News media have reported the arrest of Tiger Woods in Florida for driving under the influence. Woods immediately took responsibility for the incident, but said that alcohol was not involved and that he suffered a bad reaction to pain medication after a recent surgery. The police report seems to corroborate Tiger’s statement. Nonetheless, it’s another chapter in the fall of one of the most storied athletes of the post-World War II generation. And it’s a shame. The beginning of the downfall can no doubt be traced to the late 2009 incident in which Tiger had been chased out of his home after his wife, Elin Nordegren, discovered his infidelity. Reports had her hitting him with a golf club, which he denied. For the next months, his girlfriends came out of the woodwork to comment to journalists and describe his affairs. His infidelities included a number of high-dollar prostitutes..
He has won tournaments since 2009, but not a major. He is stuck on 14 major tournament wins, second only to Jack Nicklaus at 18. Throughout his first years on tour, Woods seemed on track to beat the record of 18. That won’t happen. It’s interesting that a number of Golf Channel and network specials have in the past year or so reviewed the Nicklaus record, which truly is extraordinary. It’s almost as if it’s now clear Nicklaus will be considered the greatest golfer of all time. The chances of anyone now challenging his record seem remote. (It’s always been equally impressive to me that Nicklaus finished in second or tied for second 19 times in major tournaments, in addition to his wins.)
Woods had a major impact on golf in the late 1990s and early part of the 20th Century. He did wonders for television ratings. He was a charismatic figure on the golf course who had the knack for making spectacular shots at exactly the right time. There were always others in the game’s history who did certain parts of the game better. Greg Norman, Lee Trevino, and Colin Montgomery were better drivers of the golf ball. Many could play mid-irons better. Nicklaus himself was without question the finest long iron player in the history of the game, and he played in a time when long irons were important. Phil Mickelson was and is the best short iron player. Gary Player was without equal as a bunker player. Bobby Locke, Billy Casper and Ben Crenshaw were better putters. (And Nicklaus wasn’t bad in that category, either.) But nobody put all the elements of the game together and played with the complete skill that Woods had. From the time Woods won his first major tournament at the Masters in 1997 until the 2009 incident, he was the best. And no one else was even close.
Our heroes have a way of disappointing us, sometimes tragically. Woods is no exception. And in fairness, Woods has aged. As this is written, he’s 41. Multiple surgeries on his back have been a major hindrance. And he has also worked with multiple coaches over the years, demonstrating at least three very different setups and golf swings at various times in his career. It’s rare that we have seen an athlete develop so publicly from childhood and continue through the prime of his career and then into the twilight. But long after the tabloids and the mainstream news media are finished with the lurid details of his life, his record will remain. He will be second-best in terms of major championship titles, but that record, as well as his ability, determination, and charisma, will be the standards by which future golfers are judged.