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The Reducer, Week 31: Imperfect 10s

The Aging Tiger Woods

The uncertain future of a onetime savior

It was ordinary. It was oh so ordinary. —Gary Smith, “The Chosen One,” Sports Illustrated, 1996

“Youthemanyouthemanyouthemanyoutheman.” —Charles P. Pierce, “The Man. Amen,” GQ, 1997

It was a Sunday afternoon, it was a driving range, and it was a crowd huddled four-deep in the rain, watching a 36-year-old golfer stand under an umbrella and wait out the storm. It was March in Miami, and Tiger Woods hadn’t won a PGA Tour event in 30 months. His ex-coach was on the verge of publishing an unflattering tell-all; his swing, rebuilt once again, was a work in progress; his world ranking had slipped into the teens. And yet nobody here seemed deterred by these things, nor by the fact that Tiger Woods was not going to win this tournament, either: He trailed by eight strokes, and in a few hours, on the 10th hole of an imploding round, he would start limping on his sore Achilles tendon. On the 12th hole, he would tell his playing partner, “I’ve got to go in,” and then he would chauffeur himself home in his Mercedes sedan while a camera pointed from a blimp traced his progress out of the Doral Golf Resort parking lot and onto the freeway.

But for now the crowd stood and watched, reverent and still, and then someone broke the silence, because someone always does. These are the kinds of people who, in Tiger Woods’s mind, caused all the trouble in the first place.

“YOU’RE THE REAL NUMBER ONE, TIGER!”

It was a deliberately pointed comment — a few feet away stood Rory McIlroy, who at that moment was the real no. 1 golfer in the world1 — and it was expelled with enough blunt force that Tiger must have heard, but he did not flinch. He never does. His bearing, as always, was august, his posture infused with a militant rigidity. He does not slouch, either, for slouching would not only produce bad form but it would betray weakness, and if there is something we have learned during the past 15 years of Tiger Woods’s public existence, it is that he only betrays weakness when he has no other option.

“WELCOME BACK, TIGER!”

The crowd did not expect an acknowledgement. The crowd asked for nothing in return for their fealty. The crowd had already made up their minds: They had accepted the proposition that underneath the veneer of Tiger Woods was a human being, and they had accepted that human beings experience moments of profound self-doubt, and they had accepted that Woods endured one of the more humiliating public scandals in modern history, and they had accepted that he was growing older like the rest of us. And so they pressed up against a waist-high metal fence in a driving rainstorm, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of a man standing still.

Eventually the clouds lifted, and Tiger emerged from his cover, lofting parabolic little wedge shots toward a distant tree, frowning and readjusting and frowning and readjusting once more, pausing to cast a stubborn grain of pollen from his eye. Next to me, a girl perched on her boyfriend’s shoulder leaned down and whispered something I could barely make out. Then she repeated it, as if it were a mantra.

“Don’t cry, Tiger,” she was saying. “Don’t cry.”

The first time I watched Tiger Woods play golf, there were 30 people in the gallery. It was 1995, and it was Westlake Village, California, and I was a newspaper intern, doing the sort of thing newspaper interns did in 1995: covering an inconsequential college tournament for a regional edition of a major West Coast daily. Tiger did not win, but he chipped in for birdie on the 10th hole, and made a remarkable par save on 15 after blasting his tee shot out of bounds, and then he blew off an interview request (politely, from what I recall) so that he and his Stanford teammates could get to the airport for a tournament in Georgia.

Two weeks later, Ben Crenshaw won the Masters, and Tiger, playing as an amateur, finished tied with Payne Stewart and Jeff Sluman and Mark Calcavecchia, 19 strokes off the lead. He was 19 years old, and he had made the cut at The Masters. “He’s a wonderful boy,” his college coach told me, and because I was 22 years old myself and utterly naïve as to the complications of the human persona, I did not ask a follow-up question.

A couple weeks ago in Orlando, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tiger Woods finally won a golf tournament, setting up a series of speculative trip wires. Was Tiger “back”? What did it mean for Tiger to “be back”? Could he win four more major championships to tie Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18, and could he win five more and break the record? And if he could, how long would it take? More immediately, could he win the Masters this week? Were we reading too much into his recent performance, or too little? Would the embarrassing details in former coach Hank Haney’s book, released in late March, fluster Tiger, or would it light a fire under him?

