Last month on the 17th green at TPC Sawgrass, Tiger Woods retrieved his ball and made his way to the tee box on 18. Standing along the walkway was Thomas Wesling, a college kid wearing a t-shirt and knockoff Wayfarer sunglasses that would’ve looked more appropriate at a Spring Break keg party.
The t-shirt Wesling wore featured a now-famous print of Woods’ mugshot — unshaven cheeks, sunken eyes — which was taken following his 2017 DUI arrest.
“Tiger!” Wesling yelled from the front row of the fans lining the walkway. “Tiger, over here!”
Woods, whose presence on the golf course the last few years resembled an extra on The Walking Dead, glanced at Wesling’s shirt and cracked a smile.
It was the first indication that maybe, just maybe, there was still a little spark glowing inside the burnt husk of a man who, in the not so distant past, stood as a glowing symbol of sports greatness.
It can’t be overstated how important Woods has been to the game of golf. His name has become synonymous with the sport in the same way John Philip Sousa is synonymous with marching music. I get he’s still not the “greatest” golfer of all time – Jack Nickalus may always hold that title — but unlike the Golden Bear, Woods’ rise to greatness intersected with the cultural growth of cable television, video games, and the internet. He became part of our lives in a way golfers of yore never could, with the possible exception of Arnold Palmer and his delicious drink concoction.
Case in point: my wife can name exactly two golfers — Woods and Ricky Fowler, the latter only because her brother is a fervent disciple of Fowler’s neon-clad church and has four thousand Puma hats to prove it.
Golf wasn’t even on my radar until Woods came on the scene. I remember the first time I watched him play: in April ’97, at my 7th grade girlfriend’s house during a family party. Granted, I was more preoccupied with orchestrating a way to touch my girlfriend’s knee on the couch, but I remember the way her family gathered around the television to watch Woods win his first green jacket. It wasn’t in the passive, hushed way they’d been watching all day; the room was tense, focused, shoulders forward and necks stiff, the posture of a game-winning field goal attempt or buzzer-beating three-pointer. I, along with 44 million other viewers, saw him seal his record-setting win with his signature uppercut. Even at 12 years old, I felt as though I was witnessing history, the buzz of excitement thrumming through my prepubescent body in a way I didn’t quite understand.
“That boy is special,” my girlfriend’s uncle said of the 21-year-old’s toothy grin filling the television screen.
For those who blocked out the early years of the 21st Century, Tigermania was real. Woods inspired an entire generation of kids to take up a sport previously reserved for retirees and bloated corporate douchebags. He got more cheers on the fairway than The Beatles at Shea Stadium. Hell, I owned three copies of his Playstation game before I ever swung a club.
Woods dominated with such frequency that golf officials began lengthening courses, which they called “Tiger-proofing.”
Then, well, we all know what happened. I remember that day too, because I was coincidentally sitting on the couch with my college girlfriend watching TV when reports of his Ambien-fueled romp with Florida police hit the airwaves.
“Oh,” my girlfriend’s father chuckled, “he’s fucked.”
Even before then-wife Elin Nordegren smashed his face with a nine-iron on that fateful November night in 2009, there were some hints Woods’ expiration date was on the horizon. A growing story in the sports media expressed worry that Woods was so freaking good, other PGA pros might just give up because they knew they’d never beat him. They posited his dominance might actually hurt the popularity of golf. This narrative was patently false — data studies proved golfers actually performed better when Woods was in the field — but it was pretty clear the pundits were growing bored of Tiger Time.
The thing about public adoration is that as much as we love to exalt the greats, we also secretly love the fall. There’s something intrinsically satisfying about watching our heroes crumple back to Earth like Icarus, perhaps because it confirms these people — who, by the way, we lionized in the first place — are human after all. Tell me you didn’t take pleasure in watching Tom Brady squirm during all those awkward Deflategate-era interviews or press your lips into a smug little grin when you found out Allen Iverson capped his Hall Of Fame career playing basketball in Turkey.
It was fun for the cocky, brown-skinned youngster to upset the apple cart for a spell, but we were ready for order to be restored. And so the public rejoiced in watching Woods fall apart like an Ikea dresser while boring white dudes you’ve never heard of reclaimed their place at the top of the PGA rankings.
But you know what we love even more than the Fall from Grace?
The Redemption storyline is one so thoroughly ensconced in the human existence, its not even worth the virtual ink it would take to support. As such, I’ll only cite one example:
There’s nothing more epic than Adrian Balboa screaming “It’s suicide! You can’t win!” 30 minutes before Rocky beats the piss out of commie-juciehead Ivan Drago, not only scoring a win for the underdog, but America AND Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign as well. My skin prickles just thinking about it.
Which brings me to last Sunday, when Woods took a frame from the Stallone storyboard by seizing another green jacket after he spent the last 10 years wandering around and looking like a dude who had his soul extracted by a Dementor.
Let’s be real for a second. Woods or no Woods, watching golf is boring as fuck. As I’ve said before, I enjoy golf, at least as much as someone can enjoy paying 50 bucks to drink beer and spend five hours apologizing to the people behind him for not playing fast enough. But watching golf on TV is a painful exercise in self-flagellation. It’s slower than baseball, more monotonous than NASCAR, worse than the time last Christmas my father-in-law made the seemingly purposeful decision to watch an Air-Fyer infomercial for the better part of two hours.
That was not the case Sunday, when the 25 customers of a Northern Virginia brewery stopped taking craft IPAs to the dome long enough to watch Tiger make the fairways of Augusta his bitch.
“Ten-year-old me is losing his fucking mind right now,” a 28-year-old patron said as Woods stood over the tourney-winning putt. “This is his entire legacy in one shot.”
It’s not the game, it’s not the tension of tapping in a 3-footer, a shot I could make on a putt-putt course in Wildwood while blacked out on Goldschlager; it’s the story. With his Masters victory, Woods slides nicely into role of Redeemed Hero, a reminder to all of us that no matter how bad we fuck up, there’s still a chance to re-seize glory.
This is what the people at the brewery are clapping for when Woods’ ball drops into the final cup and he pumps his fist. With one tournament victory, the last decade of Tiger Woods the Villain is erased: the car crash, the parade of side chicks, the sex addiction, the injuries, that goddamn train wreck of a mugshot, all of it.
His past is still there, of course, and I’m sure Woods will have to wrestle his demons for the rest of his life. But if his reaction to Thomas Wesling’s t-shirt is any indication, he’s looking forward to a little time out of the doghouse.
Hey Tiger, welcome back.