“Hello World,” he said on turning pro over twenty years ago. Those words heralded the arrival of Tiger Woods into the world of professional golf and nothing in this sport has ever been the same since. In those very early days one tour professional apparently asked Sandy Lyle if he knew Tiger Woods. “No, I’ve never played there,” replied Sandy innocently.
I first watched Tiger in the flesh in his first Masters as a professional in 1997. The fanfare was deafening and I rushed eagerly to see this new kid on the block. He went out in 40 blows, four over par, and I left him at the 10th tee thinking he’d been well and truly over-hyped. He came home in 30, never looked back and won his first major easily with a record score. That was the beginning of a remarkable career which may or may not be over. Yesterday, Tiger made a gentle return to the competitive arena in the 18-man field in the Hero World Challenge, a tournament he hosts annually in the Bahamas. With a total of eight operations behind him – four on his left knee, four on his back – it really shouldn’t be much of a discussion as to how successful/long his return to competitive golf may be, should it? Well, that’s just the thing with Tiger, you can never really tell. He has had a habit of surprising us down the years.
It was 1999 when I first commentated on Tiger in a major and as it happened that was his second victory at golf’s most elevated level. Over the next ten years I had a front-row seat watching the career of the world’s most famous athlete unfold as he hoovered up 14 majors in his quest to match Jack Nicklaus’ total of 18. There was no one to match him. His length off the tee, his scintillating irons and his ability to hole crucial putts and chips distanced him from all opposition. And his mind…..well, it was like a steel trap. For the first time ever, for the ONLY time ever, the most famous athlete in the world was a golfer. My admiration for him as a player knew no bounds and what an immense privilege it was to be inside the ropes alongside him as he repeatedly carved his name in the history books.
But there’s no doubt he changed over those years. Was it the pressure-cooker fishbowl he lived in, being constantly “on show”? Or was it the constant fawning of those around him – Tour officials, fans, managers and the like? Whatever it was, he became increasingly arrogant, increasingly controlling and quite simply, not a very nice human being. If asked a question in his media conference that he didn’t care for, he would ascertain who the questioner worked for and would then ensure that that publication, TV channel, whatever, would not get any interviews or quotes from him in the future. He would frequently say to professional journalists, “You’re a piece of work,” with more than a hint of a sneer. I witnessed it so often – intimidation and control. Not pleasant.
I did many post round interviews with him and there is one that stands out in my memory. It was the World Golf Championship event at Dove Mountain in Arizona, the matchplay, and Tiger was drawn against the big-hitting JB Holmes in the first round. Tiger’s opening tee shot sailed out of bounds, almost ending in a swimming pool, and from there he played woeful stuff, by his standards, to be four down with five to go. From this platform of poor play he fashioned a birdie, birdie, eagle, par, birdie finish to win on the last. I got to interview him greenside so he was still very much in the moment, pumped at his Houdini escape. Gone was any caution. There were no guarded comments, just a proper conversation about golf and his evident delight and joy in his finish. He behaved like a proper person. I loved it.
We are now in an era where most of the players competing in the upper echelons of the world stage have never played against Tiger or seen him work his magic on a golf course. Yesterday he played with Justin Thomas, the 2017 season poster boy of golf with five wins including a major on his resume – a sustained year-long performance that had everyone hailing the arrival of a new superstar. But, hold on a second – Tiger won at least five times in a season on no fewer than TEN occasions and he won ten times worldwide in 2000 alone. There is no one playing nowadays who can yet come close to Tiger’s dominance and win rate, so is it any wonder there is more than a frisson of expectation as he prepares for yet another comeback attempt?
I wonder what motivates him now though? Not the dosh, surely, but possibly the rediscovered joy of being finally pain-free on the course? To be sure, it must pique his interest to see what he can really do against today’s young guns. More interesting, however, was his comment in a recent interview that his children, Sam, 10, and Charlie, 8, were now keen to play golf with him. He lamented they had only ever known their Dad as a “youtube golfer” – his description. He is strongly motivated to show his kids exactly how good he is on a golf course. We don’t need to look further than Scotland’s Paul Lawrie who had a wonderful second half to his career when motivated by the desire to play golf with his boys and show them just what he could do.
Tiger’s career is no doubt on the wane from those heady, sublime days when the game looked effortlessly easy for him but perhaps we may still witness a few glorious sunsets in his twilight years. And, who knows, perhaps this happier person may become a nicer one too.