On Sunday afternoon, Tiger Woods did what many experts and casual sports fans thought he’d never do again. For the first time since 2008, Woods won a PGA major even. Tiger Woods won his fifth Masters championship by finishing 13 under at Augusta National. I’m no golf fan and I’m not especially a Tiger Woods fan, but I’m a fan of redemption stories and I’m a fan of second chances.
Like most people around my age, we grew up with Tiger Woods. His emergence at the 1997 Masters, Woods set the golf world on fire by obliterating the field. It was such a moment that my dad, who hated golf, called me on the phone to make sure I was watching. We witnessed a minority golfer dominate a sport and a facility that had been outwardly hostile and exclusionary or non-whites for most of the 20th century. The moment was so great that my dad likened it to reading the exploits of Jackie Robinson has he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. And for the next decade, Tiger Woods, clad in Red on Sundays, was as dominant of an athlete as we have even seen. He completely changed the sport of golf.
Then, Woods fell from grace. There was the adultery and cheating on his wife. His wife divorced him. His family crumbled apart. His game suffered as his body broke down on him. His once pristine image was in shambles. The image that Tiger Woods had cultivated for all of his adult life was gone. He went from being on top of the world, to being a joke. He was a pariah. We all know the story. We’ve all at least tossed out our two cents on his ongoing issues. I know I’ve made a couple of jokes at his expense. For the last 10 years as he’s tried to put his life and golf game back together, every story referenced his downfall. Not only was his past a joke, but his future was bleak: there was no way he could ever be that champion again.
Sunday morning started with Tiger in the leaders group. And the buzz started on social media: could this be Tiger’s return? Could he pull this off? I went to church and when I got out, he had just taken the lead with only a few holes to play. Once it became certain that Tiger would pull this win off, that his redemption story would be complete, there were people that wanted to remind you of what he did and what he needed redemption for in the first place. Before you felt a little bit of joy about watching one of the all time great athletes return to his championship form, they wanted to remind you why he had been a pariah for over 10 years.
I can relate to Tiger Woods. I’m not an elite athlete, but I’m similarly flawed. Ten years ago, I was on top of the world. I was married with two kids and from the outside, things looked great. On the inside, I was not the husband that I was publicly. My marriage failed. I lost a great job. At the age of 40, I had to move back in with my mother. I was humbled. But when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. So, like Tiger Woods, I’m trying to create my own redemption story. Whatever you have said about Tiger Woods, whatever joke you made, whatever you think about him as a person, nothing will be as painful for him as he had to look his children in their face and answer for his actions. I should know. I’ve been there. No amount of scathing criticism will equal looking at the pain in your loved ones’ eyes and knowing you’re the cause of those tears.
Well, do we know if he’s really changed? Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know. You don’t know. And that’s the thing about athletes and celebrities. We don’t know. All we know is the image they project. And Tiger Woods was the best at projecting that wholesome, perfect image. The thing is, we can boo. As fans that’s our right. But Tiger Woods did not wrong us. Woods hurt his exwife, his kids and his family. If he has made amends with them, so be it. He didn’t hurt me and he doesn’t owe you an apology. Woods isn’t coming to your house to beg for forgiveness, nor should he be required to.
The hug he shared with his son on Sunday when juxtaposed with the image of him hugging his own father at the 1997 Masters was so powerful. Maybe I’m projecting onto Tiger like we all are, but I saw a man that lost everything: his father, his wife, his family and his career get back what was though impossible. For a moment, we got to see a great player once again become great. I got to remember what it was like to be back in 97, sharing that moment, his moment, with my father. And I got to see a man that’s on his own road to redemption, a road that we all need to travel from time to time.