What happened to Tiger Woods? It’s the most vexing question in sports
[This story originally appeared in the April 4, 2016, edition of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe now for the in-depth coverage, only in Sports Illustrated!]
On Thanksgiving night in 2009, Tiger Woods’s meticulously crafted image was shattered in a single-car accident outside of his home in Windermere, Fla. The wailing of Woods’s mother, Tida, is audible in the background of the frenzied 911 call that followed: “What happened?“ It remains the most vexing question in sports.
The sex scandal spawned by that messy night is the line of demarcation in Woods’s career. These days Woods, 40, draws comparisons not to Jack Nicklaus but rather to a prostrate Willie Mays in the Mets’ outfield. The most dominant player in history hasn’t claimed a PGA Tour event since 2013 or a major since ’08. Once celebrated for the virtuosity of his short game, Woods was chased from the course last year by a mortifying case of the chip-yips; maybe the fittest golfer ever has been betrayed by his body. Woods hasn’t teed it up at a Tour event since last August, and after enduring three back surgeries in 19 months, there is no timetable for his return. In December, at his tournament in the Bahamas, the Hero World Challenge, Woods said, “There’s really nothing I can look forward to, nothing I can build towards. It’s literally just day by day and week by week and time by time. Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don’t know.” Taking stock of his 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour wins, he added, “I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy.”
The tone of resignation sent a shudder through the golf world. “Yeah, I worry about him,” says Steve Stricker, one of the few players on Tour with whom Woods has been close. “I never thought those words would come out of his mouth. He almost seemed content that he wasn’t going to play again.” By March, Woods was chipping and putting and making easy swings with a 9-iron, but he appears nowhere close to being able to tee it up in next week’s Masters. A more realistic hope is that the world’s 472nd-ranked player will turn up for the champions dinner, another step in his becoming little more than a ceremonial presence in the game.
Woods has retreated to his $60 million compound on Jupiter Island, Fla., a dream house he designed with Elin Nordegren but now inhabits mostly alone after their tabloid divorce in 2010. By his own admission he kills much of the day playing video games. Woods’s spread is on a narrow spit framed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River. Along this stretch of South Beach Road, every house is a fortress, hidden behind tall gates and immaculate foliage. His isolation is profound. “We all wonder about him, wonder if he’s lonely,” says Tour player Stuart Appleby, a former neighbor in Windermere. “What is loneliness? Is it having regrets for the things you’ve done? There has to be a rebooting of his life because he’s got decades and decades left. You hope that in this time away he can find some peace.”
PHOTOS: Tiger Woods’ 2009 car accident
A doting father to daughter Sam, 8, and son Charlie, 7, Woods has been spotted in the last few months at a couple of his kids’ soccer games, and there have been occasional sightings at his swank new restaurant, The Woods Jupiter. But other than one press conference in early March pegged to a Tiger Woods Design golf course project outside Houston, he has largely retreated from public view. In February, when the Tour was in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Nicklaus hosted a dinner at his home for U.S. Ryder Cup hopefuls, and Woods made a surprise appearance. Says Jimmy Walker, “I talked to him for just a second. I said, ‘Wow, you’re standing up.’ He said, ‘I know, everyone thinks I’m dead now.’ “
Woods is the same age Nicklaus was when he won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. (The Bear’s last major title, at the Masters, would come six years later.) Given that Tiger has taken four green jackets with three different golf swings, one more reinvention is not inconceivable. Can he reclaim his destiny and break Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships? That quest seems incidental in the face of the question that still festers: What happened? To answer that, it is necessary to examine Woods’s life and career, with all of his flaws, contradictions and triumphs.
Ahead of the Presidents Cup in George, Western Cape, South Africa, Woods and Nordegren, then his girlfriend, vacationed with Charles Howell III and his wife, Heather. Woods wanted to cage dive amid the great whites that feed in the waters around Seal Island, off the coast of Cape Town.
“We chummed the water for seven or eight hours, but there’s not a shark to be seen,” Howell recalls. “Tiger is bored out of his mind. He’s wearing a wet suit to dive into the cage in case any sharks come, and suddenly he just jumps into open water. He’s decided to swim over to the island and get up close to the seals. The guys on the boat are going nuts, shouting for Tiger to come back, but he just keeps swimming, through all the chum. The seals start hopping around and hollering like they do. Tiger is having a great time. After what seems like an eternity, he swims back and casually gets on the boat.” Howell pauses for a moment, lost in the story. “He’s just different from normal people,” he adds. “Completely fearless.”
