Tiger Woods’ win at The Masters last year was one of the great moments in American sports history, considering everything he has meant over a quarter of a century, everything he has done, been through, put himself through. He got his green jacket and talked about the emotion of being able to win again, coming “full circle.’’
So now with The Masters starting Thursday, Woods, as defending champ, got to pick the menu for the champions dinner. He chose sushi, steak and chicken fajitas. It’s hard not to think of the circle he talked about and how it happened right in front of our eyes. Speaking of champions dinners, one early thing in Woods’ circle was in 1997 when player Fuzzy Zoeller made a joke that Tiger, if he wins, shouldn’t choose fried chicken or collard greens. Zoeller was rightfully crushed for that. He never lived it down.
Woods had to suffer that as a young man.
Think of everything Tiger’s circle has included, and how he has been publicly judged and moralized his whole life. He was on national TV as a 4-year old. As an adult, he had to break through a wall as a young, black golfer in maybe the whitest game. And then he became America’s Child, as Oprah called him, and we decided he was apple pie and white picket fence.
Then he blew up his own life and had to apologize to us and go to sex addiction therapy. Then injuries and multiple back surgeries and a DUI.
This isn’t to feel sorry for him. He profited greatly and has been a beloved and historic American figure. Besides, he’s responsible for his own actions. But should we really have been in a position to judge every last thing in his personal life for our entertainment? And what is Woods to us now, anyway? He’s a human being who plays golf. But he still carries so much meaning.
His dad chose his career path for him before he knew what he wanted. Woods is like a child actor who never had to learn how to handle his own issues. But the child stars mess up and we never hear from them again, other than when they get out of rehab. But Woods is such a great golfer that we saw the whole thing. Every . . . last . . . step.
That couldn’t have been healthy for him, but at least we were entertained.
In 1997, the Chicago Sun-Times hired me as a young golf writer. I didn’t know much about golf, which was fine because Woods had just doubled golf’s audience, meaning half the fans didn’t know a thing either. I wrote every story about Tiger, which irked the original half of golf fans.
Woods was hyped and ready to get his first Masters win. I got to be there, and I still remember the feeling in the air on Sunday for his final round. Woods had a huge lead, and there was no question he was going to win. The air was engulfed with nervousness anyway. It was a little hard to catch your breath.
It was a prolonged moment, lasting hours and building all day until he made his last shot.
I got to sit in the studio when Tiger taped the Oprah show shortly after winning. Oprah gave me a short tour. She asked Tiger what race he considers himself, and he said he had made up a term “Cablinasian’’ for his mix of Caucasian, Indian, black and Asian. I had to guess how to spell that. I got on the front page at the Sun-Times, saying that the new black golf hero didn’t consider himself to be just black. Howard Stern talked about the article, as did Dan Rather. Tiger’s race became national news. The Oprah people called to let me know she was angry with me — as the show hadn’t been aired yet — for turning the interview into a racial thing.
A few days later, the show got tremendous ratings, which led to another Tiger show. Oprah’s people called to say if I ever wanted tickets to a show or anything, just call any time.
But meanwhile, every tiny thing of Tiger’s life was analyzed. Even I analyzed them.
Woods is flawed and human now, which is better than the plastic version created for him.
Now he’s about to turn 45 and has won 15 majors, three majors short of Jack Nicklaus’ record. Woods isn’t likely to catch him. He used to hit the ball way farther than anyone else. They used to alter golf courses — Tigerproof them — put obstacles where his shots would go, let the grass grow longer. He was making the contours and challenges of a golf course irrelevant by simply hitting over them.
He taught other golfers to go to the weight room too, and now his body isn’t cooperating anymore.
When he won last year, everyone wrote about his redemption, that he had become a better person. So what is he now? A racial healer? A human being? The greatest of all time?
Let’s stop analyzing him and just let him be Tiger Woods, a man we can all cheer for.