By Andrew Tan
Disclaimer: You may have read another column about Tiger Woods yesterday. Here, have another. You can also expect a third column about the Stanford alum later this week. He went here, so we’re going to brag about him. Don’t complain, just bask in his glory.
A short tap-in putt is all that separates Tiger Woods from history. He knows it. Everyone on the premises of Augusta knows it. Millions of viewers around the world know it. Tiger has done it again. He has managed to captivate an audience that transcends golf — sports, even — and is poised to finish another chapter in the lengthy volumes of record books many thought had long been closed to him.
And now he has really done it. Tiger’s putt rattles into the hole and Augusta erupts into hysterics. Sporting his iconic red Nike tee and black Nike hat, Woods refreshes the image previously etched so clearly into American sports lore. A simple Tiger fist pump. Then, he bursts into emotion, flinging his arms skyward, once again at the top of the sport that he singlehandedly launched into global renown.
As he begins his walk to the clubhouse, Woods immediately embraces his young son Charlie, dressed in the same famous outfit as Woods himself. The special moment brings Tiger’s career full circle, as he shares his victory with his son just as he had with his late father 22 years earlier in his first Masters win.
I’m not too proud to admit it: I cried when Tiger won. This wasn’t just a golf story; it was a human story. All the anguish of eight knee and back surgeries and sullying of his reputation by a number of scandals melted away when he reclaimed the top award in golf. To go along with his personal triumph, the fact that he was able to share victory with his father, who was his mentor and who meant the world to Woods, at the beginning of his career, and now with his son, beautifully wraps up his career regardless of whether or not he wins another major.
But enough of the beauty of it all. What does this mean for golf?
Besides Woods himself and his family (and perhaps the several bettors who cashed in on Tiger’s redemption), the people happiest about Woods’ return the spotlight are all those who care about golf’s success. The commentators, Golf Channel executives, manufacturers of golf equipment and even Tiger’s peers all had to be smiling when Woods received his fifth green jacket because his triumph vaults golf back into relevance.
Let’s face it: Tiger Woods made golf. Few laymen or non-golf aficionados can name anyone in the sport besides the icon nicknamed after a fierce jungle cat. Even fewer likely know that Tiger is not Woods’ given birth name. But regardless of what sports you follow or — if you follow sports at all — you would have to live under a boulder the size of Augusta not to know who Tiger Woods is.
Woods went pro in 1996, leaving Stanford after two years, and immediately became the young phenom in the PGA circuit, having already been the only amateur to qualify for the 1995 Masters and the first golfer ever to win three consecutive U.S. amateur titles.
It only took him two months to climb to the top of the world golf rankings, by far the quickest ascent to the top spot in the history of the game. And from there, Tiger dominated, setting records at every major course, railing off long streaks of consecutive PGA Tour wins and maintaining a stranglehold on the top of the leaderboard for a record 264 weeks.
Tiger was dominant in the kind of way that a Ferrari would be at the Kentucky Derby. Woods was of a different breed. It just wasn’t fair.
Woods was the first golfer to really be built and extremely fit. Before Tiger, golf was run by a bunch of average-looking at best and obese at worst white men who had the means to play a lot of golf in their free time and consequently get good at the sport. By training harder and using unprecedented techniques to improve his game and trounce the competition, Woods broke into a historically upper-class white sport and ran everyone else off the green. In one of his U.S. Open victories in 2000, Woods held a 15-stroke advantage over the next best finisher by tournament’s end.
Tiger could drive the ball further than everyone because that’s what he trained to do. He built up muscle in his arms and back and shocked his rivals on the green. To go along with his driving power, his short game was immaculate. Woods didn’t have a hole in his game.
And because of his success, sponsors started to stream in. Nike, Gatorade, Titleist and others all lined up to get behind one of the hottest talents in all of sports. Golf became cool to play and others started to realize that to catch up to him, they would have to put in the same tireless hours that he did.
In the modern landscape of golf, the game is no longer run by out-of-shape guys who look like they just rolled off their couch and onto the golf course. Every player who contends at the top of the world rankings is strong and muscular, relatively speaking, following in the footsteps of Woods. The field caught up to Tiger in terms of pure physical ability, and as his own health declined, Woods struggled to keep pace with a new age of players who had used him as their benchmark.
So when Woods won the Masters again after 11 years without a major, it served as a reminder to everyone that golf exists the way it does today because of him, that none of his competitors would be here without him, that he is the godfather of golf in the 21st century.
On Sunday, we saw that the grandmaster still has it. While Woods can no longer rely on outdriving or outputting his competition, his years of experience and persistent dedication to the game was apparent. And perhaps, as some of the younger competitors saw that Tiger was among their ranks at the top of the leaderboard in the final round, they shrank because they knew what Tiger could do, and that if they made a mistake, he would pounce.
That’s just what happened. And the world of golf couldn’t be happier.
Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu.