Oh, he might take a trophy home from a PGA Tour event where say, 12 of the top 30 players in the world are in the field. But even he won’t count that as a win. He’ll say it feels good, and add it puts him on the right path to his goals.
And that’s winning a Major. Which won’t happen.
My friend and colleague Tim Rosaforte recently quoted a playing partner on the Golf Channel saying of Tiger after watching him at The Open, “He can get there from here.”
Watching Tiger on Sunday at Carnoustie did give you that feeling. A bit of nostalgia and hope after taking the lead that we were seeing the biggest comeback in golf since Ben Hogan. A couple of missteps on the inward nine kept everybody else in the game, and Francesco Molinari became the Champion Golfer of the Year.
It’s not that Tiger’s not capable of winning again. You might remember he finished one shot behind Paul Casey at the Valspar Championships in March. His presence in the field and his name on the leaderboard put four times the number of fans on the golf course in Tampa. The next week at Bay Hill anticipation was soaring.
I asked him in Orlando if when he saw his name on the leaderboard the previous week if the feeling was the same as before. “Yes” he said directly with that grin we’ve come to know as a sign of supreme self-confidence.
Even hitting it OB on 16 and a bogey-bogey-par finish for a tie for 5th left everybody expecting a Tiger-esque run and a win soon. Rory McIlroy won that week instead with a Tiger-esque finish, a birdie on his final hole.
Just looking at those three tournaments where Tiger has played well and been in contention there’s a common thread as to why he didn’t win: He just got beat. And it’s his own fault. Not that he didn’t play well, it’s just somebody played better. There’s no defense in golf.
Name any of the top players in the world right now and they’ll say Tiger was their inspiration to become a golfer and play at the highest level. And there are too many of those who can go low in the final round, come out of nowhere, and win.
The modern players work on their games for sure, and use Trackman and other devices to optimize their equipment, but fitness, specific to golf, has jumped the game to another level. There was a par 4 at the US Open that was 505 yards long. Both Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson hit irons off the tee. Both of those guys look like they could have played any sport professionally, but they chose golf
Fitness in golf might have started with Gary Player and was refined through the years by players like Greg Norman, but Tiger was the start of great athletes choosing golf as their main sport. Look at players all over the world and they all look about the same. At the top everybody’s between 5-10 and 6-2 and weighs somewhere between 160 and 185 lbs. There are no more George Archer’s or Rod Curl’s in the game. No self-taught swings, no Lee Trevino’s coming from some obscure place in West Texas to become a Hall of Famer.
And Tiger started all that.
He helped put enough money in the game where it was a viable alternative. Winnings at every TOUR event jumped 40%. Payouts for TV rights went through the roof. And great athletes started choosing the game.
Which is why he’ll contend and play well enough to win but won’t. Just because there are so many players in today’s game that can, and will. They have the game, they’ve played top-flight amateur and college golf, and they’re not afraid.
I’ve followed the arc of many athletic careers from start to finish. Even the biggest sports celebrities’ start somewhere, so knowing Tim Tebow, as a high school sophomore is how I remember him best. But only two athletes in my career though have exceeded the hype: LeBron James and Tiger Woods.
Starting with his appearance at the LA Open in 1992, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was a name that every sports journalist who covered golf knew. “Tiger” was a unique enough name; the story of how he got it was enough to make any profile pretty colorful.
I first met Tiger in 1994 when he played in the US Amateur at the TPC Stadium course as a skinny kid with a big hat and a bigger game. “These one-on-one interviews,” was his answer when I asked the 18-year-old if there was anything he didn’t like about how his life was going. As his fame grew, he stopped doing those “one-on-one” interviews and eventually only made news on his own web site.
There was an incident where Tiger told an off-color joke to a magazine reporter in New York who broke the “off the record” code, printed it, and Tiger felt betrayed. He really clammed up after that.
I’ve been critical of Woods’ demeanor throughout his career, His nickname early in his career on tour was “Erkel” after the sitcom character that had few social skills and was generally nerdy. Tiger approached being the most famous person on the planet, something few people know about. But his actions didn’t come close to Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer or others in that same situation.
Changing his body and the violence of his swing took a toll on his body and he eventually broke down. His off course issue was well documented and publicized. And his bout with prescription drugs seemed to be the bottom.
I ran into him in early 2017 at a retirement party at his club in Jupiter. I was asked to kind of “save” him from being pestered by everybody there since he knew me a little bit and might be comfortable talking with me. We spent some time together and for the first time I felt sorry for the guy. He was as awkward as I’d ever seen him. Could barely hold a conversation. Small talk was a chore. Ok, maybe it was me, but I really felt bad for him.
Fast-forward about six months; Tiger’s gone through a rehab after being pulled over for DUI. His body is healing and his golf game is returning. I ran into him at the same club as I was hitting some putts on the practice green.
“Hey Sam, you know Tiger,” my host said as I walked to put away my putter with Woods pulling up in his cart. “Of course,” I said as we shook hands.
Tiger said, “Jacksonville, right?” as he sat back in his cart. I smiled and said, “Yep” anticipating a quick exit as usual.
Instead, the three of us sat there for about 15 minutes talking about everything guys talk about, sharing laughs and jabs, just like it’s supposed to happen. He mentioned that he really liked The Players returning to March.
When he left, I turned to my host and said, “What happened to him? He’s like a different person.”
And that’s the same person we’ve seen in his return to the limelight. He tells jokes and smiles. Remember Tiger saying that “second was the first loser” early in his career? He talked about that a couple of weeks ago with a whole different perspective after his finish at Carnoustie with his children in attendance.
“They saw their dad get into contention and end up leading the tournament. End up losing the tournament. But I tried until the very end,” Tiger said the week before teeing it up at the WGC in Akron.
“They saw how much I was grinding. They said, ‘Well, you weren’t going to win.’ I said, ‘I know I wasn’t going to win, but that doesn’t stop me from grinding.’ That is a teachable moment because they were there in present, in person. Sometimes you can’t always see that on TV.”
So whatever you attribute it to, being humbled, being a parent, being injured, whatever, I’m hoping Tiger keeps using that same personality.
There’s a steely determination necessary to win in sports at the highest level. Tiger has shown over and over that he has that. I suppose keeping it there, inside the ropes, will take an adjustment. But it’ll be worth it.