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Simon Barnes: Tiger Woods isn’t normal

Tuesday 23 March 2021

The golfer achieved greatness and threw it away. Twice. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when godly beings do extraordinary things

We live among transcendent souls: people so deeply familiar that they transcend not only the reason for their fame but fame itself. Marilyn, Mao, Elvis, The Beatles, Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Einstein, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela… 

Sport produces such people too, of course: Pele, Muhammad Ali… and Tiger Woods.

There was a time when Woods was inescapable. At the height of his fame, I was always on the road: every few days, it seemed, I would be collecting my hold baggage beneath a giant image of Woods, golf club over his left shoulder in his follow-through, his face remote, uninvolved, a superior being who had come to dwell among us and show what life could be.

Then he destroyed himself. He endured a desperate decade of remorse, therapy, surgery, humiliation and pain, and eventually rebuilt his life. He was putting together the greatest comeback in the history of sport when, in an LA car crash last month, he destroyed himself again.

How can someone who was given so much be so set on self-destruction as to do it twice? Look again at my opening paragraph: the glamour of the names and the unforgettable nature of the faces must be reckoned alongside the despair, damage, violence, horror and death that also lurk among them.

Perhaps the answer is in the question, and when you become the hero of your own myth some kind of horror is inevitable. Few of the heroes of the ten-year-long Trojan War found life easy after what is still the world’s most famous victory: Agamemnon, both the Ajaxes and Achilles met violent ends and Odysseus’s commute home took ten years of trouble and sorrow. These archetypes of human life echo among the mythologies we create today.

Certainly the life of Tiger – a cognomen given by his father, in preference to his birth-name of Eldrick – has followed the trajectory of the heroes of antiquity. Right from the start, Woods was outstandingly, even unnaturally, gifted. His father made him a golf club before he was one. When he was two, he appeared on television, putting with Bob Hope. When he was three, he went round nine holes in 48 strokes. When he was eight, he went round the full 18 holes in 80. When he was 11, he beat his father. When he was 12, he broke 70.

“Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising,” wrote Cyril Connolly. But gods can deliver much more than promise. Woods had a childhood of almost perfect promise, and it was followed by a decade of almost perfect fulfilment. It really seemed that he could do no wrong. In the curious world of golf, he travelled so far beyond the rest that it almost stopped being a competition.

He turned professional in 1996, when he was 20. By April the following year he had won four events – including his first major tournament, the US Masters. He won it by 12 strokes, which is like winning a mile race by 200 yards. It was as if he were playing on a different course.

There is a strange quasi-religious vibe in some aspects of golf. The Masters course at Augusta in Georgia is one of the sport’s holy places. Golfing people talk about it in a special tone of voice. It’s a confection of livid greens and flowering shrubs in curious pastel shades like the Andrex shelf in the supermarket: an American paradise designed by Walt Disney. For years at the Augusta National Golf Club, the only non-white people allowed on the coursed were caddies. It was founded in 1932; the first black member joined in 1990.

Yet here on this sacred turf strode Woods: the master of the Masters. He was not white, but he was adored. Woods is not of pure African heritage; his features are more Asian than anything else. His mother is Thai with Chinese and Dutch blood, his father African-American with some Native American additions. Woods famously described this mixture as Cablinasian.

Perhaps the point is that he was neither black nor white: a graceful alien who was both everyone and no one. He took over golf, winning one tournament after another. You count success in golf in what are called the majors: four annual tournaments that are considered more important than all the rest. Woods set about collecting them.

By the time he was 24, he had a career grand slam: at least one victory in all four majors. He created an atmosphere of subservience: a statistical analysis showed that everybody else played worse than usual when Woods was in the field. Why not? They were competing for second place. By 2008, he had won 14 majors. He was already the best of all time, utterly certain to beat Jack Nicklaus’s total of 18.

And this was not just any sport. This was golf. This was the sport of presidents, the sport of billionaires. In the classic centrifugal American city, all the deprived areas are in the middle: in the outer ring you find the golf courses. To play golf is to rise above the struggle. Woods embodied that notion better than anyone could believe possible.

That’s why he was playing the perfect chip shot above every baggage carousel. He was speaking to us elite travellers, us golfers, us potential American Express members: we were all Tigers, were we not? We all had a share in the man who had achieved perfection: a perfect home, a perfect wife, a perfect family, and a golf-swing copied from God.

It wasn’t just Amex who paid him for his support. There was General Motors, Titleist, General Mills, Accenture, Gillette, TAG Heuer, Gatorade and, of course, Nike. Golf Digest said that between 1997 and 2007, Woods’s endorsements earned him $769,440,709. Forbes said he was the first athlete to make a billion. What could possibly go wrong?

At 2.30am on 27 November 2009, Woods drove from his house in Florida, struck a fire hydrant and then a tree. He was running away after his wife Elin had challenged him on the breaking scandal of his multiple infidelities. It was the night the world collapsed on Tiger Woods. “I knew my activities were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply,” he said in his later excruciating televised confession. “I felt I was entitled,” he said.

There’s a phrase television commentators use when a great athlete in any discipline makes a mistake – fluffs a short putt, misses an open goal, is bowled for duck – “He’s human after all.” What else did we think he was? Yet it came as a seismic shock to the world to learn that Woods had been playing his wife and the world for fools – in the absurd belief that neither would ever discover the truth.

He had some kind of mental breakdown and therapy, reportedly treatment for sex addiction. His golf went to pot. Many of his blue-chip endorsing firms abandoned him. So did his wife. His body collapsed. He had five operations on his spine. Between 2013 and 2017, he started just 24 events. He dropped out of the top 1,000 golfers in the world. It was all over.

Except it wasn’t. From the wreckage of the perfect golfer came a gritty, dogged competitor. In 2018, he won his first tournament for five years. In 2019, he won the US Masters again, his first major for 11 years, his 15th in all. His two children were there to watch him. He was in a stable relationship with Erica Herman, who used to manage a restaurant he owned.

Woods had rebuilt his life. This impossible comeback aroused feelings of relief, of compassion, of forgiveness. People called it redemption: as if God had stepped in to save him. It was a grim conquest of self-inflicted misfortune, and there were elements of greatness in it. He now embodied the blessedness of the second chance gratefully seized. We all need one of those.

And then, of course, he destroyed it all again: a single vehicle accident whose causes remain mysterious. Was he driving too fast? Was he on the phone? Did he fall asleep? We can speculate all we like about what brought him to this second calamity: the fact is that, once again in Woods’s life, mighty deeds were followed by disaster and horror.

I have spent a great deal of my professional life with the great performers in sport. Their natural gifts set them apart from the rest almost at birth. They develop these talents to a level beyond the aspiration and even the imagination of almost everybody else on earth. They enter the sporting arena and the best of them seize greatness, daring to accept the moment of victory. They become the champions of champions. The best the world has ever seen.

They devote their lives to being unlike the rest of us. It’s not entirely surprising that so many of them find an ordinary life beyond their scope.