Not so very long ago, Tiger Woods was staggering through the pixels of grainy dash-cam footage into a night whose darkness was as figurative as it was literal. Before our eyes, a spectral soul ghosted through the lengthening shadows of his one-time greatness like a stranger unto himself lost in the mirror-world of his past. Where once the identity appropriating "I am Tiger Woods" Nike-ism resonated with generational optimism it now sounded subdued, vulnerable, and even contrite. A sinner in the public eye, Tiger was living his penance, desperately chasing absolution to the point where, exhausted by what he had become, his soul collapsed into the anonymous night. An adulterer and an addict, wounded by life, broken of body, and devoid of hope; for all the world this seemed like Tiger's end, his downfall eyeing oblivion through a mugshot's sunken stare.
The poignancy of that sad scene felt a lifetime in the making. When Butch Harmon originally threw away a remark that the only person who could stop Tiger Woods from eclipsing Jack Nicklaus was Tiger Woods, the statement seemed adulatory - just another soundbite in the canon of Woods-ian "Greatest of all Time" fatalism. Now though, considered in light of everything that has since passed, the comment crystallises into something altogether more textured into something almost cautionary. How was a child prodigy hothoused in a near friendless environment of golfing isolationism ever going to cope with life, let alone superstardom?
Woods' formative years sped by in a blur of endless backswings, cutesy interviews, and burgeoning potential, the light of his talent dawning under the shadow of his father's vicarious obsession. Earl Wood's robust tactic of bellowing streams of invective at his son epitomised the regimented militarism of Tiger's non-childhood. More Vietnam than Nintendo, more Bootcamp than playtime, more Drill Sergeant Major than a traditional father figure, Earl's well-intentioned if ultimately overbearing disciplinarian-ism may have seasoned Tiger the golfer but at what cost to Tiger the man? If pressed, Tiger himself would likely counter that Earl's "psychological training" provided a wellspring of resilience from which he could later draw fortitude, but the fact remains a resilient golfer is one thing, a well-adjusted human being another.
Into adulthood, the claustrophobic attention which accompanied Tiger's maturation into a global sporting icon pushed the naturally introverted Woods outside of his comfort zone and into a public domain defined by expectations of extroversion. The dissonance between the strutting TW brand and the retiring nature of the man shoehorned Woods into a Jekyll and Hyde existence, wherein whoever he once was wrestled with the superhero he was imagined to be. Neither would prevail. The more he won, and he nearly always won, the closer the character he played was pushed to the edges of his true identity and towards the void beyond.
The final heave came on May 3rd 2006, the date on which Earl passed away. Thereafter, Woods' life slowly began to unravel as, unwilling to let go, he chased his father's ghost through the lachrymal fog of grief and down the rabbit hole of identity. Gripped by loss, Woods morphed into a haunted pastiche; Earl lived on in Tiger, but part of Tiger died with Earl.
Given how Tiger bitterly resented his father's womanising, his own serial adultery feels almost like an expression of self-loathing. Certainly, it was a kamikaze flight destined to invite public humiliation and hence to invert infidelity into an excuse to repent. If the wreckage was apologetic, the lonely spiral of loveless sex which foreshadowed his crash was a sleepless search for solace, in which Woods wracked by insomnia combed his dreamless existence for a way out. Contrary to the libidinous mythology, however, Tiger found his escape not in the stolen embrace of carnal indiscretion but in the homely corners of impersonated ordinariness, the private hideaways where he could imagine a life that wasn't his. In many respects, it was as if with the world as his stage Woods had chosen to fall through the trapdoor.
In surrendering to a gravity pooled around a solipsistic mass Woods' reality became subsumed within his own ego. Everything revolved around him and his needs, to the extent that If Woods was troubled by pangs of conscience, neither his self-involved behaviour nor his cavalier attitude betrayed any semblance of penitence. With almost palpable indifference he appeared to simply swat his guilt away to a repressed unvisited place deep within the gnawing pit of his own subconscious. It was within Wood's selfish deceit that his defining disgrace was preserved like some ancient hurt enshrined in the tell-all amber of memory. There frozen in the cold metallic folds of his family-SUV's dented bumper were both Tiger's most terrible truth and his enduring stigma; the people who suffered most at his expense were those he loved most.
To his credit, Tiger has worked fastidiously to piece together the shattered trust into a mosaic of familial near-normality. Elin remains one of his "closest friends", the pair's relationship now centred around their children, to whom, she freely admits, Tiger is a "great father". Indeed, it is in his unbending dedication to Sam and Charlie, rather, than as is commonly portrayed, in his sporting comeback that Tiger found his true redemption, that he found what he had been looking for all along.
While his spirit may have coalesced around fatherhood to rediscover meaning, his body, nevertheless, remained broken. His golfing career fell into the staccato rhythm of a cripple's limp, the ever smaller circles between comeback and injury appearing to pirouette prophetically into the inescapable intimacy of a full stop. Retirement beckoned elliptically through the debilitating contortion of Woods' every swing, which though still a visceral spectacle of centripetal immediacy was by this juncture almost as likely to precipitate agony as genius. Yet, there was more to Tiger's physical Calvary than just the self-flagellation of his whiplash swing, and it once again could be traced back to his undying devotion for his father, the Vietnam veteran.
