By Jim Litke/ AP
Over the course of a year, almost everything we knew about Tiger Woods has been turned on its head. He touched new lows, both personal and professional. He lost his wife, his aura, some fans, wheel barrows of cash and in a sense, every tournament he entered. Even his good name is gone.
Think back to last Thanksgiving and how you whiled away the hours before dinner or the next kickoff, playing whiffle ball or Wii. If you knocked one over the garage or out of the virtual park and then yelled “I am Tiger Woods!” everyone there would have known in an instant what you meant: You won, or were about to, and with a flourish more often than not.
It’s a tired punch line, recycled so often from morning news until late-night that it’s lost any irony and its entire sting. But here’s what’s still funny about the bit: Despite growing up in front of our eyes, then dominating the screen like no athlete before or since, we still have no idea who Tiger Woods is. And a year adrift likely has him wondering the same thing.
Woods has tried to explain himself in scripted statements and most recently, a forgettable editorial. He’s conducted press conferences and interviews with ground rules, without, and on one occasion, all by himself.
He went to rehab. He’s tweeting.
But if Woods knows why he did what he did, and more important going forward, how to repair the damage it caused, he still has not shared it with the rest of us.
There’s little doubt, though, about what made him great. For all the ways he revolutionized golf—starting earlier, practicing longer and working out harder, always cocooned from distraction by his parents and his handlers—what marked Woods as special from the start was something very old-school. It was a gift that Nicklaus and Hogan possessed, the same one Jordan, Armstrong, Gretzky, Ruth and precious few others ever shared.
Call it clutch, focus, finding the sweet spot, rising to the occasion, being in the zone—take your pick. In Woods’ case, it meant tracing the pendulum of the golf swing over and over and applying exactly the right amount of force or finesse each one called for, no matter what was going on around him. But then, he’d had a lifetime of practice.
Earl Woods understood golf is a solitary game played across the 5 1/2 -inch course between your ears. So that’s where he set out to make his son unbeatable. He’d wait until a young Tiger reached the top of his backswing, then jangle the coins in his pocket, or let his golf bag fall with a strategic “thud.”
Yet Woods became better at it than Earl ever imagined. All those years later, his son didn’t flinch making that same swing in the middle of an expressway, which is exactly how the fairways must have looked after a night of carousing that would have worn out a porn star, let alone someone with a day job, a wife and two young kids at home.
Until that last part became public, when I thought of Woods, I always imagined the space between his ears filled with white noise for the two seconds it takes the synapses, and then the muscles, to fire in perfect sequence. The resulting blow was so violent, yet so accurate and flush at the moment of impact that it left his peers in awe.
“I see a lot of players who are very good, but never in my entire life (have I) heard the noise that went through his ball when he hit it,” Costantino Rocca, who was paired with Woods on the final Sunday of his magical 1997 Masters win, would recall a decade later.
“What a noise! So strong and pure when he hit it.”
Every fan who saw Woods and every guy who played alongside him had a similar story. Not so long ago, when his mastery of the game was so complete it positively spooked his rivals, Stewart Cink mused what they’d find if they sliced Woods open.
“Maybe,” he laughed, “nuts and bolts.”
That Tiger Woods had a sense of purpose second to none. He always knew where to be and what came next. And as you read this, he’s back retooling his swing again, this time with a coach named Sean Foley, who drops references to Copernicus and Newton into everyday conversation even while sounding like some new-age mystic.
“For me, the ultimate easiest golf lesson would be with a mechanical engineer,” Foley told Golf Digest earlier this year. “I wouldn’t have to change how I personally think about the swing. With Tiger, it wouldn’t be over his head, and the material wouldn’t be new to him.”
It’s worth noting that after two previous swing overhauls, with coaches Butch Harmon and Hank Haney, Woods put together two of the most sublime runs the game has seen. And he might need a third to win the five more majors and surpass Nicklaus’ career record of 18, the final target Woods set for himself as a boy by taping a page of Jack’s accomplishments to his bedroom wall.
But mechanics were hardly the reason Woods became the greatest athlete of his generation, nor will they be again. What made him that was the once-unshakeable belief that life was ordered around him instead of the other way. That made it easy to pull down the shade at any moment he chose, taking so little notice of what was going on in the rest of the world that it made you wonder whether his blood really did run cold.
Woods knows better than that now. And so, to his undying regret, does everyone else. That shade will never go down so easily or so completely again.