Plaschke: Tiger Woods escaped with his life. We escaped from our grief

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Bill Plaschke
·5 min read
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Tiger Woods watches his son Charlie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the PNC Championship golf tournament, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Tiger Woods watches his son, Charlie, putt on the 18th green during the final round of the PNC Championship golf tournament in December. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

Twisted metal on a February morning. Wreckage of a vehicle wedged amid the brush. Somber official statement about a fallen superstar.

When the news of Tiger Woods’ single-car crash scrolled across my phone Tuesday, my heart leaped to my throat as memories flooded my brain.

Oh no. Not again. Not another Kobe Bryant.

One day before the first anniversary of Bryant’s memorial service, the Bryant tragedy actually was repeating itself? Another aging local athletic hero who finally had found peace was going to leave us too soon? How much grief could one sports landscape take?

It turns out, our worst fears were not realized. For once in these past horrendous 13 months, a bullet was dodged. Woods escaped with his life. We escaped from our grief.

Woods’ apparently speeding SUV tumbled several times and wound up in a gully off Hawthorne Boulevard in the Palos Verdes Peninsula. He was extricated from the car and rushed to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance. But he survived.

His injuries included a shattered ankle and two leg fractures, and he apparently spent the afternoon in surgery. But he survived.

Considering he hasn’t played this year after undergoing his fifth back surgical procedure in December — after only playing nine times in 2020 — the 45-year-old Woods may never play competitive golf again. But he survived.

He surely never will have a chance to win the three majors required to catch Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, and might be stuck forever in a tie with Sam Snead for a record 82 tournament wins. But he survived.

Authorities found no immediate evidence of impairment. Woods was apparently driving too fast, hit a median, lost control, hit trees, and rolled. He was lucky beyond lucky. But he survived.

“I’ve seen fatal traffic collisions, I would say that it is very fortunate that Mr. Woods was able to come out of this alive,” said Carlos Gonzalez, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy who was on the scene.

Fatal? Fortunate? That’s a hole-in-one. That’s a green jacket. That’s an opportunity. After never getting a chance to say goodbye to Kobe, a seat belt and a safe car has given us a moment to remember and honor Woods while he’s still breathing, and we should take it.

So what if his golfing days are done? I’ll forever remember video from the last tournament he played, in the December PNC Championship with his 11-year-old son, Charlie. The kid deftly imitated the father’s swing, perfectly mimicked his fist pump — a thing of generational beauty, a portrait of love.

So what if he never commands massive galleries again? The last tournament he attended, there were no fans, but there were tears from Genesis Open winner Max Homa as the Valencia kid received the trophy from Woods at Riviera Country Club. It was a hometown guy passing a silver legacy to a hometown guy in their hometown, a well-struck circle of life.

It’s easy to forget Woods was a Southern California kid. The Tuesday accident suddenly made everyone remember, the city holding its breath as it did a year ago, only this time able to exhale.

A crane is used to lift a vehicle following a rollover accident involving Tiger Woods.
A crane is used to lift a vehicle following a rollover accident involving Tiger Woods. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

I looked up the first story I wrote for this newspaper about Woods. It appeared 28 years ago, when I visited the 17-year-old phenom in his cramped Cypress home. I wanted to ask about his impending greatness. He wanted to talk about the harassment he received in junior golf because of his color.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Isn’t society screwed up?’ ” he said.

Judging from Tuesday’s national outpouring of worry, that same society now embraces him. He seemingly has been forgiven for his celebrated philandering and his issues with prescription medication that led to a 2017 DUI arrest.

Tiger Woods was taken to Harbor UCLA Medical Center in Torrance.
Tiger Woods was inured in a crash in Rancho Palos Verdes and was taken to Harbor UCLA Medical Center in Torrance on Tuesday. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Through the prism of a national sigh of relief, he appropriately is being celebrated as a pioneer who has swung through derisions, defeats and personal demons to fashion a career highlighted by his comeback victory in the 2019 Masters.

All of which made it so startling to hear the words of Deputy Gonzalez.

“Unfortunately Mr. Woods was not able to stand on his own power,” he said of one of the strongest athletes ever. “Our partners at L.A. County Fire were able to extricate him from the vehicle and they put him onto a backboard.”

Or these words.

“I kept Mr. Woods calm,” Gonzalez said of one of the most pressure-proof athletes. “I asked him what his name was. He told me his name was Tiger. And at that moment I immediately recognized him.”

No, he may never golf again. But yes, he’ll always be Tiger.

My 1993 story on Woods ended with the impatient teen suddenly leaving his house, at which point his mother, Tida, ran out the front door and chased after his disappearing car.

“Tiger!” she shouted. “Where are you going?”

Three decades later, once again, nobody knows where Tiger Woods is going.

But thank God he’s still here.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.