These questions, while they make for excellent PTI topics, are all speculative, as they have always been when it comes to Tiger Woods. I asked a golf psychologist who’s worked with PGA Tour pros if he knew of any other golf psychologists Tiger had consulted; he did not know if Tiger used one at all. The only media appearances Woods does are carefully choreographed; his agent, Mark Steinberg, is known in golf circles as “Dr. No.” I don’t know if he’s still in therapy for sex addiction, and I have no idea who he is dating, and I have absolutely no idea whether he is happy or sad or depressed or fulfilled.2

This impenetrable bubble of privacy is the whole reason his sex life became a sensation in the first place: For years, we’d been making assumptions about Tiger that were based on a manufactured reality. It was not the salaciousness that elevated the story into the mainstream — it was the very thought of Tiger’s “double life” that fascinated the tabloid readership, one editor at a celebrity magazine told me, even though we don’t really know if it was a “double life” or just a “single life” that had finally been leaked to the public. Backed into a corner, Tiger played along, and gave us his lone “sincere” moment, an awkward and perhaps entirely unnecessary press conference at which he apologized for actions that, on some fundamental level, were none of our business, and then he retreated back into himself, firing the coaches and the caddies he no longer trusted, declaring that he would now win golf tournaments “for himself.” He is the most deeply private public figure in modern sports, and so we should not have been surprised that the scandal did not open him up in any way, but only caused him to retreat more deeply into that public/private space where he answers questions and makes deliberate eye contact and expresses himself sincerely about that dogleg on 15 while his body language says, If you want anything real, go fuck yourself.

When a reporter dared ask him a legitimate question about Haney’s contention, in his book,3 that Woods was so serious about training with Navy SEALS that it began to affect his golf career, Tiger ridiculed the questioner into silence. “That whole SEAL thing seems totally innocuous to me,” says Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke and the author of a book called The Passion of Tiger Woods. “But I’m imagining Tiger sees Haney’s book as an act of betrayal.”

He doesn’t want people close to him in a sense, because he’s concerned they’re going to ask him for something,” Haney, who coached Woods for six years, said in an NPR interview last week. “That’s part of the nature of Tiger: There’s a certain amount of intimidation with everyone.”

As with everything else surrounding Woods, this can be read in two ways: It can be read as a smart and practical defensive mechanism for a megacelebrity, and it can be read as a cruel and cynical way to go through life. And this is the central dichotomy of Tiger; it has been so since he emerged in the mid-’90s and was portrayed, in two key magazine profiles, both as a transformative figure in line with Nelson Mandela and as a college kid who told dirty jokes to impress beautiful women. Either you fell hard for this narrative of transcendence — for Earl Woods’s declaration to Sports Illustrated‘s Gary Smith that “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity” — or you found such a proposition patently absurd, as GQ‘s (and now Grantland’s) Charles P. Pierce did upon hearing Woods share a salty joke about The Little Rascals in the backseat of a limousine in 1997.

Even now, after all the tumult of the past two and a half years, we are engaged in the same push and pull between the ordinary (sex) and the extraordinary (golf), between the believer (he can break Nicklaus’s record) and the cynic (his opportunity has passed), between the real (what we see) and the manufactured (what we imagine we see). The only difference is that we are all a little older now.

Two months after Tiger won his first Masters, I went to see him play at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. I was doing what everyone else was doing at the time: I was there to write about how Tiger had changed the nature of golf, about how he might potentially change the nature of race relations in America. “And you know what you’ve heard is true,” I wrote. “That golf, which for so long has been the territory of aged white males, has finally opened its doors.”

I was 24 years old, and I’m sure I probably believed in Earl Woods’s prophecy at the time. I subscribed to the mystique of Tiger because I was young, and he was of my generation, and I had never experienced a force of nature like him before. His youth and his background and his verve seemed intelligently designed to decontaminate a sport that clung hard to outdated tradition, and I imagined (naively, perhaps) that this would translate to the outside world as well.

Over the years, of course, the golf part of the prophecy proved true, even if the rest never did. Tiger did things that, at his age — hell, at any age — defied logic: At Pebble Beach, I followed him as he lapped the field at the U.S. Open. In the gloaming and fog of an August Sunday in Akron, a week before I quit my job and left for graduate school, I witnessed Tiger’s approach shot on 18, a ball he hit entirely by feel, a ball he might as well have struck while blindfolded. I was one of the only people left standing around the green after a long rain delay, and I watched it plunk onto the grass, two feet from the pin. Later, he said he went after a birdie, even though he had the tournament in the bag, because he was at 20 under par and his caddy really liked the number 21. It might be the most remarkable sporting moment I’ve ever witnessed in person.

I have this distinct memory, though I can no longer find the quote, of Tiger saying something at a press conference about how one’s muscles began to atrophy in one’s late 20s, and how he knew that he had a special advantage as a prodigy and was racing against the clock because of it. It felt like an overstatement to me. I was young, and I thought he had plenty of time to change the world, just as I thought I had plenty of time, too.

