Sunday, we saw perhaps the best example in the past 50 years of why sports, once called the “Toy Department of Life” by iconoclastic blowhard Howard Cosell, often give us the purest glimpse into the human spirit.
What Eldrick Tont “Tiger” Woods did at the Masters Tournament is already the stuff of legends. Never mind his human failings. And never mind how tired you might be of hearing about him incessantly even when his golf game is plummeting down the drain.
Once it became obvious Woods was in the hunt to win his fifth Masters, nothing else mattered if you’re a sports fan. And I daresay that was true even if you’re not. Woods is one of those few people who transcends what he does. You don’t watch because he can play golf. You watch because he’s Tiger, and you feel that if you don’t watch, you’re missing something historic.
Sunday was historic.
Woods completed perhaps the most incredible sports comeback in the half century. Not since Tony Conigliaro of the Red Sox stepped into the batter’s box on opening day April 8, 1969, and hit one out of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium — a year and a half after nearly being killed by a Jack Hamilton fastball — has sports produced such compelling human drama.
(And please, do not minimize what Tony C. accomplished that day; not when you consider what he had to conquer, both physically and mentally, to recover from that Aug. 18, 1967, beaning.)
Woods is the perfect case study in the shifting loyalties and opinions of the so-called “fickle” American public. In 22 years, or since he blew everyone out of their socks in winning the first Masters, he’s gone from phenom, to transcendent figure, to pariah, to the guy you couldn’t stand hearing about, to, well, amazing human interest story. He’s persevered not just in his arena, but in life. And while sports and entertainment have their shares of redemption projects, Woods, today, is in a special class.
Has anyone ever been so publicly chastened? So publicly humiliated? So publicly judged?
Have you ever seen a person who makes his living with the extraordinary gifts his body has given him so thoroughly brought to his knees (literally and figuratively)? This is a man who had to have several surgeries just so he could walk. He was attempting comebacks on the golf course when he could barely stand. He was using his golf clubs as canes to keep himself upright after some shots.
Not even a decade earlier, Tiger Woods was pulling seasoned observers out of their chairs in sheer disbelief. Verne Lundquist of CBS could do nothing more eloquent than scream “In your life have you seen anything like that?” after one of Woods’ more impossible shots on the 16th hole at Augusta in 2005, the last time before Sunday he won the Masters.
A lifetime of observing people should have given us pause before we canonized him as the new Jack Armstrong, all-American boy. If we’re human, we’re fallible. And since most of us only allow the world to see what we want it to see, Muhammad Ali was 100 percent correct when he said “only the nose knows where the nose goes when the door close.”
In Woods’ case, the door was beaten in, and what the nose revealed was startling. Indeed, he was no saint. It all came spewing out like some kind of demented volcano, with him in the middle of the maelstrom holding on for dear life.
Some may say, with some justification, “good enough for him” — that anyone that blatantly disrespectful of his vows, and of women in general, deserved every bit of what he got. He deserved to pay a price for such a careless lifestyle. And he certainly paid it.
But between his physical issues and his shattered personal life, it takes a strong person to sort everything out and keep on keepin’ on. You can accuse Tiger Woods of a lot of things, but lack of intestinal fortitude is not one of them. He dealt with the humiliation, kept having the medical procedures, endured the many failed comeback attempts and was rewarded with a tournament for the ages last weekend.
Even in the world of professional golf, age becomes an issue. Woods is 43, and even if things went smoothly all these years, time would be running out now. That’s why Jack Nicklaus’ 1986 Masters win, at 46, was considered so astounding.
But things being what they are, this might surpass The Golden Bear. This might rise to the level of Ben Hogan coming back to win the U.S. Open a little over a year after almost getting killed when his car collided with a bus in 1950.
“Great” is a word that’s been tossed around so much it’s lost any meaning it once had. A guy can go 3-for-5 on a Tuesday and be deemed great.
But Tiger Woods, Sunday, in Augusta, proved — as if there were ever any doubt left — that he is absolutely great, in the classic sense of the world, at what he does. And to mix one more cultural reference, he has given, over the last decade, the greatest example of the “Eye of the Tiger” I’ve ever seen.