Eldrick Tiger Woods: The Greatest There Never Was
I remember sitting in an ex-pat joint on a breezy night in Quito, Ecuador, sipping on a beverage, while my new found British friends, and dart buddies, were discussing the upcoming UEFA Euro Cup tournament and how excited they were. I never really had followed soccer before, and yet I was intrigued and excited, as well, after hearing their tales, expectations and trash talk. It wasn’t until a few hours into that conversation that I realized that one of my favorite sporting events of the year, The U.S. Open Golf Championship, would also be starting soon, and I remember thinking, for the first time in my life, I had no idea what to expect. I had spent the majority of the previous three years living, studying, and teaching abroad, and my knowledge of the state of the PGA Tour was limited. A few days later, after time spent scoping out a place to watch our national golf tournament, which wasn’t easy with the Euro Cup being blasted everywhere for the large European ex-pat community located in Quito, I settled on a place, and for four memorable days, watched something unfold that I never thought I would witness, and might not ever again.
The story of Tiger Woods is one that is truly amazing. It reads like a story from the 2003 movie “Big Fish”...meaning…it is a glorious yarn with equal parts astounding accomplishment and crippling self-defeat…with some things that are just flat out unbelievable and make absolutely no sense. At one point, not too long ago, it seemed certain that Woods would eclipse Jack Nicklaus’ major title win record of 18, and replace him as the greatest who ever was. Then the unthinkable happened, and Tiger Woods became warning sign rather than icon...a head shake of disbelief rather than a hand clap of exultation and cheer. In a few short years, people stopped asking “Is Tiger the Greatest?” and started murmuring and whispering about whether he’ll ever win another major. How did this happen? I’ll give you a hint…the word starts with an “H”, and it isn’t the one you’re thinking of. The word is hubris.
Anyone who knows anything about sport knows about the personal troubles Mr. Woods has hoisted upon himself and had to slog through. Most even appreciate how this would change someone, and affect his or her job. Losing one’s father…losing one’s spouse and children…losing one’s privacy…all would incredibly affect how we would perform at work. The great Tiger Woods is no different. Most have pointed to the sordid details of his personal breakdown as an indication that it was just a matter of time before his house of cards collapsed. But it is not that simple. That stuff, while destructive, hurtful, and reckless, was just a symptom of a larger problem that felled the great Tiger Woods: Hubris.
From the moment he wowed the nation during an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show at the age of 2, to his 3 straight U.S Amateur Championships (matched only by Nicklaus in the modern era), Tiger had one goal…be the best there ever was. After two years at Stanford University, he turned pro in 1996, and in his very first Masters Tournament, the most storied and honorable and toughest major tournament there is in golf, he won by 12 strokes with a final score of (-18). The next best pro was 12 strokes behind. You don’t do that. Jack had never done that. No one had ever done that, and he was 21 years old. Woods spent next couple of years dealing with increased fame, and honing his game. Every golf fan knew it was just a matter of time before he dominated the tour. Then it happened. Beginning in August 1999, he won 6 of the next 7 majors. From 2000 to 2005, Woods won 7 of his 14 major tournament championships. He looked and was almost unbeatable. We had never seen a golfer dominate other professionals the way he did. These guys were the best in the world, and he beat them the way I would a novice. Yet, the dark shadows of what was to come could be seen, if you knew what to look for.
In the middle of this unprecedented tour domination, Tiger Woods began doing things that made no sense. He offered explanations, when asked, but it still didn’t resonate. No one really questioned him, though, because, hey… he’s Tiger Woods…but these decisions directly led to his fall. Around 2000, Woods began changing his swing. In what was considered admirable at the time, and in keeping with his intense pursuit of perfection, he altered his swing plane to control the looseness. His body had changed, as happens when a boy becomes a man, so he focused on mechanics rather than feel, and most said nothing. Plus, he was winning. Who can argue with winning? But to change the very thing that makes you better than everyone, only because you aren’t satisfied, what does that say? These changes didn’t stop there, and this began to wear on his relationship with those closest to him on the golf course. His swing coach, Butch Harmon, tried to pare back radical changes, but Woods would have none of it. After a couple of years of divergent philosophies, Woods parted ways with his long-time coach. I don’t care who you are, or how good you are at what you do, to compromise a winning team, in spite of the fact that you are winning almost everything, because you think you can get “better”, is a sign of a problem.
2005 to 2008 saw more changes for Mr. Woods, and still more titles. He won four more majors during this time, but it wasn’t enough. His build started resembling more of a linebacker than a golfer, due to a vigorous workout regimen, and this necessarily affected his swing. My suspicion is that this period of intense physical preparation did more harm than good. Folks like his long-time caddie, Steve Williams, tried to warn him, according to accounts, but to no avail. Mr. Woods was going to do it his way. This period culminated in one of the greatest shows of endurance, and will, ever seen in the golf world at the 2008 U.S. Open Championship at Torrey Pines…with Woods playing on a broken knee…draining a ridiculous 40 foot putt on the last hole on Sunday to extend to a playoff, which he then won, after playing another 18 holes on that broken knee. It was amazing…but that was it. There was no more. After that win, he has had multiple knee surgeries, and has had to change his swing again. He fired his caddie “Stevie” after a very public falling out, and then all of his personal predilections and infidelities became fodder for grocery store magazines. That was it. 2008.
As I sat in Quito in June of 2000, and watched Tiger Woods destroy Pebble Beach over four days and absolutely embarrass the other pro golfers, I knew I was watching something and someone special. It is still is the greatest single performance on a golf course I have ever seen. He won by 15 strokes, and was the only one under par after 4 days. It ranks with Nicklaus at Augusta in 1986. But hubris is a sharp poison that can nullify and numb even the greatest talent. Tiger thought he was bigger and better than the game. He must have thought he could bend history rather than rule it, otherwise, why fiddle with fact? Why not accept destiny and the charms of adulation? Why not embrace the fullness of life and victory? Hubris, unfortunately, is the answer…and that is why Tiger Woods is our real life Roy Hobbs. He is the greatest who never was.
W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.