After four intense days the Presidents Cup match was tied 17–17. Rules dictated that one player from each team be sent off in a sudden-death playoff. Nicklaus, the U.S. captain, chose Woods, of course. Tiger was coming off his most spectacular stretch of golf, having won seven of 11 major championships from the 1999 PGA through the 2002 U.S. Open. International team captain Gary Player tabbed Ernie Els, who was playing on home soil. Woods and Els halved the first two holes and, with the sun setting, arrived at the par-3 2nd hole at Fancourt Country Club. Both faced par putts: Els from five feet, Woods from 15. Players from each team encircled the green. All these years later Jerry Kelly says, “Look at my arm, I’m getting chills right now just thinking about it! It was an electric atmosphere. Tiger’s putt was basically impossible. It was pretty much pitch-black; I don’t know how he could even see the hole.” Woods poured in the bender. (Els made his too, and the match ended in a tie.) For many of the 23 colleagues who saw Woods hole the putt in the dark, it remains the quintessential Tiger moment. “He knew he was going to make it,” says Mike Weir, a member of the International team. “It’s almost like he believed it so much, he created it and manifested that it would happen. That’s probably what separated him more than anything else: his belief.”
When Jordan Spieth was 11, one shot changed his life, but it wasn’t one he struck. Back then Spieth was a pitcher with a filthy curveball and a shooting guard who could fill up a stat sheet. “I was just starting to pick golf as my No. 1 sport and fall in love with it,” Spieth says. “That really cemented it.”
That was Woods’s chip-in on the 70th hole of the 2005 Masters, which he played to a slope well past the pin and fed back into the cup, pretty much stealing a green jacket from Chris DiMarco. It took perfect execution — Woods was aiming for an old pitch mark and landed it bang on — but the shot was a distillation of his imagination. Watching at home in Dallas, Spieth was thunderstruck. “It made me want to go out that day, that evening, and work on my short game,” he says.
Ten years later at the Phoenix Open, Spieth was paired with Woods and another young gun, Patrick Reed, who also grew up idolizing Tiger. As late as May 2014, Woods had been the world No. 1, but he lost most of the rest of that year to his first back surgery. In Phoenix for his ’15 season debut, he was working with the fourth swing instructor of his pro career, Chris Como. In front of Spieth and Reed and all of the golfing world, the damnedest thing happened: Woods chunked, bladed, scooped, chili-dipped and skanked chip after chip. It was a horror show. Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee calls it “one of the most shocking things in golf history.”
After his second-round 82, Woods obfuscated with technical mumbo jumbo about the grind on his wedges and the “release pattern” in a chipping motion that Como had altered. Reed, like everybody else, saw through it. “It was hard to watch,” he says. “Some holes he was just barely off the green and couldn’t even hit the green with a chip. You know, I felt really bad, because going into the week he seemed to be enthusiastic about being back.”
The dawn of the Tiger Woods era came at the ’95 U.S. Amateur. Woods was 1 up on Buddy Marucci playing the 36th and last hole of the match-play final. With Marucci on the green, Tiger stood over a 140-yard approach at Newport (R.I.) Country Club. On the ESPN telecast Johnny Miller murmured, with zealotry of the recently converted, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he knocks it a foot from the hole.” In fact, Woods put it to 18 inches. Game over.
A couple of hours later Tiger’s father, Earl, was at a victory party. Intoxicated by the moment, and perhaps his champagne, he said, “I’m going to make a prediction. Before he’s through, my son will win 14 major championships.”
It was an interesting number, given that Nicklaus had always been the family measuring stick. Perhaps Earl knew that the great Bobby Jones had won 13 majors, and that exceeding this total had been Nicklaus’s lifelong goal. When he did, the Bear fell into a period of ennui before he went back to rewriting the record books. Did the number 14 set Tiger on the path to greatness or somehow stunt an endless future? Earl had a knack for predicting the future, but even he couldn’t have known all that awaited his boy. Yet on a long ago night in Newport he had already seen enough. “To my son, Tiger,” Earl said, raising the Amateur trophy in a toast. “One of the greatest golfers in the history of the United States.”
On his first day of kindergarten in Anaheim, Woods was tied to a tree by a group of older boys, who pelted him with rocks and spray-painted “n—–” on his chest. Recounting this story for Barbara Walters, among others, Tiger reinforced his own sense of otherness. He and his father became atuned to the side-eye that often greeted them at country clubs as Tiger played his way through the golf firmament. Superstardom did not insulate him; as Woods was razing Augusta National at the 1997 Masters, a sheriff’s car was stationed outside his rental house because of death threats. An ugly controversy followed the victory when a video surfaced of Fuzzy Zoeller, the 1979 Masters champ, calling Woods “little boy” to reporters and advising him not to serve fried chicken at the following year’s champions dinner. This is of a piece with Woods’s former looper Steve Williams saying, at a caddie banquet in 2011, that he had so heartily celebrated a victory with his new boss, Adam Scott, because, “I wanted to shove it up [Tiger’s] black arsehole.” In ’13, Sergio García followed with his own stupid joke involving fried chicken.
