The Magazine

Can You Forgive Him?

Next stop, Augusta, on the Tiger Woods rehabilitation tour

Apr 15, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 29 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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It was the kind of epic fall that provoked a lot of Icarus imagery and would have stimulated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s creative juices.

But then, Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” The line comes from notes that Fitzgerald made for his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, and perhaps he was generalizing from his own life. There are, of course, second acts in America and a lot of them. But there are not many first acts that flame out as spectacularly as Woods’s did. Not even Fitzgerald’s.

The Woods story is one of talent almost too prodigious to be believed. He was on television hitting golf balls when he was barely out of diapers. He broke 80 when he was 8 years old; 70 when he was 12. He became the U.S. Junior Amateur champion at 15, youngest ever at the time. Later, and almost inevitably, he became the youngest U.S. Amateur champion. And so on. 

 

After two years at Stanford, he turned professional and joined the tour in 1996. In 1997, he won his first major, the Masters. He burned through Augusta and left the competition eating his exhaust, winning by 12 strokes. He was, almost predictably, the youngest player to win the tournament.

In 2000, he won six consecutive tournaments, the U.S. Open among them. That win, at Pebble Beach, may have been the most conclusive and flawless of his career. According to the Sports Illustrated account, it was “the most dominating four-round performance in the history of major-championship golf.” He won by 15 strokes and never shot a round over par in a week when the rest of the field managed only 32 subpar rounds.

One could go on and on but there is no point. Anyone who followed golf knew that they were watching greatness. And there were a lot of people watching; more than had ever watched golf, either in person or on the television. If Tiger was playing in a tournament, it was virtually guaranteed good ratings. Otherwise, the public saw it as a bunch of stiffs hacking around the course, and tuned out.

He was the kind of athlete who arrives like a comet, lighting up his sport. And because golf is an individual sport, he did not share even a small portion of the glory with teammates. With anyone. Which is how he and his family and his handlers liked it. When a colorful caddy began to get a little too much attention, was approached for a few too many interviews, he was fired.

A prodigy, then. Someone very, very special whose greatness—genius, even—was apparent from a very early age, especially to the strong father, Earl, who pushed him and molded him. After the scandal broke, people made comparisons to Mozart as the film Amadeus portrayed him. The talent, the father, the emotional immaturity.

Mozart lived to 35 and, to use the locutions of sport, was on the comeback trail, working on the Requiem when he died. Tiger Woods is 37 and fashioning a comeback of his own. Before this season, it has been a two-steps-forward-one-step-back enterprise.

He stayed out of golf after winning the 2008 Open on one leg. His return in 2009 looked promising, but he did not win a major that season, and then came the scandal. In December 2009, he said he was withdrawing from competition. He made public apologies and then went into a clinic. He returned to competitive golf at the 2010 Masters and finished fourth. A promising return.

But he did not win a single tournament that year, something that had not happened before in his professional career. Still, at the end of the season, he had played well enough to be ranked number two in the world.

In 2011, he finished fourth, again, in the Masters. But the season deteriorated after that, and his world ranking dropped until he was 58th.

Things began to turn around late that year, and in 2012 he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It was his first victory since 2009. The rest of the year was up and down, and the word for both his season and his game was .  .  . erratic. And there were younger players coming along who had never played against him back when he demoralized the competition while he was subduing the golf course. They weren’t necessarily afraid of him.

Still, there were unmistakable signs that he was back. Not all the way, certainly. Not in the utterly dominating way he had been at, say, that U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. But he was certainly no ham-and-egger on the course.

And in the mind of the public? There, he had a lot further to go. He was still the biggest draw in golf, and if you went to a tournament where he was playing, he was easy to find. Just look for the largest gallery. And if you couldn’t find it, then listen. After a while, you would hear the roars.

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