A Masters without Tiger: It is not quite the case of an athlete dying young. He will almost certainly recover from the back surgery that kept him out of the tournament and play at Augusta again next year and, probably, for many years after that. He may even win again. After all, Jack Nicklaus won the Masters when he was 46 years old and Woods is only 38.
That win at Augusta was the 18th of Nicklaus’s major championships. This is a record, and one that has been Woods’s nearly lifelong goal to beat. That 19th is his white whale, and the quest has already cost him dearly. In body, soul, and riches.
He has fallen a long, long way since 1997, when he won his first Masters by 12 strokes. He finished the tournament at 18-under par. The record was 17, held by . . . Nicklaus. Woods, at 21, was the youngest Masters winner ever.
Television ratings and attendance at the course also soared into record territory. It was as though a new comet had appeared in the sporting heavens. Woods burned ever brighter, winning 14 major tournaments, four of them consecutively and becoming a first-order celebrity and major brand. He seemed to want to set endorsement records as much as he craved major tournament titles. His image was everywhere. Until it wasn’t.
The flameout was dramatic, tawdry, and sad. A sex scandal involving prostitutes and porn stars and embarrassing emails. A divorce from his beautiful wife and mother of his two children. The endorsements went away, and suddenly you could walk the long concourse of a major airport without his larger-than-life image selling you a watch, a car, financial expertise . . . anything. He had gone, almost overnight, from being everywhere to being nowhere.
It wasn’t the same on the golf course, either. His remorseless pursuit of majors stalled at 14, and he has played 22 of those tournaments, now, since winning one. The golf savants continue to say that he can do it, but then all of golf wishes devoutly that he were back in the hunt.
Among its other effects, the Tiger phenomenon had made golf into a sport that was followed by people who didn’t play the sport or, in truth, care much about it. It seemed far too slow—not to mention elitist—for mass tastes. But the overwhelming force of Woods’s personality and his undeniable skills drew fans who were followed closely by marketers.
But golf was not the most improbable sport brought out of obscurity and into the glare of mass appeal by the force of one athlete’s personality and talent. That would be bicycle racing before the advent of Lance Armstrong, who made it, and himself, into something approaching a cult. Armstrong won—indeed, dominated—in his sport as Woods did in his. He won the Tour de France a record seven times (in consecutive years), which is easily the equivalent of Woods actually winning those 19 majors. Armstrong not only demolished his competitors; he also beat death.
He was diagnosed with testicular cancer and told it had spread, giving him a 50/50 chance of surviving. This was before he won his first Tour de France. Armstrong used his celebrity to create the Livestrong Foundation, and he became the face of survival through defiance. Millions wore his jerseys and plastic wristbands—both yellow—in a show of solidarity and regard. He was, to them, more than a celebrity athlete. He was unconquerable will.
Through his long ride to glory, however, there had been rumors—widely and loudly broadcast—that his success was a case of winning through chemistry. That he was a doper. Armstrong denied it with characteristic intensity, threatening to sue and ruin some who published and spread the stories. He had been tested and declared clean. That was his story, and he was sticking to it.
And then, the rumors turned out to be the undeniable truth, and the entire edifice of celebrity and riches crumbled. Armstrong has lost some $75 million in future earnings. He finds himself on the other end of lawsuits, and were he to lose them all, he would owe more than $100 million. He has lost a lavish home in Texas. He is still defiant but reduced, now, to saying not “I didn’t do it” but “Everybody did it.”
Armstrong’s legal woes, even if every case goes against him, will be about money and reputation. If, that is, there is any of that left for him to lose. He will still be able to get on his bike and ride. He will not go to jail.
In that regard, the flameouts of Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong are less spectacular than the crash of Michael Vick, another athlete who had it all—or close enough.