The sad and sharp demise of once untouchable Tiger Woods
A competitive return more improbable than ever for the player who shaped modern golf
Tiger Woods celebrates his British Open win at Royal Liverpool in 2006. Photograph: Inpho/Getty
Rory McIlroy idolised Tiger Woods but the 14-time Major winner’s auora has long since diminished. Photograph: Inpho/Getty
At the peak of his powers, Tiger Woods was a golfer who dominated all before him. He hauled his sport into a fresh commercial landscape before injury and loss of form meant he could no longer compete with the best. When he began to toil on the course – perhaps even more so than when he was recording stunning achievements as standard – he became captivating viewing.
The cause for this was twofold: People found it difficult to believe that this sporting genius, the winner of 79 professional events and 14 major championships, who was the world’s top-ranked player for an unprecedented 683 weeks, could fall so far in a short space of time. Woods’s demise hasn’t been a slow-burner; he had a five-win season as recently as 2013. The other pertinent factor was schadenfreude; the marital infidelities which put Woods on newspaper front pages in 2010 and tarnished his reputation – and many were delighted to see him fail.
This week, Woods would surely rather millions of television viewers watch him perform like a club golfer, instead of seeing the footage of him that emerged from the Florida police department. The 41-year-old Woods was again in sharp focus: staggering and slurring at the roadside in the middle of the night, having been found asleep at the wheel of his damaged Mercedes. In the police report of his arrest in the early hours of Monday, Woods is described by police as “cooperative” but “confused”.
A breath test registered a blood alcohol level of zero, and Woods insists his condition was caused by prescription medications, as he recovered from the fourth round of surgery on his back since 2014. Woods is due to be arraigned in Palm Beach County on July 5th.
Suddenly, Woods is at his lowest ebb, with the dire extent of his condition a shock to everyone.
For Woods, 2017 has so far seen his withdrawal from a tournament in Dubai after just 18 holes because of injury, the release of an endearing book which marks the 20th anniversary of his maiden win of The Masters – by a dozen strokes – and now the kind of embarrassment that has raised fears for his future. It is still only June.
“I’m a friend of Tiger’s and I feel bad for him,” said Jack Nicklaus, the only man to have won more major championships than Woods. “I think that he’s struggling. And I wish him well. I hope he gets out of it and I hope he plays golf again. He needs a lot of support from a lot of people and I’ll be one of them.”
To understand why Woods’s horribly diminished state – he barely plays golf now, let alone challenges in competition – is so significant, is to understand what he was when his life was easy.
Born Eldrick Tont Woods in California in 1975, his golfing talent was discovered at an early age. In a sport blighted by prejudice, Woods has spoken of the discrimination he encountered in his youth and the motivation that it gave him. He also had a severe stutter as a child. Despite it all, he became so successful that he broke several records.
Having become the only player in history to win the United States Amateur Championship three years in a row, Woods easily joined the professional ranks. He claimed eight of his majors between 1997 and 2002, with 2000 seeing Woods win three of golf’s four marquee events and the US Open by the age of 25. His spell as world No 1 included holding the position for 281 weeks in a row. Woods wore a cloak of invincibility which meant his very presence spooked fellow competitors. There is a compelling case for him being the finest golfer of all time.
By the end of 2016, Woods had collected $110m (€97.6m) in prize money. Career earnings, meanwhile, have been estimated at about $1.5bn, rendering him one of the highest-paid sportspeople in history. Woods would regularly command seven-figure appearance fees and, since turning professional in 1996, has retained sponsorship from Nike thought to be worth at least $20m per year. Woods was the epitome of athleticism and the polar opposite of every negative stereotype associated with golf. He made golf more appealing, as reflected by a massive growth in television ratings.
“He brought so many new people to the game,” says Chubby Chandler, head of the International Sports Management group, which is highly influential in golf.
“Quite simply he was better than anybody else and he already had a brand when he turned pro because everyone had heard about him. He lived up to it.
