Tiger Woods has harnessed the pure power of nostalgia – but has he really changed or simply rebranded?

Jonathan Liew
The Independent

Earl Woods: “Where were you born, Tiger?”
Tiger Woods, aged three: “I was born on December 30, 1975, in Long Beach, California.”
Earl: “No, Tiger, only answer the question you were asked. It's important to prepare yourself for this. Try again.”
Tiger: “I was born in Long Beach, California.”
Earl: “Good, Tiger, good.”

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When Tiger Woods hits a golf ball really well, it sounds like a gunshot. A crack straight from the muzzle of the pistols he used to enjoy firing in his spare time. That was the sound his 9-iron made out of the trodden dirt down the side of the left fairway on the ninth hole at Bellerive last Sunday.

And like any gunshot in a public place, it was immediately greeted by a cacophony: of shouts and cries, of agitation and consternation. The crowd roared the ball all the way up, and they roared it all the way down: a 172-yard hook, around the trees, rolling to within 10 feet of the cup.

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Grown men embraced each other. The noise was like nothing else. And wherever you were on the course during the final round of the US PGA, you knew exactly what had just happened, and exactly who had just done it. “It’s pretty apparent what a Tiger roar is, versus anyone else,” the defending champion Justin Thomas said afterwards. “So I knew he was making noise.”

Woods didn’t win the PGA Championship. He finished two shots behind the winner Brooks Koepka, one of the 31 men to have won a major championship since Woods last did. And yet while Woods was pursued by a wave of wild adulation from the moment he stepped onto the course to the moment he disappeared into the scorer’s hut, Koepka was politely applauded off the final green as if he had just dabbed a single down to third man.

What happened at Bellerive was the culmination of a process that has been bubbling up over the course of 2018. For years, hardened golf followers would scoff at the disproportionate attention that Woods commanded from casual fans and the media. Tiger-obsession was regarded as a drain on the sport, an unhealthy fixation on an individual who seemed to offer very little in return. His spectacular downfall and subsequent decline were even welcomed in some quarters as a necessary purgation, a cleansing ritual that would allow golf to reinvent itself with fresh green shoots.

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Woods shot a stunning final-round 64 at Bellerive (Getty Images)

You don’t really hear many people saying that now. According to CBS, viewing figures for the final round of the PGA were up 73 per cent on the previous year, and the highest since 2009, which by no coincidence is the last time Woods was in contention. Viewing figures for this year’s Open Championship in the United States were at their highest level since 2000, when Woods won at St Andrew’s. There’s a case for arguing that Woods is more important to his sport than any other athlete in the world is to theirs.

Then again, we sort of knew all this already. Woods’s effect on television ratings has been well documented for years. Their slow decline over the last decade was living proof of the ‘Tiger effect’ long before it returned. But while golf has been grudgingly aware for a long time that it has needed Woods, not until the last few months has it realised quite how much it loved him.

So has the world changed? Or has he?

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“I’m a friend of Tiger’s and I feel bad for him,” said Jack Nicklaus last year. The man who has won more major championships than any other has spent two decades being asked whether Woods will eventually overhaul him. Now, finally, he was reluctantly admitting the possibility that the race might be over. “I think that he’s struggling,” said Nicklaus.

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When Woods limped out of the Dubai Desert Classic in February 2017, many felt it was the last time he would be seen on a golf course. In April, after years of agonising pain in his back and leg, he had drastic spinal fusion surgery in an attempt to save what remained of his career. In May, high on painkillers, police discovered him asleep at the wheel of his car and arrested him for driving under the influence. In November, he slipped to 1,199 in the world rankings. The era of Tiger Woods had never looked more definitively over.

To understand why Woods was being quite so hastily written off in a sport where players can remain competitive well into their 50s, you needed to understand a little about physiology, and a little more about psychology. To a world that had never known Woods as anything but the pre-eminent talent in his sport, there was a certain narrative neatness to his sudden collapse: the explosive swing that fell apart all at once, the all-or-nothing competitor whose disintegration was as rapid as his decline.

Where most commentaries erred, however, was in assuming that their assessment of Woods’s present state could reliably inform predictions of his future. This is a trap even the best of us fall into. Last year, a study by the federal reserve banks of the United States and Australia discovered that despite the growth of elaborate computer models, statistical analysis and available data, economists’ ability to forecast future trends was getting worse, not better. Indeed, economic predictions are no more reliable now than they were a century ago. Reading the future, it turns out, is a mug’s game. And yet golf’s amateur physicians were prepared to call time on Woods’s career purely on the prevailing direction of travel.

