Let’s not blow it this time with Tiger Woods

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — The history books choose to ignore this, but Tiger Woods and I turned pro on the same day. In August 1996, the morning after watching Woods come from behind to win his third straight U.S. Amateur, I drove my Nissan Sentra to my first real job at a now-defunct monthly sports magazine. Woods flew to the Greater Milwaukee Open in Phil Knight’s jet.

By Thanksgiving, Woods was a two-time winner on the PGA Tour and my first gig was over almost as soon as it began. The magazine went under—I refuse to take all the blame—and I had already migrated to cover golf at a local newspaper.

I suppose it’s weird to only have covered golf through the prism of one incredibly disruptive figure. It would be like if your introduction to covering presidential politics was through the Donald Trump Administration. And then if Trump remained president for the next 22 years.

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Professionally, though, I have never known golf without Tiger Woods, and those of us who work in golf media have been tethered to him in some capacity for decades. I can’t say I know Tiger personally, and I doubt he knows me. The number of times we’ve had one-on-one exchanges I can count on one hand, and even then only for a few minutes: in a locker room in Charlotte, walking out after a press conference in Doral. In 2006, when he showed up at Winged Foot for a practice round weeks before the U.S. Open, I tracked him down in a private area off the dining room. He smiled at me, recognized me as a familiar golf writer, then politely said he didn’t want to talk.

Still, I’ve spent a sufficient amount of time around Woods, asking questions in press conferences, crouching greenside while he putts. One year at the Ryder Cup I wrote a story in which I endeavored to study everything — facial expressions, verbal tics, the faces of fans as he walked by. Another time I decided to interview everyone Woods came into contact with at a tour stop: other players, walking scorers, even the waitress at the restaurant where he ate one night during the week.

I say none of this to impress you. To cover golf during this period and not try to find inventive ways to talk about Woods would border on malpractice. There are only so many ways to say someone has a good short game.

Tiger Woods Tees Off On The 15th Hole During The 1997 Masters Tournament
Augusta National

But I do feel like I’ve been afforded a certain perspective on Woods, and particularly, how wildly we swing from one extreme to the next when charting his progress. Turns out at his height, even in playing golf better than anyone in history, Woods was destined to fall short of the image we projected on him. And in the depth of scandal, injury and addiction, he was never that bad. People tend to deal in absolutes these days, but Woods is just another guy who struggles to navigate the vast space between his best and worst self.

The only thing we can say for sure is that Woods’ redemption story is real, all born from the painful wreckage of his personal and professional life. And it’s why his 15th major title was met with more raw emotion than the 14 that preceded it. Back then people revered Woods because he seemed perfect. The reason we appreciate him now is because how starkly we’ve been reminded he’s not.

The prospects in the aftermath of his win at Augusta are exciting. Woods will play the next two majors at venues where he’s won, and the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ career major record is back on. Already there is discussion that Woods can provide the stagnant golf industry a jolt similar to one he provided decades earlier.

It all reminds me of those heady days early in both of our careers when the possibilities seemed endless. But I hope, for everyone’s sake, that we recognize the patterns that brought us down this road in the first place. Even as Woods continues to deliver on the spectacular, it’s still as someone who fights many of the same flaws as the rest of us. The last thing he needs is a breathless public equating an improved driver swing or stabler family life with new expectations even he can’t sustain.

Golf is hard. Life can be, too. Rather than put Woods back on a pedestal, I choose to admire the man for simply finding a way back to his feet.

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