There was even a racial component to Woods’s sex scandal. The parade of mistresses were all white and most of them blonde, leading to -lowbrow songs on morning radio shows and musings in highbrow places such as The Guardian. (“The Tiger Woods scandal . . . threatens to ignite a national debate in America’s black community on interracial relationships.”) A Vanity Fair cover photo of Woods — shirtless, in a black beanie with a glowering expression — compelled Mark Anthony Neal, a professor in the African-American studies department at Duke, to describe Woods as being “n—–ized” during the coverage of his fall from grace.
As every aspect of Woods’s life became subject to reexamination, his kindergarten teacher came forward to say the stoning had never happened and demanded an apology. At least one former classmate and his mother backed up the teacher. Woods has never addressed this publicly. But even if the tale is exaggerated, or even fabricated, Woods had accurately foretold the ugliness that was to come.
Woods’s honesty between the ropes came into question after he committed three serious rules infractions in 2013. The most troubling incident occurred during the second round of the BMW Championship. At the 1st hole his ball settled in a grove of trees, atop twigs and leaves. While clearing the loose impediments, the ball moved. Woods hesitated, recoiled his hand and immediately stepped away but said nothing to his playing partners, Scott and Henrik Stenson. It was caught on video, and in a postround meeting with Tour officials Woods explained that he thought his ball had “oscillated” and returned to its exact same position, which would not have been a penalty.
When Scott and Stenson viewed the replays, they had no doubt it was a penalty. “It’s obvious the ball moved a little bit,” says Scott. Adds Stenson, “Like everyone else I saw the footage, and it seemed quite clear his ball had moved.”
In his heated discussion with rules official Slugger White, Woods refused to accept what was apparent to the rest of the world. Over Tiger’s protestations, White imposed a two-stroke penalty. For many in golf this moment was window into Woods’s soul. He had long been celebrated as a sportsman; now, had he become so desperate to regain his former standing he was willing to commit golf’s cardinal sin and break the rules? As always with Woods, there are questions but no definitive answers. But whether it was a kindergarten tale or a misadventure in the trees, it was now clear in the aftershocks of the sex scandal that Tiger would no longer be entitled to his own set of facts.
Seeking metamorphosis after the scandal, Woods began working with Sean Foley, a new age swing instructor more likely to quote Ghandi than Harvey Penick. They had been together for nine months when Foley received frightening news: The baby his wife, Kate, was carrying had been diagnosed with a diaphragmatic hernia. Half of the babies born with this condition don’t survive.
Kate went into labor in the early hours of Aug. 26. “I got six or seven voice mails that morning from Tiger,” says Foley. “‘Dude, I’ve been up all night thinking about you and the baby, please call me with an update when you can.’ I could hear the emotion in his voice.”
Kieran has grown into a healthy, active kid, and Woods never fails to ask about him when he sees Foley, even though the two parted ways in 2014. A trail of discarded relationships — personal and professional — is an enduring theme in Woods’s life. Onetime friends such as Mark O’Meara and Charles Barkley have complained about Woods’s inaccessibility, but that’s not a consideration for Foley.
“Is that really the test of a friendship, whether someone returns your text messages?” he says. “All I know is that during the scariest time of my life, Tiger was amazingly supportive. He said some extremely beautiful things to me. I mean, he’s still my favorite player. He’s still my guy.”
Earl Woods died on May 3, 2006, at 74, after a long battle with cancer and heart ailments that was presaged by a lifetime of drinking and smoking. Tiger took six weeks off and returned for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Playing with little conviction, he bogeyed the first three holes of the first round. It would be the first time in 38 starts as a pro that he missed the cut at a major. For his playing partner, Edoardo Molinari, Woods’s struggles were proof of his humanity. “That just shows that we all have feelings, and sometimes those feelings can be hard to contain,” Molinari says. “At the end of the day Tiger is made of skin and bone, flesh and blood.”
“That’s one interpretation,” Hank Haney said in a recent interview. “I see it a little differently. That was the only time in his career there were no expectations, the one time he had an excuse to not be Tiger Woods. I think this guy was already tired of living in his life, and here comes a free pass to not be Tiger Woods for a week. He jumped on it so fast it’s unbelievable.”
