last time the tournament was staged there, in 2008, Woods won it. Though it was more the manner of his victory that was indicative of the grip he has over the game’s mythology. Every shot he played there made him wince with pain. It later transpired he was walking the course on a fractured leg and torn cruciate ligament – the latest in a series of injuries that had stalked his career, following knee surgery nine months earlier. He had tried to return to the game too soon, ignoring his surgeon, who told him not to play in the tournament. But the physical discomfort he overcame that week was only part of his extraordinary display of resilience. The pain we couldn’t see, it would become clear, was far more significant. What was going on in his head made the fact he could still lift the trophy all the more remarkable.
Because he knew, even as he sunk the winning putt, that things were about to turn ugly. His determination to win despite the pain was in part driven by the belief that it might, however temporarily, stem the hurt that was coming.
It was a vain hope. Just a year after his Torrey Pines win, his world imploded. Woods was a mixed-race role model who had inspired a whole new generation to take an interest in the game, a sportsman so popular his US Open victory had stopped the New York Stock Exchange as brokers tuned in to watch en masse, but that made him an even bigger target for those who sensed scandal. The National Enquirer had been on his case for a while, chasing the story of rumoured infidelities. It had a photographer following him, taking long-lens shots of him having sex with several women who were not his wife; it had, in the company safe, DNA evidence extracted from the most intimate of sources. It had him bang to rights.
Initially a deal was allegedly cut whereby the story would be killed if the player consented to an exclusive interview with one of the paper’s magazine stablemates. Woods assumed it would be taken care of. After all, in his world back then, everyone had their price. And so he carried on, making a mess he believed someone else would clear up.
Eventually, though, the evidence of his behaviour became too substantial to corral. On 25 November 2009, the Enquirer printed a story about an affair with a New York hostess called Rachel Uchitel. Two days after it ran, when his wife Elin Nordegren discovered that relationship was just the tip of a priapic iceberg, Woods was chased out of the family home by Nordegren wielding a golf club. He was high on prescription pain-relief medication, as he tried to combat the lingering aftermath of injuries that had ravaged his physique, and he crashed his car into a fire hydrant. As he lay dazed in his smashed vehicle, the carefully constructed image of honesty and integrity that had helped make Woods the richest sportsman in history was proved to be built on a lie. He was immediately dropped by his sponsors, anxious about their images. As the story led news bulletins across the globe, so we began to get a hint of the complexities and contradictions that lay behind the champion.
On the $50 million estate he built on Florida’s Jupiter Island, complete with a 10-acre golf course, Woods keeps two boats called Privacy and Solitude. They are named after the two conditions to which he aspired as he bestrode the world of golf. Privacy and solitude had long protected him, ensuring those of us outside had no idea of the real Tiger. All we knew was that he was a winner. We weren’t aware that, when he dominated the sport, he was brusque and dismissive of his fellow professionals. We had no inkling he was a loner, socially naïve, awkward in company. We didn’t know that he made Scrooge look like a generous tipper. Most of all, we had little idea of the deep, damaging complexity of his relationship with his father, Earl.
It was when Earl died in 2006 that Woods’ life began to unravel. He lost his only friend, the pivot in his life, the father whose insatiable ambition was the engine that had driven him forward since the day he first held a club. Earl, a retired lieutenant colonel in the US army and decorated Vietnam veteran, was a keen golfer himself. And when, back in the 1970s, he noted his infant son taking an interest in his clubs, an idea began to form in his mind. So precocious was the boy that aged two he was invited to demonstrate his putting skills on the Mike Douglas Show, alongside Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart. When Tiger was eight he won the U-10s section of the World Junior Golf Tournament. It was soon clear that Earl had backed a winner. Though the way he pushed the boy suggested he was leaving little to chance.
Tiger often said he was compelled to succeed because he wanted to make his father proud. But the reality was less wholesome. It was fuelled more by a wish to placate Earl, to quiet the brutal verbal assaults that invariably accompanied any slip in standards.
And, as he chivvied and bullied, pushed and pulled, his father forged not just Tiger’s playing ability and approach, but his entire character. From the first moment he entered a competition, Earl ensured everything was about Tiger and Tiger alone. He encouraged his son to believe he was the sole person who mattered, that his needs were paramount, that everyone else was secondary. That was the way to win.
