I was in the car, scrolling through the radio for news Sunday, when I learned that the fist-pumping Tiger Woods of old had returned, winning his fifth Masters to wild applause from the crowd at Augusta National. I could envision him in his familiar red Nike shirt and black pants heading toward his family.
Of course, a couple of hours later, I was glued to my television and could see and feel the roar of the crowd, that warm embrace between him and his son, Charlie, the daps and hugs from other golfers in the gallery. My eyes moistened with tears. The haters were proved wrong, even though Woods said he had doubts about getting back to the top of his game after a succession of scandals, injuries and surgeries. In 2009, he had a car crash after a fight with his wife, and headlines ensued about infidelities. In later years, he became addicted to painkillers after back surgery and was charged with a DUI after being found in his car with the motor running.
But Woods’ performance Sunday was no personal redemption story. Nor did it need to be. The Masters was not about him settling the score and getting brownie points after his scandalous behavior. It was just about a man winning his 15th major and his fifth green jacket. Isn’t that enough?
Atlantic writer Jemele Hill got at this in a recent tweet:
“We say America loves a good comeback story. We do. We also love to tear people down out of a sense of insecurity and inferiority. Tiger won. I don’t care if he’s a changed person, because I don’t need him to be. Winning doesn’t make you anything else but a winner.”
I grew up in a household of athletes, with a father who played three sports in college and later became a referee. Sports is our family business. You can still find us sitting in front of the television, watching every sport known to man, ticking off current stats or recalling when Kareem or The Doctor or Clyde made us marvel at the sky hook, a rim-rattling dunk or a swish from the top of the key. We didn’t see the athletes as heroes, because my parents were and still are our heroes. We wanted to be like my parents because they work hard and live a respectful life. They taught us to emulate only the best parts of the athletes — hard work, grit, determination, perseverance.
That is why I have a hard time understanding why folks are so judgmental of Woods. I am no apologist for adultery. He is only human, and just because he hits a little ball in a cup, and does it very well, doesn’t make him better than the rest of us. In fact, it has made him a human target for all of our judgments and admonishments.
Since his victory, sportscasters have fallen all over themselves with praise for Woods even though they eviscerated him when he was in trouble, but I guess that is more of a function of the media business. I was particularly intrigued with the take by Panama Jackson of the Root, that Tiger’s victory was a win for the black community:
“I want his wins for the culture more than I need it to be Tiger getting them. To me, for the culture and for dominance in the long-held white man’s sport. He’s already got so many damn records in golf; I want the one that matters. I want the most majors.”
Maybe Jackson is on to something. You have to admit, Woods is a genius, a tactician, one of the greatest golfers to ever grace this planet. After not being able to attend the pre-Masters dinner two years ago without getting a shot for back pain, Woods is back on the prowl. He got close last year — tying for sixth at the British Open and placing second at the PGA Championship.
But this past weekend, he was able to put all of the pieces — mind, body and soul — together for a victory. We love a comeback story even if we are ambivalent about the person and their past behavior. Let’s face it: We’re a judge-jury-executioner species. But to have a comeback or a second chance, you have to have a setback. Then grit, determination, perseverance and the belief that one can do it begin to take root.
Hell yeah, I want Tiger to win four more majors to own the record outright from Jack Nicklaus. But if he doesn’t, that’s OK, too. Just being able to watch a golfer for the ages is enough — and I started watching golf when Kansas City’s Tom Watson graced the television.
Even for someone as gifted as Woods, comebacks are not at all easy. But maybe this is the second chance that he, and we, have been waiting for. Some days we seem to have little to cheer about, and every now and again an event strikes our fancy.
Back in the day, Tiger Woods made golf must-see, especially for people such as me who had only given the sport a cursory look. These days, my clubs have taken root in the garage, gathering dust. Maybe it is time to make my comeback at the neighborhood course.
Patricia Gaston is a journalism professor at the University of Kansas and a former editor at The Washington Post.