If 2018 taught us anything, it’s that Tiger Woods the human is the most interesting story of all

November 20, 2018

Here it is, your moment of zen: Tiger Woods stepping into the ring on the 600-yard 17th hole, Sunday at Bellerive, the edges of the tee box crammed with photographers and fans and old-guy officials in short-sleeved shirts, all drenched. St. Louis in August.

Everybody, Tiger included, knew that if he could find a miracle — an eagle-birdie finish — he still had a chance. A chance to win his first tournament in five years, and his first major in eleven. Now he had to use all his training to block out those thoughts. Selfcoached this year (how old-school) and looking to re-create his boyhood feel for the game, Woods needed a smash-mouth drive. But at age 42, his golf ball doesn’t follow orders as it did back in the day. He hit a slice into the weeds. It was over.

Then came the moment: Tiger’s red-assed second swing at the left tee marker, stamped “PGA” in gold letters. That swing had heat.

And that’s when you knew that Tiger was back. Not in the conventional sense. Tiger is not reclaiming what he once had, not in any playing category, except for the critical one revealed in that moment. His intensity and desire are still right there. Whatever Woods does over the next half-decade or so, he’ll go down swinging.

Tiger Woods is all smiles after winning the Tour Championship.
Tiger Woods is all smiles after winning the Tour Championship.

Brooks Koepka is the Player of the Year, and there is no runner-up. But Tiger Woods, to borrow TIME magazine’s sexist language from yesteryear, is golf’s Man of the Year. You could almost drop the golf part. The impact that Tiger the golfer had on TV ratings is a passing news story. What Woods the man did was improve, in every way. How inspiring.

There are now two remarkable golf stories that begin on the side of a road. The life and times of Ben Hogan cannot be told without a long stop on February 2, 1949, the day a Greyhound bus, driven recklessly, crashed head-on into Hogan’s Cadillac sedan, with Hogan driving. What saved Hogan’s life was his dive across the lap of his wife, Valerie, trying to protect her. A moment later the steering column impaled the back of the driver’s seat. Hogan’s body was mangled. But he survived, and then he started over.

You can’t separate what Tiger did in 2018 from what happened on May 29, 2017, when police found Woods asleep in his car at two in the morning on the side of a South Florida road. His black Mercedes sedan had two flats. Woods’s drug abuse had left him completely incapacitated. He could have killed somebody that night, including himself. Had the officers driven him home instead of to the Palm Beach County Jail, there’s no saying where Woods would be right now. Whatever work Woods has been doing since that night — outdoors and in — is impressive.

Given how he was swinging and where he was hitting it at Torrey Pines and Riviera early in the year, I never imagined him finishing a shot out of first in Tampa in March or leading on the back nine on Sunday afternoon at Carnoustie in July or leading in the clubhouse Sunday night at Bellerive, as he did for one brief, shining moment. Woods’s understanding of the game, and his work ethic, is surely at the Hogan level. And that’s just the technical side. There’s also the gray stuff: his need to excel, his capacity for time travel.

His victory in the Tour Championship came on a serious golf course. Did you see the pitch he made from Bermuda rough off a baked-earth lie from over the 17th green at East Lake? And how about that must-make follow-up four-footer? High art and dry hands. He had to be channeling his ’96 U.S. Amateur win, plus a hundred others. Golf is always past and present, past and present. You could say the East Lake win was his most remarkable ever, given where he had been 16 months earlier.

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The human capacity for regeneration is astonishing. Tiger Woods actually seems different now. You regularly heard him use some variant of “grateful” this year. There was his hug for “Brooksy” in St. Louis. His praise for young Sam Burns at the Honda. His hand-raising for the Presidents Cup captaincy. And that’s his public life.

Take away Tiger’s fame and wealth and talent, and he’s just another middle-aged single dad trying to raise two kids. That has to be the starting point of his private life. Yes, his next stop was that awful Ryder Cup, but that will be a passing embarrassment for him. I’m guessing the tacky Las Vegas pay-per-view gig will be, too.

The next chapter in the Book of Tiger could be his best. When Tiger won the 1997 Masters, I had a fantasy about what he might do for the game, in terms of knocking down the privet hedge around its first tee. But not much happened. Tiger was a golf god, aloof and untouchable, until boyhood shyness morphed into adult arrogance. But that was then.

Life did what life does, and now we know: He’s human. This is better.