It’s a brutal analysis, but one born of Haney’s own experiences. He served as Woods’s swing coach for six years beginning in the spring of 2004, after Tiger and Butch Harmon split. Haney spent 50 nights a year sleeping in Tiger’s guest bedroom and thousands of hours standing next to him on the range. He came to see Woods’s golfing genius as both a gift and a burden. In his 2012 memoir, The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods, Haney recalled the 2005 Buick Invitational. It was Woods’s first Tour victory following his $1.5 million Caribbean wedding to Nordegren, and she was understandably thrilled, saying they should throw a party as was the custom when she worked as a nanny for Jesper Parnevik and he won a tournament. Woods quickly deflated her: “E, that’s not what we do. I’m not Jesper. We’re supposed to win.”
Seven months earlier, following the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, Woods had made a startling remark to Williams: “Stevie, I think I’ve had enough of golf. I’d really like to try to be a Navy SEAL.” (This is taken from Williams’s recent autobiography, Out of the Rough; Woods has always had trust issues, and tell-alls from two intimates can’t have helped.)
The public first heard about Woods’s role-playing with the military in April 2004, when he did four days of training with special operations forces at Fort Bragg, N.C. It seemed like a showy one-off, a chance for Tiger to connect with his father’s background as a Green Beret. But in private Woods revered the SEALs, repeatedly watching DVDs of their training and spending hours at a time playing a SEALs combat video game. According to Haney, Woods went on numerous training missions in the years after the Fort Bragg visit. This might help explain Tiger’s penchant for running wind sprints in a weighted vest, jogging in combat boots and pushing heavy metal in the gym, activities that seemed to have little to do with his golf fitness.
The 6’ 1″ Woods arrived on Tour in 1996 with the perfect body for golf: supple and sinewy. By the mid-aughts he had packed on 20 more pounds of muscle, reaching the high 180s. He enjoyed showing off his increasingly intimidating physique, often jogging shirtless through Isleworth, the exclusive Florida community that was also home to a dozen or so fellow tour pros, including John Cook. “I would be on the back of the range, beating balls,” says Cook, “and Tiger would come up after an eight-mile run: no shirt, hat backward, sunglasses, body soaked with sweat. He would grab my 2-iron and start hitting these missiles. How you going to beat that? You can’t beat that.” Which is exactly what Woods wanted to hear — not his trainer advising him to lose 10 pounds or the doctor who performed his left ACL surgery in 2008 recommending he slim back to 165. Woods ignored the advice, but all of his significant injuries have been to load-bearing body parts: knee, both Achilles tendons, neck, lower back.
In 2006 and ’07, Woods talked more and more about becoming a SEAL, and Haney became so exasperated by what he felt was an unhealthy obsession that one day in 2007, while they practiced in a bunker at Isleworth, he played his trump card: “Are you out of your mind? What about Nicklaus’s record? Don’t you care about that?”
“No,” Woods replied. “I’m satisfied with what I’ve done in my career.”
Looking back, Haney now says, “That was a big wow. I finally understood he really doesn’t give a s—. It was obvious in the way his work ethic fell off and in his attitude on the course that he had lost a lot of his desire. On some level he was just tired of being Tiger Woods.”
Woods finally gave up his dream of being a SEAL after a meeting with his agent, Mark Steinberg, in August 2007 at the Bridgestone Invitational; the birth of Tiger’s daughter two months earlier was surely a factor as well. Beginning with his victory at that Bridgestone and the following week’s PGA Championship, Woods went on a 10-month run during which he won 10 of 13 tournaments, including two majors. Having given up on the idea of playing soldier, Woods was back to business as usual, and he would have to indulge in another form of escapism.
The 2008 U.S. Open was the ultimate myth-making performance for Woods, as he conquered the sport’s most demanding tournament with two stress fractures in his left tibia. He was 32, with 14 major championships in the bank. Knee surgery then sidelined Woods for eight months, but ’06 U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy still says, “At that point I would have bet you every dollar I had that he would break Jack’s record.” Woods spent the 2009 season rounding back into form. By early August he had won five tournaments, but he was uncharacteristically shaky in the majors, failing to convert opportunities at the Masters and the U.S. Open and missing the cut at the British. At the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, Woods forged a two-stroke lead through 54 holes. To that point he was 14 for 14 in closing out a Saturday-night lead at a major, and this ruthless efficiency largely defined his legend. “I studied him long before I began working with him,” says Foley. “On Sundays [at major championships] he would walk onto the range like an emperor. It’s elegant. Guys stopped hitting balls just to watch him walk. He knows that he is going to beat you. You know that he is going to beat you. He knows that you know, and you know that he knows.”
Paired with 37-year-old journeyman Y.E. Yang, Woods battled his putter throughout the final round, and on the 71st hole he faced an eight-footer to save par and retain a piece of the lead. He didn’t scare the hole. “You go back to the U.S. Juniors, and Tiger hadn’t missed a putt he had to make in almost two decades,” says Paul Azinger. Yang closed out Woods with a kick-in birdie at the last.