Soon he was winning. Everything. Within a year of turning professional, at the age of 22, in 1997 he won the most prestigious competition in world golf: the Masters.
From there, all that Earl had imagined for his son and more came true. He dominated the game, becoming the first player ever to win four successive majors in the 2000-01 season, a feat dubbed the Tiger Slam. In 2004 he married Nordegren, who had been introduced to him three years earlier by the golfer Jesper Parnevik, who employed her as an au pair. They had two children (daughter Sam and son Charlie, now aged 13 and 12 respectively), and Nordegren was there to provide a picture-perfect photogenic snapshot of victory every time he won.
For a decade he delivered an idealised likeness of the sportsman: handsome, clean, decent and happily married. It was an image that appealed to many a demographic (with a Thai mother and mixed-race father, he has defined his ethnicity as Cablinasian, part- Caucasian, part-black, part-Native American, part-Asian). Businesses queued up to endorse him, in the hope of absorbing some of that universal appeal. Golf Digest calculated that between 1996 and 2007 his earnings were a staggering $769,440,709. But he was something more, too. He became a cultural figure, transcending his sport, someone on whom were grafted all sorts of assumptions of racial diversity and progress. ‘Let’s make it clear: Tiger really just wanted to be the greatest golfer who ever lived, not the second coming of Gandhi,’ says Lusetich.
While the world swooned at his majestic swing, the few allowed into his tightly controlled orbit discovered another side. Over the years, a succession of assistants, lawyers, caddies, coaches and friends were dropped without hesitation or explanation.
‘A pathological narcissist,’ John Garrity, the author of Tiger Woods: The Making of a Champion, who has known him since he was 16, calls him. ‘All of his human relationships were transactional. If you couldn’t help him achieve his goals, he had no use for you.’
Among his fellow professionals, too, Woods was widely loathed. They baulked at his insistent selfishness, a characteristic at odds with a game which, even at its competitive apex, is fundamentally sociable. Mostly the dislike remained in the dressing room, but occasionally it would slip out, as when Sergio Garcia publicly called him ‘not a nice man’.
It meant, having long considered friendship a brake to success and other people a distraction, with Earl gone, Woods had no one else to turn to. He sought consolation by embracing his father’s legacy. As a younger man he is said to have loathed his father’s casual promiscuity, appalled by the damage it wrought on his mother. It may seem entirely contradictory, then, that after Earl died, he embarked on a like-father-like-son bonanza of his own, reportedly sleeping with more 120 women, bringing his – to the outside world at least – perfect marriage crashing down. But it figured: it was the sad-sack loner seeking social validation, Billy No-Mates looking to be loved.
Chasing women wasn’t the only thing he was doing alone and under cover. After his father’s death, anxious to match Earl’s military prowess, Woods spent much of his free time secretly joining US Navy Seal activity, going on weekend boot camps with the commando corps. Every time he jumped from a plane – and landed in a spine-degrading heap – it was done in direct contravention of his coach and doctor’s insistence.
It was from a Seal weekend that a most striking anecdote emerged. In their seminal biography, titled simply Tiger Woods, Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian spoke to some servicemen who had spent 48 hours accommodating his military fantasy, treating him as one of their own. On the final evening, they went for a celebratory dinner. When it was over, the dozen or so Seals assumed the man on $100 million a year might stand them dinner, as a thank you for their support. Instead he reached for the bill, made a quick calculation in his head and said: ‘So that splits to $25 each.’
Post-scandal his game was rapidly descending into irrelevance. Perhaps because he didn’t know what else to do, he kept going on the golf course, placating the pain in his knees and back with pills. He began to sink in the international rankings, falling to an unfathomable 1,999 in 2017.
Then, in the early hours of 29 May 2017, he was found asleep at the wheel of his car in the middle of the highway and was charged with driving under the influence (DUI), a surfeit of painkillers bubbling through his system. The mugshot taken at his arrest showed him looking bloated and confused. This, it turned out, was finally his nadir. His physical prowess was spent, the god had fallen to earth.
‘After the scandal, I don’t think he was mentally the same,’ says Lusetich. ‘I believe the pills took a toll on his mind. But after the DUI, he couldn’t hide the addiction any longer. And he got help. Best move he’s ever made.’