“Nike were clever. They didn’t sign him to sell golf clubs, they signed him to sell trainers by virtue of their logo being so prominent on the golf course.
“In 2012, when we arranged a tournament in Turkey, we were told at a meeting we had to have Tiger Woods playing. I said he would be too expensive. They replied that 10-15% of people in Turkey would have heard of Tiger Woods but nobody there would have heard of any other golfer. They needed Tiger.”
A lot has changed in the five years since. “If he comes back and plays again, he has to be reasonable,” says Chandler. “He can’t be as bad as he has been playing. I don’t want to see him embarrass himself. When he played that one round in Dubai, I said to the tournament director, ‘We might just have seen his last round ever.’”
Phil Mickelson has been one of Woods’s great rivals over the years. The ageing process might have softened their mutual antipathy, but it is still interesting that Mickelson speaks for his fellow professionals when articulating what Woods delivered for them.
“When I won the Tucson Open in 1991 the winner’s cheque was $180,000,” Mickelson said. “I remember thinking in the mid-90s, ‘I wonder if some day we’ll play for a million dollar first-place cheque? I don’t know, probably not in my lifetime, but I hope we do.’ Now we do every week and that’s because of Tiger.”
Woods learned so much from his late father, Earl, including a distrust of the media which has only eased in recent times. His ferocious competitive edge, one not matched commonly even in the upper echelons of sport, often made Woods rude and inconsiderate of others.
Even his ex-wife was caught out by this attitude. After one tournament success Elin suggested a night of celebration. Woods bluntly rejected the idea, saying: “Honey, this [WINNING]is what we do.” An obsession with pushing his body to its limits saw Woods undertake Navy Seal training. A consequence of a physically violent golf swing was multiple knee surgeries before his back problems ensued. Woods has always been deeply secretive; he would argue through necessity.
Earl Woods’s death impacted severely on his son. When Tiger won the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool in 2006, two months after the loss of his father, a first ever insight into personal trauma appeared as the champion burst into tears on the final green.
At the same event three years later, whispers abounded regarding Woods and his extramarital antics. If those rumours circulated without confirmation, within four months, Woods’s reputation was in tatters after the scale of his affairs became known. Before it emerged, Woods crashed his car into a water hydrant outside his home, in an uncanny parallel with recent events.
Woods has reflected on “regret that will last a lifetime” with regards the collapse of his marriage. “I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply,” Woods said. “I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself.” Woods remains, by widespread acknowledgement, a doting father to Sam and Charlie.
Woods incentivised a generation of players, many of whom are now the world’s best, to get into golf. Rory McIlroy idolised Woods from his childhood home in Northern Ireland, and hoped he would go even part of the way to emulating the Californian. Now a multiple major champion, Woods inspired him to dedicate the practice hours necessary for his own lucrative career.
As if to prove Woods’s reach, a youngster in rural Queensland by the name of Jason Day pursued precisely the same dream on precisely the same basis. “I read a book about Tiger and that inspired me,” says Day, now the world No 3.
“Years later I had the courage to finally go up and speak to him – you have to understand he had the Tiger aura.”
Even before events of recent days, McIlroy said: “I never thought I’d say this but I feel sorry for Tiger.” The sympathy was on account of recurring failure to recover from his back problems. “Obviously there is a physical battle there but there has to be a mental struggle as well,” McIlroy added.
The most plausible theory regarding the demise of Woods’s game is that when he realised he wasn’t infallible, that element of doubt bled into every element of his life. From 2009 – when reports of his affairs hit the front pages – “the rules applied”. It was questionable how and where Woods would gain contentment when he couldn’t play golf at his earlier level. This isn’t an individual with plenty of other elements within his life.
Woods appears a lost, sorry soul. The odds on him featuring again on entry lists for golf tournaments have never been longer. If that is sad given his contribution to this sport – as well as the pleasure he afforded others – there is a far more meaningful, human element to this bleak equation.