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Why Tiger Woods means so much to so many

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The three men stood off to the side, a few paces back from the throng. The only thing to see was people trying to see. The ground surrounding the 18th green of Augusta National was packed by maybe 10,000 craning necks, everyone hoping to get a glimpse of Tiger Woods, who was in the middle of it all.

He was about to win the Masters, once again and at last.

That the men, each African American, had no hope of actually seeing Tiger didn’t matter. They just wanted to be there. They wanted to feel it, experience it.

They were each wearing bright white chef’s uniforms, a sign they had abandoned their posts inside the clubhouse kitchen just so they could witness Tiger, 43 years old in April of 2019, winning his 15th career major, and first in 11 years.

They, understandably, weren’t willing to give out their names. They laughed and shrugged when approached. It wasn’t like they were hiding, but they weren’t supposed to be there either.

Augusta National Golf Club, their employer, is about as formal a place as exists in the United States — the members are required to wear bright green blazers with crests embroidered on them in an effort to remind everyone, including each other, that they have reached the most rarified air of American social status.

Three workers walking a few hundred yards to briefly watch the end of the tournament likely came with extreme paycheck risk. Not that they were busy at the moment. Anyone who, just as Tiger was hugging his son Charlie in celebration, was more interested in ordering some crab cakes on the veranda, well, that person deserved to go hungry for a few more minutes.

Tiger Woods reacts as he wins the Masters golf tournament Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Tiger Woods reacts as he wins the Masters in 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

When word broke that Tiger Woods was involved in a serious, single car accident Tuesday in Southern California, the image of the three men kept flashing back.

Was there another athlete alive who could embolden them to do what they did? Was there another who meant so much, to so many?

That’s why across the golf world and far beyond there was a sense of dread when the news broke Tuesday and no one yet knew that the injuries Tiger suffered were career threatening, but mercifully not life threatening. This was a disaster, but also a disaster averted.

Woods is, at his core, a shy person whose otherworldly ability and determination thrust him into the most public of lives. There was no other way, even if he’s never been truly comfortable amid the circus. For every ferocious fist pump on the course, off of it there was the look in his eye and purpose of his step seeking to flee the spotlight.

That he was often the only Black man, from a middle class/military family no less, in a world dominated by wealthy whites no doubt played a part.

All of it is what connected him with the people though. African Americans, of course, but all races and backgrounds and ages and nationalities, too. Golf is not a subjective event. You birdie the hole or you don’t. You drain the putt or you don’t. You win or you don’t.

You are an Augusta National member or you aren’t.

It made what Tiger did undeniable, unquestionable, irresistible. Maybe the old golf world wasn’t keen on the idea of a Black kid, taught to play on a Naval base course, with holes running alongside an active air strip, overwhelming their perfectly manicured sport, but he sure did, with flair and passion. When they began “Tiger-proofing” courses to deal with his then improbable length off the tee — essentially trying to stop him — he just kept winning anyway, in part by becoming a brilliant tactician and putter.

In doing so he electrified everything. In 1997, when he won the Masters at 21, some 44 million people tuned in. In the days and weeks to come, courses around the country were astonished to find people just walking in and declaring they wanted to play the sport — buying full sets of clubs, lessons and, of course, Tiger Nike gear.

When he was in contention, ratings rose. When he appeared on magazine covers, sales soared. He was a connector through generations — thrilling the young to a sport generally watched by the old. He brought diverse fans, a new attitude and a carefully crafted image.

Even when it all blew up, it happened in the biggest of ways — the New York Post famously ran Tiger scandal stories on its front cover for 20 consecutive days in 2009, beating its previous record for a single topic … the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

While the marital issues rattled Tiger, his family and parts of corporate America, in some ways it just added to his modern cocktail of fame. Even among his deepest supporters, pretty much everyone has either laughed or told a Tiger joke through the years. Even in embarrassment, he was entertaining.

As he seemingly found his way of late, battling through injuries, surgeries, substance abuse problems and likely depression, he somehow became more endearing.

When he finally triumphed again at Augusta and bear hugged Charlie, and then daughter Sam, on the same patch of Augusta that he famously bear hugged his own dad 22 years prior, the shared joy and appreciation was everywhere.

Tiger Woods hugs his son Charlie after finishing 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 hugs his son Charlie after finishing on the 18th green during the final round of the PNC Championship golf tournament in December in Orlando, Florida. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

When less than two years later when he and Charlie, 11 years old now, played a PGA father-child event with mirror image swings and mannerisms, well, it appeared he was finally living a life in full. The look of Tiger’s face that day, so often designed to intimidate, was suddenly one of enthrall toward his son. He’d always been famous for his smile. Now it conveyed a different kind of joy.

For longtime Tiger fans, the arc was undeniable, maybe the lessons too. Oh, he loved winning golf tournaments, his alpha competitive side is what drew in so many fans.

But he spoke often about his kids. About how he hoped his latest back or knee surgery would first allow him to play with them, and then — and only then — return him to the tour. It all rang true in the look of pride and wonderment on the face of Tiger Woods: Golf Dad.

The American Dream isn’t growing up the son of a Green Beret and dominating the exclusive world of golf while amassing hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s the indescribable feeling of seeing your own children come into their own, in whatever that may be.

That’s Tiger’s story. At least a lot of it. And it’s why, presumably, he connected with people in such profound ways that they were willing to risk unemployment to soak in a few seconds of his greatest moments. It wasn’t just race. It wasn’t just class. It wasn’t just generational. It wasn’t just the way he could play the game of golf better than perhaps anyone who ever lived.

It was all of it. It was everything. And then some.

That’s why stomachs churned and worries rose everywhere on Tuesday. Why some eyes watered. Why even among those who wouldn’t have expected such a reaction, the image of Tiger’s flipped SUV, hit hard and cold and terrifying.

He’s in a Los Angeles-area hospital now, recovering. Steel rods in his legs, pins in his ankle, but Tiger Woods is alert and responsive.

At 45, he isn’t going to win another Masters. At least, presumably not. It doesn’t matter. It didn’t before, either. He’s won enough. He’s done enough. In his own often spectacular, occasionally dysfunctional way, he inspired enough.

There was very little competitive career left anyway. There is so much more for him to offer, though. So much more for the rest of us to take in.

Green jackets are green jackets. Let’s get him up and out playing with his kids again. Let him beam that familiar, if more meaningful now, smile of his. Let’s see that.

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