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.
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.
This is what it looks like to win your fifth Masters, your 15th Major, and your first in 11 years: pic.twitter.com/XM9oZvv4tX
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 14, 2019
“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.
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.
— Jack Nicklaus (@jacknicklaus) April 14, 2019
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.