BY Art Thiel 05:15PM 04/14/2019

Thiel: Tiger Woods does the hardest career deed

Watching Tiger Woods flail at Chambers Bay in 2015, no way he could pull his career together. Then at 43, he won the Masters Sunday, doing the hardest sports feat ever.

At Chambers Bay for the 2015 U.S. Open, Tiger Woods was obligated to explain how he shot a first-round 80 that included a visit to Chambers Basement. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

Among the high highs and low lows in the life and career of Tiger Woods, the lowest may have come four years ago at Tacoma’s Chambers Bay. Not the lowest psychologically, emotionally, physiologically or professionally. The lowest below the surface of the earth.

In the first round of the U.S. Open, Woods found himself at the bottom of Chambers Basement. That’s what they called the enormous pot bunker in the middle of the fairway on the 18th hole. It was so wide, so deep and so avoidable that it had become an object of derision and sarcasm among the touring pros. A muni-course stunt, like a clown-mouth relic from mini-golf, they said.

Its placement in a wide fairway drew not a single ball that day, nor for the rest of the tournament. Except for Tiger Woods at that moment.

Here’s what I wrote that afternoon:

 . . . there was Woods, the only one in the 156-man field to find the dungeon.

As he disappeared from view into the pit for what became a nice recovery shot, he could be seen smiling sardonically. On his way to an 80, laughter was his only refuge. He managed to hang onto it as he met the media after his nationally televised embarrassment.

“The bright side,” he said, smiling, “is at least I kicked Rickie Fowler’s butt.”

Fowler shot 81.

Far as I could tell, the descent below grade was a metaphor for Woods’ career. In his post-round press briefing,  he insisted otherwise, but 10 holes earlier, he had an equally disastrous play.

Perhaps his game is fixable, as he desperately hopes. But right now he’s kidding himself.

Asked if he was convinced he was on the right path, he said, “Yeah, I am, I am. I know when I do it right, it’s so easy. It just feels easy to control, easy to do it, easy to hit all my shots. I just need to do it more often and build from there.”

But at 39, with age and injuries compromising his once-unsurpassed talent, he has become a cartoon that is hard to watch. In the high weeds on the eighth hole, his iron took a chunk of earth that forced the club from his hands and sent it high and backward, the ball lightly advancing.

The video of that shot may well serve as the most vivid demarcation of his descent.

Turns out, I was wrong about his career arc. I wasn’t alone in believing that Woods was golf-dead, especially that day. But the recovery that climaxed in his spectacular Masters triumph Sunday at Augusta National must be regarded as one of the most astonishing feats in the history of sports.

Because even Woods believed the hole had become too deep.

Bad as was Woods was in 2015, that was before May 2017, when he was busted for DUI when cops found him asleep in his parked car near his Florida home. And it was before the four surgeries on his back that forced him to re-learn to walk.

“I was done,” he told golf writers at a dinner this week when he accepted the Ben Hogan Award for comeback player of the year. Yet there he was Sunday at 43, Masters champion for the fifth time, and 14 years after his most recent green jacket — the longest gap in the storied tournament’s history.

“Just unreal, to be honest with you,” Woods told reporters. “Coming here in ’95 for the first time, and being able to play as an amateur; winning in ’97, and then come full circle, 22 years later, to be able to do it again . . . and just the way it all transpired today.

“There were so many different scenarios that could have transpired on that back nine. There were so many guys that had a chance to win. Leaderboard was absolutely packed and everyone was playing well. You couldn’t have had more drama than we all had out there, and now I know why I’m balding. This stuff is hard.”

Winning a golf major is hard for anyone. Woods made it harder for himself. While the feat Sunday must be respected, getting sentimental over Woods is also hard for many.

Most of his travails are self-inflicted, from philandering to substance abuse to his treatment of some close to him. And while his physical renaissance is impressive, the perseverance was abetted with virtually unlimited funds, improvements in medical technology and the self-absorption to devote nearly all of his time and energy to rehab, at the expense of some of his relationships.

Then there were the weirdnesses disclosed in Wright Thompson’s 2016 profile.

Last summer, Woods lost emotional ground in sports and and among Democrats when he discussed his friendship with President Trump, which pre-dated his presidency.

Take your choice of reasons for disengagement.

