It is easy to cling to memories of Tiger Woods at his peaks, but his frailties tell as much, if not more, about his powerful hold on sport and culture.
The sight of his demolished S.U.V., sitting forlornly on a grassy Southern California hillside, belied the image of Tiger Woods as an invincible force marching across the golf course to certain, thrilling triumph.
That was not always the case, and lately his victories have been far from commanding. But so much is embodied in Tiger. And in this period of pandemic and relentless loss, we struggle to confront visions of a crumpled vehicle, of him lying in a hospital bed, of leg bones shattered and questions about whether he will play again — while still dissecting who he is and what he has wrought.
What happened to the sterling athlete who so many expected to reshape the game of golf and even, perhaps, the broader culture?
Woods’s greatness, once seemingly preordained, has been dimmed over the past dozen years by stunning falls from grace and by betrayal from his body.
But many of us still cling to him, even if it means grasping at shards of memory. We remember the prodigy who burst into view on the nationally televised “Mike Douglas Show,” hitting putts at age 2.We remember his Stanford years and the Masters of 1997, the first of 15 major titles, won in history-making fashion at age 21.
When you think of Woods, what comes to mind?
Is he the superstar who lived for toppling records? Who grew up with his eyes fixed on breaking Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships? Recall that there was a time when this seemed like an audacious, even arrogant, goal. Then he set about the chase, quickly drawing oh-so-near to Nicklaus, major after major.
Is he the golfer whose very presence in a largely segregated, upper-crust sport was not only startling, but also a harbinger of the issues that frame our world today?
With his shimmering brown skin, his power and confidence, Woods blew down the doors of the all-white country clubs. Remember the snide and easy way in which the golf veteran Fuzzy Zoeller referred to Woods as “that little boy”? Or Zoeller’s publicly urging Woods not to put fried chicken and collard greens on the menu of the Masters’ champions dinner?
That was the golf culture Woods strode into, and took over, as the world watched.
But how did he see himself? Here things get tricky. Raised in predominantly white suburbs by a mother from Thailand and an African-American father, Woods was one of the first major sports figures to openly embrace the idea that he represented multiplicity. “Growing up,” he told Oprah Winfrey shortly after that first Masters win, “I came up with this name: I’m a Cablinasian.”
In a world that struggles to go beyond placing race in tidy boxes, that comment alienated some of his most ardent supporters. But if he was chided for seeming to keep his Blackness at a distance, it didn’t dent his popularity. No matter how Woods defined himself, he was imbued with a certain power. Forever the trailblazer and talisman. He put a torch to the old order. That was enough.
Then came 2009, and a troubling descent. It began with tabloid tales of the married Woods engaging in serial infidelity. Eventually his deepest flaws were exposed: his illicit texts, his trysts, his trips to rehab as he battled addiction.
Woods was among the first transcendent sports stars to emerge at the dawn of the digital age. His aura, his race, his swagger and shotmaking, the club twirls and fist bumps and miracle shots — all of it was perfectly suited for YouTube and the rise of sports apps that feast on fleeting moments and sensational emotion.
The digital age also magnified his troubles. Each imperfection was there to see, personal and professional. For much of a decade, as the advancing years wreaked havoc on his body and the surgeries piled up, Woods was a shadow of his former self. Heading into 2019, he had not won a major tournament in nearly 11 years.
Yet Woods somehow remained swaddled in Teflon. The revelation of his human frailties cost him plenty of fans and endorsements. But a significant portion of his admirers forgave and forgot. The continued embrace was a willful act by a public all too eager to dole out second and third chances to a winner. Especially a winner like Woods.
He continued to be a top draw, a global icon, even as he grimaced through season after season, age and injury taking an ever-steeper toll. At one point, he was ranked 1,119th in the world. But then came April 2019, and the Masters. Summoning every remnant of his former self, he surged to victory, legions celebrating his fifth champion’s green jacket.
Nobody who watched that tournament will forget it. Not just the stirring comeback, but the sight of Woods wrapping his son, Charlie, and his daughter, Sam, in his arms as he walked from the final green. It called to mind the embrace given by Woods’s father, Earl, after the Masters win in 1997. It spoke, too, of poignant change in the face of time. Woods was no longer the soaring young champion, but he could still reach the highest peaks, if only in short bursts.
April 2019 feels so long ago, given all that the world has gone through this past year.
And now this. On Tuesday we saw the remains of that S.U.V. and waited for the updates. We shuddered, remembering Kobe Bryant’s helicopter, strewn across another Southern California hillside just over a year ago.
We listened as a sheriff and his deputies described the wreckage, explaining that Woods was lucky to be alive and that drugs and alcohol did not appear to be involved. They said he had been pried from his vehicle and carried off on a stretcher.
“Unfortunately,” said one of them, “Mr. Woods was not able to stand on his own power.”
How could such a circumstance befall Tiger Woods, who strode across majestic golf courses with so much purpose? It was a reminder, once again, that heroes are human, full of weakness, unable to dodge the terrible twists of fate that stalk us all.