I followed Tiger Woods for nine holes on the day he withdrew at Doral. On no. 7 he pulled his tee shot left and left his par putt short, and on no. 8 he three-putted for par (if any single golf-related element has held Woods back over these past 30 months, it is his putting, which is, of course, the most mentally vexing element in a mentally vexing game). He saved par on no. 9, and as he walked off the green, lost in thought, one of those youth volunteers who works the tournament chirped, “Good luck, Tiger.”

It was as if a wax statue had come to life.

“Thanks, bud,” Tiger said. And just as fast as he had emerged, he fell back into himself, lips pursed, eyes cast straight ahead. The kid recoiled for a moment, and then he beamed, and then he giggled uncontrollably. A couple of people actually came up to congratulate him. And Tiger trudged onward, toward the no. 10 tee, grinding out the final shots of a round that he would never complete.

Was it real? Was it a public moment, staged for the gallery and the cameras and for people like me? I have no idea. At this point, I’m not even sure if it matters anymore.

The curious twist to this, the potential Second Act of Tiger Woods, is that people are still saying he has plenty of time. By nature, golfers enjoy extended careers: Jack Nicklaus won his final Masters at the age of 46, and Ben Hogan won six majors after a car accident nearly killed him at age 36, and Vijay Singh’s best years came after he turned 40. It is possible that Tiger will still shatter Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships, but even if he does, it will feel different now. The scandal, and those 30 months when Woods floundered without a victory, marked a symbolic dividing line. He emerges from them as a father, as a divorcé, as a man whose body has betrayed him repeatedly, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense. He is a full-on adult now. There is less joy and more grind; it is no longer about social change, but about hard numbers.

“When I coach young guys, I’m always working on calming them down, and controlling their emotions,” says Dr. Patrick Cohn, the golf psychologist. “With the older guys, I’m always challenging them to get excited enough to do their best and perform their best. And if you add the pressure of ‘My life is going to turn around when I get back in form,’ it creates a greater yearning to be successful.”

On Saturday at Doral, a reporter asked: “It’s been years since you’ve played this much golf in a short stretch. Just wondering how your body is holding up through it?”

“Oh,” Woods responded. “It feels great.”

A day later, he walked off the course, leading the cameras on that goose chase out of the parking lot, and issuing a statement no doubt crafted by a spokesman and filtered through a second spokesman and e-mailed to the media by another spokesman that read, in part: “In the past, I may have tried to continue to play, but this time, I decided to do what I thought was necessary.”

Was he lying to us on Saturday, or is he growing old and dealing with the body’s unpredictable complaints, just like the rest of us?

Just below the applause, or within it, can you hear the grinding? That’s the relentless chewing mechanism of fame, girding to grind the purity and promise to dust … “

In that 1996 SI profile of Woods, Gary Smith sets up a dichotomy between man and machine, between Tiger and his impending celebrity, and in some ways it is prophetic and in other ways it feels like the machine has evolved so much since Smith wrote those words that it is too simplistic a calculation.

“We love the drama of the comeback, of the aging player who recovers his magic touch,” says Starn, the Duke anthropology professor. “These scandals have a really short shelf life. One of the things they do is to humanize famous people. It makes the story more interesting. It’s made it easier for fans to identify with Tiger. I can imagine, in the long run, Tiger being more popular than he was before.”

He is also freer now. The celebrity magazine editor I know told me that once Woods’s choreographed public image had been shattered by the initial reports, nobody really gave a damn about his sexual exploits anymore. Now the tabloid readership cares more about his ex-wife than they do about him.

So what if it isn’t an either/or proposition, a zero-sum game between the man or the machine? What if the man would win, and the machine would win, and then the man would win again, and they would alternate victories until both man and mechanism rusted and decayed and fell into obsolescence? What if (to a less heightened extent) that’s how it is for all of us as we get older, as we settle into the reality that we will never be what we imagined at 22? What if this is why the crowds in Miami and the crowds at Augusta still feel something so visceral for Tiger, even now, knowing what we know? What if we are willing to forgive because we have all been forced to pull back in middle age, to do what we thought was necessary rather than what we would have liked? What if we want Tiger to succeed now because it makes the compromises of adulthood feel a little lighter to the rest of us?

What if our sympathies for Tiger Woods are no longer grounded in his ability to exact change, but in his ability to accept it?

Filed Under: College Sports, Future, People, Series, Teams, The U, Tiger Woods, UNC