That is the way of our celebrity culture. We seek heroics and heroes, and when they inevitably falter, they cannot undo the damage done by the part that includes human frailty.

But if it is possible for you to hold in your mind two contradictory thoughts simultaneously, consider that Sunday was a jaw-dropping statement about the majesty of transcendent deeds and people, expressed by the unabashed joy flashed by the often annoyingly stoic Woods.

He remains the most fascinating, charismatic figure in sports, his foibles adding a layer of complexity to the theater.

Woods’ original success changed golf, making it accessible to many who couldn’t identify with its wealthy whiteness. His decline was felt across the industry, because no one rose to take his place.

Then Sunday, he accomplished the greatest feat in one of the most influential careers in sports history: He succeeded himself.


  • 1coolguy

    To Woods credit, he does not abandon friends when the media decides to assassinate one of them – He and Nicklaus played a round with Trump in February.
    Having watched all four rounds of the Masters, his performance was truly amazing, considering what he came back from as described in this column. I too was among the doubters, thinking it would never happen, yet his performances last year clearly showed he was on the comeback trail, yet winning another green jacket? No, not against today’s level of competition. Today history was made, without question.

    • ReebHerb

      Congratulations Tiger. There was a time before his troubles when he was tearing the golf world up. And then, someone persuaded him to change his swing. It didn’t work. I always wondered why he felt the need.

      • art thiel

        His decline was more about body and soul than swing.

        • Kristafarian

          Too much swinging.

    • Howard Wells

      golfing with trump is NOT something to brag about. Golfing with Adolf Hitler or the military leaders of Myanmar for example do NOT get you bonus points.

      • ReebHerb

        Huh. Pres. Trump kicked the Queen of Thieves to the curb in 2016 just as Pres. Obama did in 2008. Tiger as an Asian has a different outlook than someone such as Doug Baldwin even though both attended Stanford. Thomas Sowell from the Hoover Institute at Stanford University explains it nicely if you’re interested.

        • art thiel

          Good to know you know Woods’s mind so well.

      • Effzee

        Please explain, in detail, using factual historical events, exactly how Trump is like Hitler. Near as I can tell, Trump has more in common with the Clintons and Obamas than he does with Hitler. Or are you one of these “Everyone who believes the opposite of me is Hitler” people?

    • Kevin Lynch

      I’m not sure it was the media assassinating Trump. I think it was Trump himself assassinating his chance at character and class with sexism, insolence and demagoguery.

    • art thiel

      Few were the people who thought Woods had a shot at a championship recovery until he improved dramatically in 2018. By the Masters, he was among the betting favorites. Still . . .

      Good to know you and Tiger can’t walk away from a friend no matter the heinousness.

  • Howard Wells

    I am awed by his ability and his courage despite “difficult” times. As a human being, I admire his professional courage and emotional strength. We all face personal challenges at some point in our lives. Most of us strive to continue improving within ourselves. Some of us want to do so given a broader challenge. Kudos to all of us who succeed.

    • art thiel

      Personal flaws and mistakes aside, Sunday was astonishing.

  • Kevin Lynch

    It’s an amazing feat. I thought it was impossible. But, as actor Ben Kingsley said in one of the ‘mummy’ films – “difficult…not impossible”. Keep grinding and believing in yourself. I still have to think the most difficult task in sports is to beat the #1 player in the world at the Australian Open in a four hour match when the court temperature is 110 and the melting soles of your shoes are sticking to the surface. It’s happened multiple times though.

    • art thiel

      You’re close to right about a single feat. My reference in degree of difficulty was to a career arc. No one goes from utter dominance to learning how to walk again to returning to the pinnacle. Until now.

      • Effzee

        In 1986, Jerry Garcia slipped into a diabetic coma largely due to his own poor health choices, and had to re-learn to play the guitar.

        • Kristafarian

          And he’s STILL Champion.

      • Ben Goldfarb

        Obviously this is a different era with better competition but Ben Hogan’s comeback seems just as remarkable

    • Husky73

      “Difficult, not impossible.” (Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part II, 1974)

      • Kevin Lynch

        Not surprising that anyone stooping to make a cheesy ‘mummy’ film would be into a little theft as far as line stealing went. Ha!

  • rosetta_stoned

    His feat would’ve been more enjoyable if the entire CBS broadcast crew wasn’t throwing their panties at him in the process. Click.