Tiger Woods’ tale of redemption

by Paul Thomas / 06 October, 2018
Back to the future: Tiger Woods’ 2017 operation was his last hope. Photo/Getty Images

Back to the future: Tiger Woods’ 2017 operation was his last hope. Photo/Getty Images

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His Tour Championship and FedEx Cup results underline the fact that Tiger Woods is back.

Of all the impressive numbers Tiger Woods has racked up, this may be the most remarkable: when his serial infidelity scandal erupted in late 2009, the story was front-page news in the New York Post for 20 consecutive days, beating the previous record set following 9/11.

Nine years on and given the joy that greeted Woods’ recent return to the winner’s circle, it’s easy to forget how drastic the reaction to the scandal was; how emphatic the consensus that he’d never emerge from the shadow of disgrace. As one writer put it, Woods would be “in the rough forever”.

And with each cocktail waitress or porn star who secured her 15 minutes of fame by adding herself to the roll-call of Woods’ low-rent rendezvous – hence the NYP’s abiding interest – the disgust deepened and the judgments became more implacable. Reviewing the media reaction to his televised public statement two months after the story broke, one could only conclude that “sorry” is in fact the most ineffectual word. Woods said “sorry” several dozen times but it got him nowhere.

The New York Times devoted four columns to it, all of them archly dismissive. Three columnists felt the apology didn’t go nearly far enough, the fourth that his public self-abasement was “disgusting and pathetic”. Talk about lose-lose. New Zealanders who savour irony had the pleasure of hearing broadcaster Tony Veitch, a convicted domestic abuser, analyse Woods’ statement.

When Woods resumed his career at the 2010 Masters, he received a public flea in his ear from Augusta National chairman Billy Payne: “His future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change.” The sincerity of Augusta National’s efforts to change are apparent in the fact that it didn’t allow women members until 2012.

The perception that, until this year’s comeback, it had been all downhill since 2009, was evident in the euphoric reaction to Woods’ victory in the Tour Championship in Atlanta. (His subsequent struggles at the Ryder Cup followed a well-established pattern: the failure to make a mark in the biennial US vs Europe competition is a conspicuous blot on an otherwise impeccable golfing CV.)

In fact, he had top-five finishes at both the Masters and the US Open in 2010. In 2012, he won his first tournament for two years and embarked on a golden run that was almost as impressive as earlier hot streaks, although without a major championship: with eight wins and 17 top-10 finishes in 35 tournaments, he propelled himself back to the top of the world rankings, where he remained until May 2014.

But then he underwent a protracted physical breakdown and the narrative assumed a Groundhog Day predictability: injury, surgery, rehab, return a shadow of former self, repeat.

While the scandal caused an Icarus-like plummet from grace, 2017 may have felt like rock bottom. In May, a golf writer tweeted: “Since the start of 2015 … Tiger Woods top 25 finishes: 4. Tiger Woods back surgeries: 4.” In June, he was arrested for driving under the influence. A sad-sack police mugshot flashed around the world fuelling speculation that he’d become addicted to painkillers.

The perception of personal and professional free fall was reinforced a month later when the former No 1 – for 683 weeks, twice as long as the next best – dropped out of the top thousand in the world golf rankings.

Many were convinced that was that: the Tiger who’d burnt so bright had been reduced to a pinprick of receding light. But last year’s back surgery, described as the procedure you have when you’ve tried everything else, did the trick.

Whereas previous comebacks have had the feel of slow-motion car crashes, the odd promising cameo amid alarming flame-outs that revealed an athlete not in control of his body or mind, in 2018 he has been potent, resilient and consistent. If Justin Rose’s approach shot to the final hole at the Tour Championship had travelled half a metre less, Woods might well have also won the FedEx Cup, the glittering prize for season-long consistency. To say there was a lot riding on Rose’s shot is quite the understatement: the FedEx Cup winner pockets US$10 million, the runner-up US$3 million.

All the indicators – TV audiences, spectator numbers, the rapturous support, the extraordinary crowd scenes on the 18th fairway as he strode to the final green – suggest the “Tiger effect” is as strong as ever. Perhaps his injury torment in effect cancelled out the scandal in the public mind, causing disdain to give way to sympathy. What is beyond doubt is that everyone who makes money, directly or indirectly, out of the game of golf is thrilled that Tiger’s back.

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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