Ed. note: This piece is the latest submission to Knockdown Presents, in which we're giving a platform to fresh new voices from around the golf world. For more on this venture, including how to submit your own stories, click here.
On March 20, 2017 at 2:02 p.m., I met Tiger Woods. I was one of 300 diehards who had woken up at the crack of dawn and camped out for hours on a frigid New York City sidewalk just to have Tiger autograph a copy of his new book, The 1997 Masters: My Story. I was thrilled to get the signed book, but what I really wanted was the chance to thank Tiger. He has been one of the most influential people in my life, and I wanted him to know it. In the wake of his recent DUI, there has been a lot of commentary about how far Tiger has fallen and questions about his relevance. This latest mistake is disheartening, just as it was painful to see his reputation stained by scandal eight years ago. But I draw the distinction between Tiger the golfer and Tiger the person. For me, nothing will ever take away from what he did on the course and how it inspired me. I knew the book signing would be the first (and probably only) time I’d ever see him in the flesh, and I wanted to make it count.
Golf runs on my mom’s side of the family, starting with my late grandfather Herbert, who, along with my two uncles, passed the bug to me. Grandpa may have introduced golf to me but, like many in my generation, one man made me burn with the desire to play: Tiger. I distinctly remember watching his 1997 Masters win on the couch from my home in Marlboro, N.J., amazed by his power, confidence and absolute mastery of a game that I would find so frustrating over the next 20 years. I took my first lesson that summer and played my first full 18 holes on Aug. 30, 1997. I was 9 years old, on the cusp of fourth grade. More than 600 rounds later -- yes, I’ve counted -- golf has become my favorite hobby and true love. More than that, it has changed how I feel about myself.
Early on, I got good enough to earn compliments from my playing partners. It was a pleasant surprise; I was too scrawny to meet the minimum weight requirement for Pop Warner football and not good enough to last on the soccer field or the baseball diamond or the basketball court. Golf was a finally a sport at which I could excel, and that feeling of hitting a good shot kept me coming back time after time. I became good enough to win a few junior tournaments and played four years of varsity in high school. Since Tiger made golf cool, I felt kind of cool, too. The game has given me many of my best friends, and I still frequently play with a bunch of my old high school teammates. Golf gave me precious memories with my grandfather. It’s helped deepen relationships with other family members, college friends, even random people I’ve met through social media. And the love affair with golf helped guide me into sports journalism, writing about the sport for two publications and talking about it on a radio show, providing me a platform to work on my stuttering issue all the while.
Through it all, Tiger was a constant. I booked early tee times so I could race home and watch him on the afternoon telecasts. I developed the superstition of switching TVs halfway through Tiger’s round because he had played better when I watched him upstairs the day before. I sneakily got texts during school hours to keep apprised of his rounds. (I even subscribed to a texting service run through his website while in high school.)
All of this is why I felt such a yearning to stand in line at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. I was representing thousands, maybe millions, who undoubtedly wished they too could thank Tiger for all that he has given us. If you’re lucky, you have a teacher or a friend or a work colleague who has become a mentor, and there are many opportunities to express appreciation. But I knew this would be my only chance to thank Tiger.
He arrived a bit late, but he was smiling and appeared relaxed. One by one we were brought up to have our books signed. The long wait had made me numb. And then boom—it was almost my turn and the butterflies started fluttering. I was ushered up a couple of steps to where Tiger was sitting.
It felt like a dream, like I was being pushed along on a conveyer belt. I put my book on the desk and recited the words I had rehearsed in my head for days: “Thank you for giving me golf, thank you for giving me the friends I’ve made playing it and thank you for changing my life.” Tiger smiled, thanked me and shook my hand. He adorned my book with his elegant signature and then it was over. I was swept off the stage, so someone else could have his or her moment with Tiger. Before I knew it I was standing in front of Mark Steinberg (Steiny!) at the bottom of the stairs. I floated out of the store into the crisp air, clutching my book. I was still in a little bit of a daze. I had waited 20 years to say those 24 words. It was worth it.
Jeremy Schilling, 28, still lives in Marlboro, N.J. He works in marketing for a health care company and hosts the “Teeing It Up” podcast.