How Tiger Woods' 2017 arrest led to his 2019 Masters win

Yahoo Sports
This was unexpected. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
This was unexpected. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

The mug shot hammered its way into the American consciousness that Memorial Day weekend back in 2017: Tiger Woods, eyes half-closed, cheeks puffy, receding hair frazzled. The video of Woods’ arrest along a Florida road was equal parts shocking and pathetic: one of the most famous athletes in the world staggering, slurring, utterly lost. 

Seeing Woods in that grainy footage, adrift and bottoming out, there’s not a person alive who would have bet he’d win the Masters in less than two years … and yet, against all odds, that’s exactly what happened. 

The way Woods rebounded from that Memorial Day DUI, the way he was able to put his game back together in a way he couldn’t after his infamous 2009 tabloid scandal, forms the focus of a new book, The Second Life Of Tiger Woods, by longtime golf writer Michael Bamberger. Comprising a period from the scandal right on up through last year’s Presidents Cup victory, the book’s a trove of behind-the-scenes looks and insight, none more fascinating than this: the fact that the Jupiter Police Department, in bringing justice to Woods, may well have saved his career.

The first half of the book punctuates descriptions of that fateful Memorial Day traffic stop with a recounting of Woods’ history, both ancient and recent. (There’s also a lengthy section on whether Woods did or did not use PEDs — the evidence is circumstantial though plentiful — along with detours into Woods’ relationships with both Phil Mickelson and Donald Trump.)

Bamberger touches on the 2009 scandal, but only briefly, focusing instead on the strangeness of the days that came afterward. In 2013, Woods had a phenomenally successful year, winning five times — albeit without any majors in that total — and appearing to be, by all appearances, “back.”

But he also had three separate incidents involving rules violations: an improper drop after hitting a flag stick at the Masters, a curious drop after a water shot at The Players, and an apparent uncalled movement of his ball at the BMW Championship. Individually, each was a disappointment. Together, they seemed to symbolize something more. 

“When he had those three issues — at Augusta, at the Players Championship, at the BMW Championship — he was putting his soul in an open MRI for anybody to see,” Bamberger writes. “What you could see was his extreme self-absorption.”

There were signs that it was all spiraling toward some kind of conclusion, most likely an ugly one. Woods fell to his knees during a round at Liberty National in 2013, citing back pain from a soft bed. The next year saw a cascade of injuries. Then 2015 brought Toothgate — that strange incident where Woods allegedly had a tooth knocked out by a cameraman while visiting then-girlfriend Lindsey Vonn — and a lot of rounds in the 80s. And 2016? That was the first year in his professional career where Woods didn’t even play in a single PGA Tour event. 

Tiger Woods in Palm Beach County court in October 2017. He pleaded guilty to a charge of reckless driving in connection with his arrest for driving under the influence. (Lannis Waters/Reuters)
Tiger Woods in Palm Beach County court in October 2017. He pleaded guilty to a charge of reckless driving in connection with his arrest for driving under the influence. (Lannis Waters/Reuters)

So by the time 2017 rolled around, Woods was not just on the shelf; he looked completely cooked. At that year’s Champions Dinner in Augusta, he confessed to Gary Player that his days as a player were over. A few weeks after that, he went in for spinal fusion surgery, where doctors removed a bulging disk and fused together two vertebrae in his lower back. 

“Playing world-class golf again wasn’t even a thought,” Bamberger writes. “His main goal was to play soccer with his kids and sit through a dinner without pain.”

The surgery took place on April 20. A month later, Woods offered up a characteristically bland-yet-positive statement on his website: “It is hard to express how much better I feel. It was instant nerve relief. I haven’t felt this good in years.” 

Five days after that, an officer with the Jupiter Police Department found Woods passed out behind the wheel of his Mercedes on Military Trail. 

The officer asked Woods where he was coming from. 

“Jupiter.”

The officer then asked Woods where he was headed. 

“Jupiter.” 

Woods’ car was on the edge of a southbound lane. Jupiter was eight miles to the north.

The Jupiter Police Department and Palm Beach County followed strict procedure. Woods was found at 2:06 a.m., arrested at 2:49, Mirandized at 4:34, and incarcerated at 7:18 a.m. He spent about three and a half hours in the Palm Beach County jail, which sits right next to the Trump International Golf Club. 

Sobriety tests revealed that he had no alcohol in his system, but did have traces of Vicodin, Dilaudid, Ambien, Xanax and THC. Woods admitted guilt, and that allowed his case to speed through Palm Beach County courts with only the standard punishments: probation, some restrictions, community service requirements. Had there been anyone else in the car with Woods — friend, children, even a pet — he would not have had that diversionary option. 

“Back in the day [a Tiger phrase], local cops, in cherry tops, would sometimes take pity on the famous and the drunk and drive them home,” Bamberger writes. “It still happens. The Jupiter police didn’t do that on that Memorial Day night. They did everything by the book, and that made all the difference. They threw Tiger a birthday party, not that it looked like one, and taped it via dashcam. The second life of Tiger Woods had begun.”

Given that second (third?) chance, Woods returned to the course with new focus and dedication, and (apparently) a new understanding of his vulnerability. He played well at the Honda Classic in early 2018, and even held a brief tournament lead for the first time in years at the Valspar Championship in Tampa. There was the 2018 British Open at Carnoustie, where he was tied for the lead at the turn on Sunday, and the 2018 PGA Championship, where only Brooks Koepka beat him. 

Clearly, everything was coming together. It all culminated in that remarkable scene at the 2018 Tour Championship at East Lake, where Woods strode to victory accompanied by thousands of rope-jumping fans. 

Woods doesn’t necessarily cop to the idea that his life turned sharply upward after that Memorial Day arrest. When asked directly by Bamberger how his life has improved since then, Woods once replied, “It’s gotten better” — and nothing more. 

Even his competitors have seen a different Woods since his arrest: more compassionate, more grateful, more open, more relatable. “You have a sore back? Tiger does, too. You’ve had ups and downs in your life? Tiger has, too,” Rory McIlroy says. “He’s on a more human level now. When you show vulnerability, it’s endearing.”

Granted, it could all be an act. Not the victories, of course, but the “new” Tiger. Woods didn’t agree to speak to Bamberger for the book; Woods has his own autobiography coming out eventually, so why give up that information? 

Still, “The Second Life of Tiger Woods” is fascinating reading, a deep dive into one of sports’ perpetual enigmas. It’s a comprehensive proof of a classic David Feherty line: “Tiger’s struggles are more interesting than other golfers’ successes.”

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him via email at jay.busbee@gmail.com.


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