Tiger and the Masters

Accolades and comparisons with history have been flowing since Tigers Woods’ one-stroke victory yesterday in the Masters, his 15th major. There had been 22 years pass since his first Masters win in 1997, 14 years since his last Masters win in 2005, and almost 11 years since his last win in a major, the U.S. Open in 2008. I had predicted in this blog a couple of years ago that Tiger was finished as a major title contender. A failed marriage, publicity over multiple affairs, and health issues resulting in major back and knee surgeries all had made such prospects dim. This is not, to me, comparable to Joe Namath and the New York Jets winning Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts in 1969. Joe Namath was a personal hero, and the fact that he predicted a win while his team was such an underdog ranks very high in my sports history catalog. Nor did Tiger’s win have the global impact and national catharsis of the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid. I have never witnessed such collective emotion in sports as seen after that event.

Tiger Woods sinks a short putt to claim his 15th major golf championship.

As to my prediction two years ago, I hereby eat my words. And I apologize to the greatest golfer of his era. I have followed sports and especially golf since I was eight years old in 1958. Tiger’s win yesterday is the most extraordinary individual comeback I’ve ever witnessed. We all like comebacks, and this is one for the ages. At the age of 43, after all his personal turmoil and health issues, he won against a generation of players he helped inspire who are stronger and every bit as capable as he ever was. Tiger is no longer the longest off the tee. There have always been better drivers of the golf ball, better short iron players, even better putters. But no one ever put all of the elements of golf together better than did Tiger in his glory years. Nor has any other golfer had such a flair for the dramatic, pulling off incredible shots at exactly the right time.

When he first came onto the tour in the 1990s, swing analysts noted the likelihood of injury with the aggressive and even violent movement he made over the golf ball. He had extraordinary hip rotation, creating club head speed and making him always at or near the top in tour driving distance. The swing took a toll on his lower back and left knee, which absorbed the pressure of the movement. Sure enough, a rebuilt left knee and multiple back surgeries followed. His swing is a bit more controlled than it was in the past, although he still seems to hit shots wide to the right. Whether the back and the knee continue to hold up is anyone’s guess, as is whether or not Tiger can approach the record of Jack Nicklaus with 18 major titles.

This week is a time to celebrate what sport has always meant when sport is at its best. It’s a drive to succeed against the longest of odds, the ability to overcome obstacles, and to demonstrate the fierce will to win that all champions have. I saw very little in the way of social media that was against Tiger. Clearly, some people maintain a bit of a grudge against him for his actions, and clearly some of his problems were his own doing. But golf creates the crucible for individual pressure, grace, and intensity that no other sport offers. It is an individual sport, and what happens is entirely of a player’s own doing. Yesterday, we saw the brilliant Italian Francesco Molinari fail when he hit shots into the water on the famous 12th hole and then again on the 15th at Augusta, ending with double bogeys on both. It was painful to watch, but then we were reminded again what grace is when Molinari patiently answered questions after his loss. “Sometimes it’s your day,” he said. “Sometimes it isn’t.”

The legendary golf writer for The New Yorker, Herbert Warren Wind, perhaps said it best: “Beyond the fact that it is a limitless arena for the full play of human nature, there is no sure accounting for golf’s fascination. Perhaps it is nothing more than the best game man has ever devised.”