Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 27, 2018

Tigermania Returns, In All Its Irrational Exuberance

Were you close enough to feel the ground shake? It’s well known that fans at CenturyLink Field in Seattle are sometimes so loud and boisterous in support of their Seahawks that the stadium shakes sufficiently that seismometers in the area register a spike in activity. But golf fans at weekly PGA Tour stops have never been in the same category. That was until last Sunday, when Tiger Woods walked down the 18th fairway at East Lake Golf Club with thousands of golf aficionados, some of whom had doubtless attained that status just that day, racing in his wake for the best view of the final green at the Tour Championship. When Woods holed the putt that sealed his first victory in more than five years, the roar from the crowd was so long and so loud that one could readily believe that any such instruments in the Atlanta area marked the disturbance.

There are probably few seismometers in metropolitan Atlanta, since Georgia is hardly known as a center of tectonic shifts. But there can be no doubt that the victory by Woods was a seismic event for his sport, the return to the winner’s circle of the dominant player of his generation and one of the very few golfers to ever transcend the sport and achieve global popularity far exceeding interest in the ancient game.

The extent to which Woods is set apart from other golfers is best illustrated by the fact that earlier in the season, Phil Mickelson essentially duplicated what Woods did on Sunday. When Mickelson defeated Justin Thomas in a playoff to win the WGC-Mexico Championship in March, it was his first win since the Open Championship in 2013. Mickelson ended a victory drought of just less than five years, while Woods ended one of just over that mark. And Mickelson is an enormously popular golfer, best known for his ready willingness to engage with fans, in contrast to the aloof presence that was Woods in his prime stalking a golf course. But Lefty’s win, while cheered by diehard golf fans, went unnoticed beyond that circle; Tiger’s in contrast was a prime topic of water cooler conversation on Monday by people who don’t know the difference between a hybrid and a 2-iron.

In part that’s because of the reasons for each interregnum. While Mickelson had surgery to repair two sports hernias in 2016, his prolonged time without cashing a winner’s check was mostly due to the quality of his play. Woods on the other hand has been through multiple back surgeries that limited him to just nineteen PGA Tour events from 2014 through 2017 and culminated with a spinal fusion procedure in the spring of last year. Shortly after that surgery, he was found asleep in his car which was parked with the engine running near his Florida home. Charged with operating under the influence, Woods said that he had been taking a mixture of prescription medications and hadn’t realized how they might interact.

If the publication of his mugshot following that arrest represented a public rock bottom for Woods, he has admitted that there were times both prior to the fusion surgery and in the long months of recovery that followed when he privately feared his competitive career was over. To come all the way back from those moments of grave self-doubt to holding the sterling silver replica of Bobby Jones’s “Calamity Jane” putter that is the Tour Championship trophy is itself a sterling story, mixing skill, determination, and mental toughness. And who among us doesn’t like a comeback tale?

Of course, the main reason for the response to his victory at East Lake is the simple fact that the name and face of Tiger Woods are instantly recognizable by millions who neither play nor follow golf. That outsize image is in keeping with the temper of our times. In a world of information overload and miniscule attention spans, it takes a triumph by someone so familiar to break through the noise and the narcissism. When it happens the reaction of the herd is predictable.

Immediately Tiger’s comeback has been declared to be not merely amazing, but the greatest comeback in the history of sports. His two-shot win over a small field of twenty-nine other golfers has been cited as proof not just that he is once again capable of excelling in the furnace of competition, but that he is certain to again seize the game by its throat, ascend to the number one ranking, and reel off runaway victories in multiple majors over the next few seasons.

Well, maybe. But regular visitors to this space know that On Sports and Life preached a consistent theme about Woods throughout his long days in the shadows. First, he would absolutely win again (glad we got that one out of the way).

Second, while the record of eighteen career major victories held by Jack Nicklaus no longer looks certain to fall, as it did when Woods won his fourteenth a decade ago at the age of thirty-two, it would risky business to bet that fourteen will be the final number on his major résumé.

But also, third and no less important, the only undefeated player in all of sports is time. Placing the same expectations on the 42-year-old Woods that fans did on the 25-year-old who with his victory at the 2001 Masters completed the Tiger Slam, holding all four major titles at the same time if not in the same year, or on the 30-year-old who for the second year in a row walked off with a pair of majors in 2006, or even on the 32-year-old who won that last major title, the 2008 US Open, while playing on a bum knee, is fundamentally unfair, to both Woods and to an exciting new generation of players who were drawn to golf as kids by the icon with whom they now walk the fairways.

Having golf’s most recognizable face back is obviously good for both Woods and the game. He looks more than capable of being one of the top ten or fifteen players in the world for some time, and certainly the best forty-something on the PGA Tour. For a player who not so long ago harbored doubts about ever competing again, shouldn’t that be more than enough?


  1. A nice look at Tiger’s latest victory, Mike. It brings to mind something that an older journeyman once told me when I was still a young pup, “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”

    It will be interesting to see where Tiger’s future takes him. Hopefully he will be able to tame his demons and be a role model for the generations coming up behind him.

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