Two weeks after the stunning defeat at the PGA, Woods made his next start at the Barclays, a FedEx Cup playoff event. On the 72nd hole he stood over a seven-foot birdie putt that would have tied him for the lead. Zach Johnson was sitting on his golf bag near the 18th green at Liberty National, watching the action. When Woods whiffed the putt, Johnson turned to a reporter and said, “I’m in shock. He makes that a hundred times out of a hundred.”
Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion, has a different take. “The funny thing about golf,” he says, “is that once you miss an eight-footer that matters, it becomes a little bit easier to miss the next one. Even for Tiger Woods.”
When he was 15, Woods was part of the Canon Cup, a team event that pits junior golfers from the western U.S. against rivals from the East. His roommate that week in Colorado Springs was garrulous Jason Gore, who would later join Woods on the PGA Tour. “It’s a bunch of teenagers away from home, of course there’s a lot of goofing off,” says Gore. “But Tiger went to bed every night at 7:30. It was like, Dude, what are you doing? I’ll never forget the sight of him with the blankets pulled under his chin, and he’s peeking out in those huge glasses he used to wear. He was Eldrick back then, not Tiger. Take away the money and fame and all that stuff, and deep down he’s just a golf nerd.”
That’s a word that crops up over and over. During the Isleworth years one of Woods’s closest friends was a college golfer at Central Florida named Corey Carroll, who got a nearly perfect score on the SAT; Haney describes him as “a little nerdy.” What did he and Woods discuss in their quiet time together? Says Carroll, “He had a bit of a fascination with cosmology and theoretical physics.” Howell is also reserved and studious. Mention to him that Woods seemed to gravitate toward a certain type, and Howell says, “You mean nerds?” Not for nothing, Woods’s nickname among the Stanford golf team was Urkel after the Family Matters TV character who is, yes, famously nerdy.
In this context Woods’s serial infidelity can be seen as a kind of a high school geek’s wish-fulfillment. His attitudes toward sex, love and marriage were also influenced at home. Lieut. Col. Woods was stationed in Thailand when he wooed Tida. She spoke barely any English and Earl only the slightest bit of Thai. Did this look like a union of equals to their son? Earl was openly disdainful of the institution of marriage, saying, “Let’s face it, a wife can be a deterrent to a good game of golf.” He predicted that if his son married before he was 30, it would “destroy” him. (Tiger was 28 when he wed Nordegren.) Earl also shared with The New York Times, “I’ve told Tiger that marriage is unnecessary in a mobile society like ours.”
In fact, Earl was an unrepentant womanizer throughout his marriage to Tida. In His Father’s Son, the Woods family biographer, Tom Callahan, writes, “Any woman who ventured within fifty feet of Earl was a potential plaintiff.” Earl’s skirt-chasing was an open secret in the golf world. In 1998 he traveled with Tiger to South Africa, the trip during which the two met Nelson Mandela and Earl memorably described it as “the first time Tiger met a human being who was equal to him, who was as powerful as Tiger was.” At the subsequent Million Dollar Challenge in Sun City, players, caddies and tournament staff were clustered in one hotel. One caddie told me, “I was on the same floor as Earl, and all week long there was a parade of girls to his room.”
A much more public parade of this kind would ultimately be Tiger’s undoing. This leads back to Haney’s thesis: “If he’s trapped in a life he doesn’t want, the only way the whole thing can end is if he self-destructs. You have to draw the conclusion that in some way Tiger wanted to be caught.”
Six years later it’s easy to forget the intensity with which the scandal raged: the steady stream of exceptionally graphic text messages to his paramours that were leaked to the media; the front-cover treatment in the New York Post for 20 consecutive days; the photograph of Woods at a sex-addiction treatment facility in Hattiesburg, Miss., looking both hunted and haunted.
After four months in exile Woods made his return to the game at the 2010 Masters, to a public shaming from Augusta National chairman Billy Payne. Woods arrived at the 1st tee on Thursday in dark sunglasses, as if he were hiding behind the tinted windows of a limousine, then responded with one of the more remarkable performances of his career. Playing his first tournament in five months, he made two eagles in a first-round 68 and followed with a 70 to sit only two shots off the lead. Along the way he made good on his pledge to be more of a golfing gentleman, at one point high-fiving a little girl in the crowd and toning down the churlish outbursts that in the past had often followed poor shots.
The new Tiger lasted all of 36 holes. Following the second round, “We were walking from the media centre to the practice range,” Williams writes, “when Steinberg told Tiger that if he wanted to win the tournament he had to ‘stop being a nice guy’ and go back to being his old self.”