In mourning, Woods' long-held fascination with the military escalated from a peripheral interest into a passion so consuming, that, much to the consternation of confidants, even golf was relegated to a secondary concern. Head turned, in part by the appeal of melting into anonymity and in part "because of Dad", Woods duly remodelled his training regime into an assault course of specialised martial arts, 4-mile runs in leaden combat boots, and bleary-eyed 3 am gym sessions; all interspersed with increasingly frequent visits to Navy SEAL training camps. The physical exertions would catch up on Tiger when the hard obduracy with which he dismissed the worried admonishments of those around him eventually calcified into the first signs of chronic decline.
When triumphing at the 2008 US Open, his physical decline slipped into the slim lines of an incredulous exclamation mark to emphatically punctuate his sporting hegemony. A one-legged Tiger, nursing a ruptured ACL and a broken leg, defied a field of the world's best golfers, medical advice, and, what is more, belief to claim his 14th major title. His dominance seemingly absolute, the quest to raise golf's mythical benchmark of 18 majors to new Woodsian heights appeared more a legend in the telling than a remote storybook fantasy. Certainly, no one at that point could have imagined that for 10 years 9 months and 29 barren days Tiger would remain marooned on a number, whose aggregate totalled a diminished destiny. Then, of course, came day 3954.
"Tiger's back, golf's back" croaked Butch Harmon, his hoarse drawl struggling to compete with the cacophonous enormity of a moment in which the sport's natural order was in a sense restored. A moment in which a narrative arc of paternal symmetry closed in the embrace between father and son. A moment of swooning reverie, stolen from memory, as television's glassy-eyed timewarp fooled us into thinking it was 1997 all over again.
Of course, it wasn't. The grim austerity of imagination epitomised by the thoughtless clickbait-y slew of "Greatest Ever Comeback" headlines indulged our base Buzzfeed-ian instincts to remind us otherwise. To remind us that the timeworn Tiger Woods of 2019 is no longer the future of golf. Indeed, mindlessly scrolling past Lauda, Seles, LeMond, Hogan, and Ali, to retrace the vicissitudes of Woods' life was, for a generation, to balance on the serrated edge of time's passing and to accept that youth was gone.
Woods' hairline may have receded to the point where the ubiquitous TW cap hints at the self-conscious vanity of middle age as much as it swooshes with branded bravado, and the complexion may now bear the linen folds of life's fabric, but the hands still possess the Rachmaninov-ian dexterity to reach beyond the everyday and touch the divine. Throughout even the darkest episodes, the beacon of his preternatural talent illuminated collective memory into a flickering highlights reel of reasons to be hopeful.
On the back of impressive showings at both the British Open and the USPGA Championship hope soon solidified into expectation. By the time 2018's fateful Tour Championship came around, and despite a winless run extending back over more than 5 years, Woods was 6th favourite, trading at 14-1. By Sunday morning, he was odds on. Nobody had forgotten that Tiger doesn't choke.
Consequently, if Woods' triumph at the Masters was miraculous, it was a peculiarly predictable miracle, one seemingly prophesied by the oracle of his own mythology, as if destiny wanted to make us believers again. And boy, judging by the reaction, were we waiting for something to believe in. Woods' second coming (or should that be third, fourth, or fifth coming) marked the conclusion of golf's Fukuyama-ian "End of History" period and heralded a renewed challenge to the Nicklaus-ian orthodoxy.
A fevered excitement electrifies thoughts of Tiger eclipsing Jack and throbs with a generational insecurity, which yearns for greatness to be measured in the immediacy of experience rather than in the remote recollection of ancestral memory. Succeeding to squeeze Woods' legacy into the ugly GOAT acronym would bequeath the authority to condescend that "he's good, but he's no Tiger Woods".
Of course, as it stands, Woods is still chasing history. Moreover, if one considers that in the gap between Tiger's 2008 US Open and the 2019 Masters, the most majors won by a single golfer was 4, and that at 43 Woods must now be considered as a veteran of the game, the task of overhauling Nicklaus appears far from straightforward. More than that, since, by all accounts, the preoccupation with 18 is a narrative-satisfying extension of the public persona as opposed to a private yardstick of self-actualisation, one wonders whether Woods is content to commit his future to fate rather than embark on an existential crusade and risk defining himself by someone else's achievements. It wasn't for nothing after all that Michael Jordan, Tiger's longstanding friend, speculated that Woods could "walk away" if he won another major.
"Walk away" he hasn't, but would it have been such a bad idea? In the wake of his Masters triumph, Woods' legacy has transcended golf, and even sport, to become enshrined in the collective memory as an allegory for our times. If surpassing Nicklaus' record truly isn't his driving motivation, what more fitting way could there be to bow out? Perhaps, though, framing such a question relies on fundamentally misinterpreting the significance of April 14th, as simply representing closure, when in fact it also signalled a rebirth. What if, then, in bidding farewell to the old guarded Tiger, we were actually welcoming Eldrick?