I shed one tear when Tiger Woods’ tee shot fell on the 16th green at Augusta National Sunday afternoon. Laugh at me. Scoff. Ridicule. Do whatever you want. Doesn’t matter. But I knew at that moment that the greatest comeback story in the history of sports was about to have a happy ending.
Forty years ago my good friend, Danny Preston, who tried in vain to get me to take up the game of golf for years, came over for dinner and was all excited about this 3-year-old kid he had seen on television who had a perfect golf swing. Danny insisted that this toddler would be a great player one day. I laughed at him, of course, but he had introduced me to Tiger Woods, and when Tiger burst onto the golfing scene years later I thought back to that night and that dinner and to Danny Preston’s prediction and decided that I was a fan, and I have been for every swing and every peak and every valley ever since, and there have lots and lots of each.
A lot of people didn’t like Tiger from the get-go. He was brash and cocky and rude and cussed and didn’t treat fans very well. Plus, he was an uppity black boy. Not many people would openly admit that they held that against him, but a lot of people did.
I didn’t like all of Tiger’s ways, but I loved his work ethic and his love for what he did and how he played the game and the fact that nobody was ever any better at what he did — and I realized early on that he was so good at what he did because he worked so hard at it. I sat in my living room with my son, Jackson, who was 8 at the time, and watched Tiger dance around Augusta National one Sunday afternoon in 1997 like it was his own personal playground. He was wearing a floppy red shirt that was a size too big for him and a grin as big as the ovation he would receive 22 years later when he strolled up the 18th fairway of that same golf course after doing the impossible.
Tiger would become a touchstone for me and my family. He was something we could enjoy together. We spent so many happy afternoons, watching him and pulling for him and marveling at his ability. I never held him, or any other public figure, up as a role model for my children. He was entertainment, and did he ever entertain!
Tiger had it all. He was king of all he surveyed in his chosen field of endeavor. He had a beautiful wife, who obviously loved him, and two great kids. The world was his oyster. And he could not handle it. He couldn’t come close to handling it. Like the mythical figure, Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, Tiger’s wax began to melt and his feathers began to fall away and his indulgence in alcohol and women and fast living cost him everything, culminating in that infamous public humiliation on Thanksgiving night in 2009.
He was a broken man. His wife was gone. His children estranged. His sponsors left him like rats deserting a sinking ship. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve everything he got, understand. I am not saying his behavior was not despicable. All of the people who had loved to hate Tiger Woods through the years now could gloat — and gloat they did.
Mentally he was a wreck, and his golf game would suffer and soon thereafter his physical body would crumble like his soul and psyche apparently had. Everybody wrote off Tiger Woods. The man who had spent an unprecedented 683 weeks as the world’s No. 1 golfer would fall to number 1,199 on the World Golf Rankings. Tiger was done.
If I can confess to crying when he stuck his tee shot on 16, I can confess to something else. Throughout all this turmoil, while millions of people all over the country, including lots and lots of people I knew — and one woman I slept with — were condemning Tiger Woods, I was praying for him, almost every day. I prayed for healing for Tiger — physical and mental and spiritual healing. I wanted to see his life back on track for his sake and, selfishly, for my sake — because I wanted to experience the joy of one more Sunday watching him own a golf course and the field while wearing his signature red shirt and pumping his fist.
I don’t know if my prayers contributed to his healing. I know medical science and his own iron will and hard work were major factors. He had three back surgeries and four knee surgeries. Nobody comes back from that. And yet. What did the poet say about the hope that springs eternal within the human breast?
I know that I began to have hope last year when he teased us at a couple of majors, and I celebrated mightily when he won at East Lake.
But Sunday, as thunderstorms gathered and rolled toward Augusta, my lovely wife, Lisa, was working out of town and I sat alone in my chair, texting furiously with my kids all morning, eating my own egg salad and pimento cheese and watched time be rolled back.
And when he stuck his tee shot at 16 I knew that lots of prayers had been answered and yes, I shed one tear. I knew the tournament was his. I knew the comeback was complete.
Tiger Woods. Go ahead and roar. You’ve earned it.