Therapy seemed to change his mindset, relax him, clear his head of the need to match his father. In 2018, in a final bid to be rid of the problems in his back, he had make-or-break fusion surgery on his spine. It made him. Or rather remade him. Driven by a desire to return to what he once was, he worked relentlessly on his fitness, spending up to 14 hours a day in the gym. And in April 2019, the work paid off: he won the Masters, his first major for 11 years.
‘I really couldn’t believe it,’ says Lusetich of that win. ‘He told the champions at the Masters dinner in 2018 that he thought he was done. He couldn’t sit in a car, was in constant pain. It looked grim. The fusion surgery was one last shot and it worked, even if it turns out to be not for ever, it allowed him a window.’
This was an effort that came to be recognised as the most extraordinary comeback in sport. ‘I remember walking out by the 18th green to soak it in and the crowd were chanting his name like it was a football game,’ recalls Lusetich. ‘They’re never like that there. It was surreal and you sensed you were watching history.’
What was perhaps more remarkable was the response in the dressing room. Players like Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, who had been inspired to take up the game by watching him when they were young, spoke of his generosity with his advice. It seemed the once brusque and dismissive Woods had become the amiable grand old mentor of the circuit. In subsequent tournaments he was even jovial with the press corps, joshing with members of the crowd, enjoying himself. There was talk of him captaining the USA Ryder Cup team, an idea that would have been met with ridicule at his peak.
Woods had never been shy of doing whatever was necessary to win. But this seemed to be something different: a more philosophical, less tortured, more human Tiger. The biggest clue to what appeared to be a new man came at the conclusion of his Masters win, when his son Charlie charged on to the course to embrace him. For Tiger, that moment reminded him of when he hugged Earl after he won his first Masters in 1997. ‘To come full circle as a father, and to have my son jump into my arms, it really means so much to me,’ he said.
‘I think he’s matured tremendously since 2009,’ says Lusetich. ‘Fatherhood, as it does most of us, has tempered him.’ When he claimed in 2015 that the most important thing in his life was his children, most took that as a smokescreen for a man for whom money and victory had previously taken precedence. Yet there is something intriguing about his relationship with Charlie. ‘Those close to him say he’s a doting dad and striving to live the “normal” life he’s never had,’ says Lusetich.
A hint of that normality is evident in how relaxed Woods is about the way in which his son is demonstrating the power of the family genes. Charlie has only recently taken up golf, previously preferring soccer. But now he has picked up a club he is proving to be rather good. Last year, he won his first tournament, with his dad as his caddie, beaming proudly at his win. Though to put his victory in perspective, at the same age Tiger had already won 113 competitions.
The pair even competed together in the PNC Championship in Orlando last year, wearing matching shirts. When Charlie completed an eagle at the par-five third hole, Woods looked genuinely chuffed. ‘Your first eagle son, wow, that’s something,’ the green-side microphones picked him up saying.
Encouraging, supportive, enthusiastic, Woods looked the emotional opposite of Earl’s relentless fury. He seemed to have learnt, from bitter experience, how not to do it.
Indeed, watching him alongside his son as the boy swung his driver in an eerie facsimile of his father, another thought began to emerge. Maybe, instead of trying to come back himself, the next stage in his story would be encouraging his son to become a champion. That would be a real comeback.
‘It’s premature to ever write off Tiger because he’s very much driven by proving doubters wrong. He takes delight in it,’ says Lusetich. ‘What I would say, though, is that he’s in the twilight of his career as a golfer and with a body far older than its 45 years. I would also ask this question about another comeback: does he really want it? I’m not sure he does. I think he’s quite happy with what he has achieved.’
His 2019 Masters comeback gave testimony to his resolve. It restored him in the one measure of personal meaning he was brought up to acknowledge. But he has done that now and maybe it’s time to seek another direction. Indeed the appetites that have driven him for so long appear to be losing some of their power. He has delayed publication of a long-planned autobiography, originally publicised as his attempt to put the record straight. Maybe he no longer feels the need to justify himself, preferring to direct his energies into helping his son progress in a way he was never allowed to do. As Lusetich puts it: ‘It’s sort of ironic that the more well adjusted Tiger becomes, the less of a superhero he’ll be. It’s one of life’s little inside jokes.’
You never know. For Tiger Woods, for the first time in his life, the next chapter of his story may not be about him.