Woods shot a 70 in the third round and was still in good position, four strokes behind the leader, Lee Westwood. But during his warmup session on Sunday, Woods was sullen, surly and distant with both his caddie and swing coach. Haney became convinced he was just going through the motions. It was as if Tiger was caught between his old self and the new one, unsure of who to be. “Nobody has shown up at a tournament more in character than Tiger Woods,” says Azinger. “He was as much an actor as an athlete. He showed up on Sunday in a shirt the color of blood. After all the problems in his life, what character could he possibly play?”
Woods took all this bad energy onto the course, bogeying three of the first five holes to fall seven behind. But then he holed his approach on the 7th for an eagle and followed with birdies on 8 and 9 to roar back into contention. He still had a chance when he stiffed his approach to seven feet on the 14th hole. But then Woods missed not only that putt but also the ensuing 18-inch tap-in, ending his bid. The carelessness was unprecedented. “I didn’t believe my eyes,” says his playing partner that day, K.J. Choi. “Something strange happened. I still can’t believe he missed that. That’s not the real Tiger Woods.”
Steinberg’s comment cuts to the heart of a fundamental question: Would becoming a better person make Woods a worse golfer? The money, the fame, the women — all of it fed a deep sense of entitlement; in his mind, he deserved to win simply because he was Tiger Woods. There was little room for nurturing friendships. Says Gore, “At tournaments he would look at you and burn a hole right through you, like you didn’t even exist. He did that to me all the time, and I’ve know him probably longer than anybody on Tour.” After the scandal Gore could sense that Woods felt a strong need for connection: “He realized there’s more going on in this world than birdies and bogeys. He started asking about my wife, asking about my kids. It was nice to see him be, you know, normal.”
This more human version of Woods was on display in the most surprising of settings: the crucible of the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach. That national championship was always going to be a referendum on Woods’s game; he was returning to the site of his most dominant victory, a 15-shot laugher at the Open a decade earlier. For the first 45 holes he looked overmatched by the moment, but then Woods caught fire on the back nine on Saturday. He rode a series of spectacular shots to a 66 that propelled him to third place.
For the final round Woods was paired with Gregory Havret, a Frenchman who was playing in only his fourth major. He has vivid memories of the round. “Tiger didn’t play all that well,” Havret says, “but we chatted all the way around the course. On hole number 9 it totally surprised me when Tiger said that he knew I had a child, and he asked me how my daughter, Jeanne, was getting on. He asked a few things about what it was like growing up in France. Then on the 16th hole it was quite funny — he said he had read in the newspapers that there was a strike in France, and he asked me to explain who was striking and why.”
Havret bettered Woods by three strokes that day. For him to say his companion didn’t play well is the epitome of Continental good manners; Tiger three-putted the 1st hole, hit a snap hook into a tree off the 3rd tee and knocked it into the ocean on number 6. He bogeyed six of the first 12 holes to blow himself out of the tournament; afterward he moaned about the condition of the greens and blamed three bogeys on Williams’s club selections. Woods’s mistakes in the final round of the Masters, two months earlier, were easily rationalized, but the implosion at Pebble signaled that something had fundamentally changed. In just 10 months Woods had been Y.E. Yang’d, blown a crucial 72nd hole putt at the Barclays, suffered the worst public disgrace of the Internet age, yipped a gimme in crunch time at the Masters and fallen apart at the U.S. Open.
There is the pervasive belief that in the wake of the scandal Woods’s peers were less intimidated, hastening his demise. Harrington believes an inward gaze was more damaging: “He had an invincible air, and then suddenly he had frailties. But it’s not what we thought about the frailties that mattered, it is what he thought. Up to that point he was the most self-confident person I’d ever come across. Invincible, in a sense. I might have kept believing that except it became quite clear that Tiger himself no longer did.”
The Tiger Woods Learning Center is a sleek 35,000-square-foot building tucked into a quiet corner of Anaheim. It abuts the Dad Miller Golf Course, one of the scruffy munis where Woods learned the game. The TWLC has a driving range and a mobile unit to conduct clinics, but golf is a miniscule part of the mission. The center is a launchpad to upward mobility.
Every year the foundation hosts students from more than 100 schools across Southern California. (About 90% of those schools are Title 1, meaning a minimum of 40% of their students live below the poverty line.) On a quiet Thursday in February elementary school kids from Hemet, a town 75 miles to the east, filled the various classrooms. There were classes on nutrition, forensic science (including DIY finger-printing kits) and a course on robotics that taught students to learn how to code software. Later they would all get to explore the computer lab, with its 30 gleaming monitors, and visit the state-of-art 150-person auditorium and browse the materials in the academic support area, its walls covered with pennants from dozens of elite colleges. From the soaring atrium that greets visitors to the sparkling classrooms to the effervescence of the staffers, everything about the center is designed to wow the kids. “Honestly, this was the first place I ever felt valued,” says Mehrab Sarwar, who grew up in Anaheim, studied regularly at the center after school and now works as the coordinator of the Earl Woods Scholarship Program. “It’s the first place I ever felt like I had advocates who cared about my future.”