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Tiger Woods celebrates a birdie on the final hole at the PGA Championship (Reuters)

Then there was the emotional element. Woods’s prickly public persona – secretive and litigious, anodyne and acquisitive, frequently rude and inconsiderate – fed into the impression that in some small way, Woods was getting his karmic comeuppance. “I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply,” he admitted in a famous 2010 press conference. “I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself.”

Partly, Woods’s habit of taking as much as he could and giving away as little as possible was one he learned from his father Earl, a former public information officer with the US Army. Earl’s years of dealing with an irritable media bred in him an instinctive distrust of public discourse that he instilled in his son at a frighteningly young age. Earl trained Tiger to say as little as possible, to put up the shutters, to say ‘No’ without qualms.

And yet it meant that when he was finally toppled from his perch, it was in front of a public that felt little empathy for him, simply because it had never been able to get close enough. Just as Woods’s golfing rivals expected no mercy on the course, we learned to expect none off it. “In sport, you have to go for the throat,” his mother Tida would tell him. “Because they come back and beat your ass. So you kill them. Take their heart.”

For a child who had been reared to believe that sport and real life were one and the same, how was he to make the distinction? And it was only in the years since Earl’s death in 2006, as Woods first disassembled and then reassembled his life, that he began to carve out a meaningful space alongside golf, and invite others into it. Since his comeback, he has been more open with the media, more open with his fans, more supportive and collegiate to younger members of the tour. The likes of Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed and Daniel Berger have all benefited from his advice and tutelage.

Even if Woods had never swung another club in his life, he was already a long way down the path to rehabilitation and contentment. He served ably as vice-captain at the 2016 Ryder Cup, and was all set to fulfil the same role in Paris this September. His metamorphosis into a respected elder statesman of the PGA Tour was almost complete. But then something strange happened. He started performing again.

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One of the great fallacies of following sport is that we so often confuse athletic ability with moral virtue. The wholesome, clean-cut Tiger that Nike tried to construct during the 1990s and 2000s was used to sell us everything from golf balls to trainers to an entire way of life. A decade later, the collapse of his joints and the collapse of his marriage were conveniently woven together to spin a lazily moralistic narrative about how Woods somehow had it coming all along.

The truth – and this should barely require spelling out – is that sporting success is entirely unrelated to the number of cocktail waitresses you have banged in your time. Equally, you can remain steadfastly loyal and not win a thing. It’s worth pointing out that some of Woods’s most incredible golf, between around 2006 and 2008, came during what we now know was a period of unprecedented personal turmoil. Now, as he approaches the winners’ circle once more, with his odds of winning a 15th major title slashed after Bellerive, his golfing success is being co-opted into a wider redemptive tale based on one part reality and several parts wistful nostalgia.

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The crowds packed in to follow Woods around Bellerive (EPA)

To a large extent, you suspect that the crowds roaring Woods on this year, from California to Carnoustie, are connecting not with Tiger as he is now, but Tiger as they remembered him. They’ve seen him debased and disgraced, they’ve seen him dishevelled and delirious. And so to complete the satisfying circle, they want to see him dominate again. Nostalgia is one of the purest emotions in sport, and whether it’s Woods, Roger Federer, Roy Jones Jr or LeBron James, we will happily part with our cash for a glimpse of our younger, prettier selves.

Woods knows this. His extremely polished management team know this as well, and having lost a whole clutch of sponsorships in the wake of his personal problems, will be busily plotting ways of returning their client to financial as well as sporting pre-eminence. Yet beneath the PR veneer, it’s impossible to know whether Woods really has changed, or whether he’s simply rebranded.

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A recent tell-all book by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian – aggressively discredited by Team Woods despite the fact that it was based on around 400 interviews by those who knew and worked with him – explains that while Woods is certainly happier and humbler these days, the coldness and curtness that defined so many of his relationships remains largely intact. His former mentor Mark O’Meara paints a particularly unflattering picture, inviting Woods to his Hall of Fame induction in an attempt to repair their friendship, only for Woods not to show up, despite being in the same town at the time. “Sooner or later,” O’Meara tells the authors, “you have to be a human being.”

Woods’s people are famously itchy on the legal trigger, so we should probably leave it there. And in any case, perhaps it’s a moot point. Sport has always inspired reactions and emotions we can never quite explain or rationalise. Perhaps it’s simply enough that Woods was brilliant at golf, and then he wasn’t, and now he might just be getting there again. As the caption on that famous Nike poster some years ago put it: perhaps winning really does take care of everything.

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