Before Tiger Woods came along, the game of golf was in danger of being relegated to the absolute fringes of society, to the resorts and country clubs, where corporate leaders and powerbrokers found fairways and greens unusually suited to thrashing out their sordid ‘deals’. It was smack-in-your-face elitist, reliant on patronage and the poisonous networks thereof, and reeked of white, imperial (and no doubt male) privilege like it couldn’t be helped.
Coloured folks simply weren’t in the picture back then, let alone front and centre. Certainly none from the US or Europe. Of the regular group that usually made the cut at tour events, I can really only recall Vijay Singh, the Fijian.
Then came Woods, and he just smashed the entire edifice from day 1. Quite literally day 1, since he won the very first major he played, the 1997 Masters at Augusta, leading from start to finish, finishing 18 under par. His impact was instant and irreversible. Everyone recognised that here was something special, very very special, something unlike anything they had seen before. Or would see ever again.
Over the course of the next decade, he took golf out of those aforementioned clubs, outside the fancy resorts, and made the game once again about the athletic challenge that one has to overcome, in which the mind can certainly play a role. For instance Belief, an essential ingredient in any winning pursuit, is all in the mind. All of it.
In fact it was eleven years, the first time, before the crash. That would take away the next 11.
But as statistics go, 14 majors in 11 years is one worthy of digesting just a bit - in the context of golf, where they’re known to compete professionally into their 60s. The most anyone has ever won is 18. Woods was within touching distance in his early thirties, which is not even mid-career in golf. Which is why in all frankness, the record held by Jack Nicklaus even stopped being much of a big deal, a mere waypoint to be crossed along Tiger’s inevitable journey.
Now if Woods wasn’t too good to be true, nothing ever would be. The sheer scale of the scandal was mind-boggling. There was no agonising, no two ways about it, everybody was on the same page from the get-go: off to the doghouse. And so he went. It’s impossible to know what he then went through, but he put himself together enough to hang around if not compete, although there was a phase when he was almost unheard of. As if to force the issue on him, when he didn’t go on his own, couple of years ago his back also gave away - he would need spinal fusion surgery before he could play again, but he still came back to the golf course. Toured. Steeped in the game from childhood thanks to his father, he didn’t seem to mind too much that he wasn’t so hot anymore. Let alone the vilification and slanders. He would tee up everyday, simply for the love of golf. So what if in the throes of a spectacularly sordid crash, he couldn’t even buy a win - on Tour, let alone a major?
Yet these last 11 years, Woods has fought a bigger battle, indeed he was in the War. The war fought within the self. His performances during this period will form a fascinating public portrait, of how even preternatural sporting talent can be overwhelmed and laid low by the troubles of the soul. Last Sunday, when that last putt rolled in on the 18th green, it was himself he conquered. There were no more battles, and no challengers left. He won the War.