College preparedness is a driving force of the Tiger Woods Foundation; the learning center hosts regular workshops on how to navigate the maze of the application and financial-aid process. The Earl Woods Scholarship Program began in 2006, the year the learning center opened with President Clinton as the keynote speaker. The first class of scholars featured five kids, each of whom received $5,000 annually toward college tuition. This year 131 students will receive the $5,000 stipend, and the goal is to double the number of scholars in the next five years. Thanks to a strong mentoring program, the foundation reports a 100% graduation rate. Says Evan Chang, a scholarship alum who just graduated from NYU medical school, “I’m from a low-income, single-parent household, I’m first-generation to go to college — it’s very humbling that Tiger Woods cares enough to help someone like me.”
The foundation’s good deeds are made possible by Woods’s largess, not to mention his -fund-raising hustle. He kicked in $16 million toward capital campaigns and every year donated his winnings from the World Challenge and two Tour events affiliated with the foundation, which amounted to more than $10 million. When the World Challenge couldn’t secure title sponsorship in 2012, Woods put up $4 million to keep it going. To raise money each year, he hosts the Tiger Jam in Las Vegas and an exclusive pro-am in Pebble Beach. The commitment of time and resources is substantial — he presides over all board meetings, usually in person — but Woods believes that the foundation is a key to his legacy. He declined to be interviewed for this story but agreed to answer questions about his philanthropy by email. “It’s one of my primary purposes,” Woods writes. “I hope people will remember me for what the foundation accomplished, and not as much for what I did on the golf course. There are kids now at the learning center who have no idea that I play golf, and I think that’s great.”
For Woods the work of the foundation is his way of paying tribute to his father, who remains a palpable presence around the learning center, and not just because of the bronze statue in the atrium. Writes Woods, “Mom and Pop always made sure education came first. Family and education were the priorities in our home.” He is trying to impart similar values to his own children: “My kids know that we’re very fortunate, and that there are many people who could use some help. Also, like my Pop said to me, and what I say to Sam and Charlie, care and share.”
In recent years Woods has spoken more openly about his children, with whom he shares custody with his ex-wife. “He and Elin are good friends,” says Jesper Parnevik, who remains close to his former nanny. “He’s a great dad. He spends a lot of time and does a lot of fun stuff with the kids.” Parnevik helped broker the romance between Woods and Nordegren, and when the scandal broke, he was the most vociferous of any pro golfer in his criticism of Woods. It’s a measure of how far Tiger has come since then that Parnevik now says, “All I hear are positive things.”
After going winless for more than 900 days, Woods prevailed at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, beating Graeme McDowell on a taut Sunday. McDowell is a U.S. Open champ and a Ryder Cup hero, but he turns into a gushing fanboy remembering that day: “It’s nice to have played with him when he’s been close to his best. When it’s all said and done, it’ll be a great memory to say I had a few chances to stand toe-to-toe with perhaps the greatest player of all time.”
Over the next 17 months Woods would win seven more times, a great career for most guys. But even as he summited the World Ranking again, a glum reality could not be denied: He was now a demonstrably lesser player. In 2012 and ’13, Woods had five realistic chances to win a major, but he could not close the deal; his weekend scoring average was significantly higher than in the first two rounds. The metaphysical challenges were significant. Foley, Woods’s swing coach in that period, says, “Tuesday at a major is one of funniest places to be because everyone is so anxious as they have laid the seeds of expectation for many months. Common sense says that Tiger was affected too. Those tournaments meant so much to him.”
But the problems were not just in his head. In the preceding five years he had sustained numerous dings and injuries, robbing him of practice time and some of his athleticism. Woods’s revamped swing under Foley had much more shaft lean at impact; the trajectory of Tiger’s irons became lower, and off the tee he struggled to play a draw. The PGA Tour’s strokes gained statistic illustrates how many shots per round a player is picking up or losing to the competition in every facet of the game. Less powerful and less accurate with the longest clubs, Woods lost more than a shot per round in strokes gained driving from 2009 to ’13, falling from 15th on Tour to 92nd. This shortcoming was magnified at the major championships, with their steeper penalty for errant tee shots, just as his less versatile ball flight became more problematic coming into firmer greens. And whether it was frayed nerve endings or deteriorating technique, Woods was also losing his scoring touch. In 2009 he picked up .99 strokes per round with his putting. In ’12 and ’13 that number dropped to .43 and .52, respectively. The efficiency of his chipping and pitching also plummeted; in the strokes-gained-short-game stat Woods’s advantage was .71 strokes per round in ’09, but that fell off to .27 in ’12 and .31 the following year. Factor in the driving, chipping and putting, and the postscandal Woods was essentially eight strokes per tournament worse than he had been in 2009, which is not even one of his seven or eight best seasons.
