Tiger Woods’s long, slow decline has been painful (for him) and tedious (for us). His fourth back surgery, announced on Thursday, has added a sense of finality: It’s over. He’s done.
This has left me in a reflective mood; I don’t want to linger on the details of the downward spiral but rather celebrate the ascent. Watching Woods at the height of his powers was the thrill of a lifetime for all of us. I was lucky to have a front-row seat for so much of it.
I remember standing on the right edge of the par-5 15th fairway on Thursday of the 1997 Masters. Tiger was in the midst of a rally that would define his legend. A ball came trickling off the mounds where I was loitering (those mounds are long gone, and spectators can no longer even stand on that side of the fairway), so I staked out a spot a few feet away, awaiting Tiger. This was my first time seeing him in person, and I loved the military cadence of his walk and the all-business look in his eye. He spun a gorgeous wedge next to the hole—a wedge!—for a crucial eagle. Strangely, my mom was with me that day, and after the crowd had rushed down the hill she surreptitiously pulled a camera from her purse and snapped a picture of the divot. Tiger could have that effect on otherwise rational people.
I remember standing behind the 17th green at Medinah in 1999. Tiger was laboring to hold off Sergio Garcia in a spirited showdown at the PGA Championship. He was still in search of a second major championship victory to back us his Masters breakthrough. With the tournament on the line Tiger had jacked a 6-iron over the green of the par-3 into a gnarly clump of Kentucky bluegrass. Legs splayed in an awkward stance, he fluffed the ensuing chip, leaving a frightening downhill eight-footer for par. It was the kind of putt on which a reputation can turn. It was funereal quiet, but I whispered to a colleague that if he missed that putt and blew this tournament the ’97 Masters was going to feel like an aberration. But Woods willed his ball into the cup, as he always did in those days.
Long afterward, Tiger was upstairs in Medinah's majestic clubhouse, for a series of post-victory TV hits. Finally he headed for the exit and a night of celebrating, and I trailed in his wake, lobbing a few questions. He was walking, talking, signing and smiling, all at the same time. "It can never be as crazy as it was," he said of the hysteria that lurked beyond the clubhouse door. "I've gone through it once, so I'll know how to handle it. I've learned." In other words, this time around there would be no racially provocative TV ads, no Oprah, no off-color humor in GQ. "That was almost three years ago and a lot has chang.... " At that moment he stepped through the doors into a galaxy of exploding flashbulbs and the kind of squeals only he could generate. As the fans surged forward, Woods dove into a limo. He didn't get to finish his sentence, but his point had been made.
I remember the playoff at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla. I had followed Tiger and Bob May for their entire shootout. By the back nine I was practically running from shot to shot, desperate to get the best vantage point; I knew that this was a duel for the ages. When the playoff came, the tension was palpable and I could feel it viscerally: my legs were jelly, my breathing quick and shallow. And I was merely an impartial observer! I don’t know how the hell they could play golf in those conditions.
I remember the 2000 American Express Championship, the final stop in the greatest season in golf history. Woods had arrived at Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande, Spain, with nothing left to play for. He was clearly spent. Surely he would have loved to skip the tournament, as most other top Americans did, but for the fact that the title sponsor was one of the patrons that ultimately pushed his annual earnings into nine figures. Tiger was within two strokes of the lead playing the 71st hole, a ridiculous par-5 with a putting surface so steeply pitched that only the most perfectly executed shots would not trickle back into a pond fronting the green. Tiger rinsed his third shot, dooming him to a fifth-place finish.
At the end of his round he marched into Valderrama's small locker room, which was deserted except for his loyal lieutenant, Mark Steinberg. Tiger was changing his footwear when, abruptly, he picked up one of his spiked shoes and started whaling on his golf bag, sending chunks of leather flying across the room. The violence was stunning, and it went on for what felt like forever. This was a meaningless tournament at a moment when Tiger had absolutely nothing to prove. And yet that is how hot he burned.
I remember looming over the 18th green at the 2005 Masters, in the high-rise observation deck that used to exist for reporters. Just below me, Tiger stood at the back of the green, awaiting his fate. He had just frittered away a four-stroke lead during the final round, flailing to a bogey-bogey finish that he would delicately describe later as "throwing up" on himself. Woods had staggered up the hill to that final green, his labored gait revealing the cumulative toll of a nerve-jangling final nine, during which he and Chris DiMarco had seemed to be playing H-O-R-S-E with their sand wedges.
Now DiMarco faced a do-or-die six-foot par putt to force sudden death. Moments earlier he had lipped out a chip, coming agonizingly close to a birdie that would have won the tournament—yet this pit bull in spikes refused to crack. Augusta National fairly shook when DiMarco drilled his pressure-packed putt, but Woods never flinched. Instead he flashed a big, beatific smile, a jarring sight given the enveloping tension of the moment. What was Woods thinking? "This is fun," he confided later. DiMarco never really had a chance; and Woods finished the job with a walk-off birdie. Fun, indeed.
I remember a stolen moment on Sunday afternoon at the 2007 PGA Championship. The first tee at Southern Hills Country Club offers one of the most majestic views in golf, perched high above a serpentine fairway with the Tulsa skyline looming far beyond. On that Sunday the temperature was into triple digits, but Tiger looked utterly at ease as he materialized to continue his march on history. The glistening Wanamaker Trophy, which Tiger had already claimed three times, was on a pedestal at the back of the tee box, but he didn't even give it a glance.
As Tiger settled over his ball, everything stopped—the swarm of fans, the security guards with their mirrored sunglasses, the cameramen with their itchy trigger fingers. Woods's presence was as perceptible as the humidity. He did not take a practice swing, and why should he? He had been preparing for this moment all his life. Tiger’s swing has never looked more rhythmic than it did that week, but the underpinnings of his action remained athleticism and strength. He lashed at his ball and propelled it through the dead air with an audible sizzle. Tiger held his follow-through a beat longer than usual, watching his ball trace its towering arc down the fairway.
They might as well have bronzed him on the spot.