The big news this week at the Masters is that the world’s top-ranked golfer, Dustin Johnson, had to withdraw before play even began Thursday. He injured his back after falling down the stairs on Wednesday. The other news is that due to chronic back injuries Tiger Woods is not playing this year at Augusta, a tournament he won four times.
After nearly 18 months recuperating from surgeries, Woods returned to golf in January of this year, but his back did not cooperate. Announcing that he wouldn’t play in the world’s premier golf tournament, Woods said that there was no schedule for his return.
It feels like the end. Tiger may return to play again, but even before his injuries he had long ceased being a threat. Golf, which for more than a decade beginning in the late 1990s seemed to be all-Tiger all-the-time, has moved on. The death last fall of Arnold Palmer showed that no man is bigger than the game itself, but also a reminder that the legendary status that Palmer achieved, a sort of custodian of all that is best in golf, is something that Tiger will never achieve, despite being a better golfer.
It was not supposed to end this way. Tiger won his first major at Augusta in 1997, when the 21-year-old utterly destroyed the field to take his first Masters. He kept winning – dominating is more accurate – eventually winning 14 major tournaments, eclipsing the mark of the great Bobby Jones, who won 13. The only thing left was Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories. It was expected that by the time Woods returned to Augusta in 2017 he would long have had those 18, perhaps 20 or 22. Perhaps he might even celebrate the 20th anniversary of his astonishing debut by winning again.
But Tiger has not won a major since 2008, when he won the US Open with a fractured leg – one of the more remarkable moments in a career chock full of them. On Thanksgiving 2009 a single-vehicle accident at Tiger’s home exploded into a global sex scandal that ran on the front page of the New York Post for twenty straight days. Woods was revealed to be a lecher of remarkable depravity, maintaining a vast array of mistresses even as his young wife was carrying their two children. Is this therefore a grand moral tale, wherein a deeply corrupt character pays for his sins by losing professional success?
Not quite. After all, Tiger was winning exactly while he was conducting himself like a big tomcat on the hunt. It was only after he got caught and tried to reform himself that he stopped winning. Did the cataract of condemnation that came down upon him shake his general confidence? Perhaps, but we will never know. A sinful world does not provide moral tales made to measure. The world of celebrity sports provides them even less often.
It has to be remembered that the golf turning point came before the scandalous revelations. At the PGA championship in August 2009, a few months before Tiger’s world would explode, he was leading going into the final round on Sunday. Tiger never lost when he led after the first three rounds: 14 for 14 victories. He knew he would win. More important, the rest of the field – no matter how accomplished, no matter how well they were playing – believed that Tiger would win. He played according to what he believed, and they played according to what they believed. They were afraid of him. And so they lost.
But not that day. Woods lost to a journeyman Korean golfer that most fans had never heard of before, and have not heard about since. Y.E. Yang went head to head with Woods and beat him. Suddenly, the rest of golf’s elite players were no longer afraid of him. And he never won a major again.
Had the world not learned what kind of man Woods was, had injuries not taken an increasing toll, would Woods have won more majors? Almost certainly. It is tempting to see his moral self-destruction as manifest in his physical deterioration, as if he were a live portrait of Dorian Grey.
Yet that temptation should be resisted. It is true that after the sex scandals broke, the code of reverential silence that the media gave to Woods no longer held, and we discovered that in small things and large he was a most unattractive person, spouting profanity in front of children and stiffing waitresses on their tips. So some took satisfaction that Woods never won a major after the scandal.
I would resist that. It is unseemly to rejoice in the downfall of others, even if it is thought to be a sort of comeuppance. That the wicked prosper has been known since biblical times (Psalm 94, Jeremiah 12). But it could be that Tiger stopped winning majors when others believed that he could be beaten.
The emotional high point of the Masters on Thursday was at the ceremonial tee off. Arnold Palmer had been there for decades, hitting the first shots with his friends and golf rivals Gary Player and Nicklaus. The two continued this year without him, but before Nicklaus took his shot, he doffed his cap and pointed it heavenward to honour Palmer. Tears everywhere. The tears were not only for golf greatness, but for good men.
The end of Woods means that there will never be a discussion about the greatest golfer ever. Not that it was a real contest. Nicklaus not only had his 18 major victories, but 19 second-place major finishes, because he played with men who were not compromised by fear. So golf has its greatest, and is blessed that he is also a good man. Tiger’s golf prowess will be missed. Tiger won’t be.
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