“For the first dozen years of his career Tiger always played the correct shot,” says Golf Channel’s Chamblee. “He had the skill and technique and fearlessness to pull it off when others were afraid to even try. When he came back [after the scandal], he was a different golfer. He was more one-dimensional, and he played much more defensively. He seemed to have a fear of missing left, so everything was a trap-cut. He had so much know-how he learned to play around these deficiencies and still find ways to win, but the majors exposed all of his weaknesses. He may have been the player of the year in 2013, but the gap between him and everybody else was closing rapidly.”
And then Woods’s back gave out.
After the chip-yips at the Phoenix Open, Woods’s next start came a week later in La Jolla, outside San Diego. His play around the greens was nearly as horrific as it had been in the desert, and he withdrew after 12 holes, saying he wasn’t able to “activate my glutes,” a phrase that immediately passed into legend. Woods took the next two months off and by his own account hit tens of thousands of chips in his backyard. He returned to action at Augusta National, which, with its extremely tight lies and crazy greens could not have offered a more stressful test. It is a monument to Woods’s grit that he survived the week without a single relapse. But the chip-yips live inside you forever, like a virus. For the rest of the year Woods was much more wary when chipping. His scrambling percentage of 46.77% would have comfortably ranked dead last on Tour if he had played enough rounds to qualify for the statistic. (In 2009, Woods led the Tour in scrambling, getting up and down 68.18% of the time.)
The 17th-place finish at the Masters seemed like something to build on, but two months later Woods cratered. At the Memorial, where he has won five times, Tiger shot a third-round 85, the worst score of his professional career. His next appearance came at the U.S. Open, and he started with an 80. He missed the cut at Chambers Bay and then at the British Open and the PGA Championship. His season ended in August, as he failed to earn enough points to be one of the 125 players who qualified for the FedEx Cup.
In September, Woods had microdiscectomy surgery, the same procedure he’d undergone a year and a half earlier; this second operation was to correct a disk fragment that was pinching a nerve. But the discomfort remained, and last October he went under the knife again.
It is a testament to the cult of personality Woods created that despite years of poor play and bad health, there are still a lot of true believers out there; for these fans and players and reporters it remains disorienting to see the depth of Woods’s struggles, and ignoring reality is less painful than admitting his competitive mortality. “He’s still Tiger Woods, and he has an imprint to play great golf, and he will do it again,” says Howell. “If the guy were to get off his couch and show up at the Masters and win, I would not be surprised, because that’s who he is.”
Haney is a clear-eyed critic on many things about Woods, but even he feels a similar tug: “I would never say he can’t win again, because he’s so great. Every time he tees it up, I think he’s going to win. Still. I mean, he’s Tiger Woods. These other guys” — Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, et al. — “they’re good, but they’re not even close to what Tiger was.”
Yet Haney also recognizes this is a convenient time for Woods to call it quits. He writes in his book that Woods considered injuries to be “an athletic badge of honor. To him, injuries were a way of being accepted into the fraternity of superstars who played more physical sports than golf.” Says Haney, “If he walks away now, the narrative is that injuries cost him a chance to catch Jack. That sure sounds a lot better than he lost the desire or he threw it all away with reckless behavior in his personal life.”
So many things are working against a comeback, but the public fascination with Woods remains as intense as ever. In late February, during the week of the Honda, he posted on social media a clip of himself swinging a short iron very gingerly. The Internet practically melted. “It got more attention than anything happening here,” McDowell said from the Honda. “It’s a reminder of how big he was, and still is.”
Indeed, all of us were lucky to witness the greatest golf ever played. What happened? Even Woods might not be able to answer that. A better question might be, Why can’t we let go?
“He epitomizes a power in the universe that we don’t understand,” says Ogilvy. “He did stuff that science, common sense and golf history can’t explain. The guy was incredible in every way, but Ernie Els was just as good physically as he was, Greg Norman was just as good physically, Rory McIlroy is too. There are hundreds of guys who are, really, but why is Tiger the guy who won every time? How did he make every putt, how did he always pull off the shot? We don’t get how he did it, and we want to know why he lost it and where it’s gone and why he can’t get it back. Maybe even Tiger doesn’t know. I know we all want to see him do it one more time, to be reminded of how special it was. He certainly has nothing left to prove to anyone. It just feels like he deserves a different ending.”