By Jack Golub
Congratulations to Tiger Woods on winning the Masters. While I’ve barely followed golf, I have to admit I was excited he won. I felt happy for him. After years of pain, debilitating injuries and hurtful and immoral personal decisions, Tiger finally clawed his way back to the summit of his sport. I didn’t understand why I was happy. I’d considered myself a passive Tiger fan up until his downfall, at which point I let go of most of the positive feelings I had for him. When he started popping back up on SportsCenter I hoped, weakly, that he might win something. I never reconciled my desire for him to succeed with my judgment of his actions. I still haven’t.
He has been on this road to redemption for years. He took a long, long time to return to golf after winning the 2008 US Open on a broken leg and torn ACL. When he did come back, he was a fragile shell of his former self. Eight surgeries, countless promising starts derailed by his body’s inability to survive an entire tournament, and zero major wins defined his post-2008 career. It looked like it was done. He thought he was done, too.
Why are we so happy to see Tiger win again? When he first skyrocketed to stardom, Tiger was a young phenom bubbling with talent. He became the youngest player ever to win the Masters. We hopped on board the bandwagon and rode him as our champion. As a young Black man, he offered golf an excitement it hadn’t had in a long time, maybe ever. Tiger Woods. He was electric.
Maybe we root for Tiger because we are wound inextricably in his story. Here was the object of our dreams, a cultural totem. With his iconic maroon shirt and personal Gatorade drink line, he was an American legend — unique and powerful. We invested emotionally so much into him that when he disgraced himself, we disgraced ourselves, too. We venerated him as the best of who we were. When he turned out to be not so great personally, that gave us reason to doubt ourselves. His screw up meant we made a mistake. In order for us to regain our worthiness, he had to regain his.
He won by a single stroke on Sunday, capping off an impressive final day with a steady five-stroke par. His last two strokes were fitting. The first was a long putt. He played the green perfectly — almost. It broke just touch late and lipped the cup. A skillful effort off by only a couple degrees. The final putt was a footlong dessert. Those last two strokes sum up Tiger’s history nicely. So many times, he seemed to play well only to fall off at the end. He was putting in the work but the results kept coming up short. The guy who had once rocked the sport couldn’t seem to get a break. Every step in struggle, though, made a difference. He paved his path back to the top through failures. Each loss was the next iteration of a Tiger reborn. This win, like the final hole, represents all his work coming to fruition. After grinding for so long, he finally had what he needed. His lead, the product of that work, allowed him to miss his second-to-last putt and still come out on top with the win.
Jacob Riis, muckraker journalist and author of “How the Other Half Lives” said once that “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” That final putt was nothing special, except that it was the final one. At long last, Tiger broke through and redeemed himself. He needed to win the Masters in order to reclaim his status. While he was fiery and fun as a younger player, it was his ever-growing collection of trophies that solidified his support. When he stopped winning those, he lost his sheen. Tiger needed to win the big one again in order to signal to us that he was a worthy vessel for our love. By triumphing once again, he showed that he deserved our fandom all along. He proved to us that maybe, just maybe, we were worthy ourselves.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.