If you wanted to separate Tiger Woods’ professional career into two separate periods, it would be hard: There was the major period, a glorious 11-year epoch extending from 1997 to 2008, and the fallow decade from 2009 onward. Real life is impossible to confine within such simple barriers, but as a shortcut, it worked.
It doesn’t work anymore.
By winning the 2019 Masters, the 15th Major of his career, Tiger Woods has redefined his legacy. It didn’t need redefining, of course – he was already either the best or second-best golfer to ever live, depending on your perspective – but on a personal level, he seemed to need it as the culmination of a redemption act, and when you see CBS’ ratings for the final round, you’ll understand that we needed it too.
It wasn’t just the lack of wins that weighed so heavily on Tiger and everyone who loved him. It was the bizarre Thanksgiving debacle; it was the ugly divorce; it was the endless women; it was the sex addiction; it was the DUI; it was even the endless injuries. When American stars fall from grace, they fall hard.
But F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said there are no second acts in American lives. Americans love nothing more than a comeback.
Especially one like Tiger’s, which is a long time in the making and, if it succeeds, stands to defy time and the gravity of a life on an impossible trajectory. We invest hope and a thousand other private emotions in a figure like that, and what Tiger achieved on Sunday is more than just a player winning a major after a long drought – it’s a collective victory.
Even people who don’t particularly like Tiger Woods swelled up with feeling as they watched him from their homes on Sunday afternoon, and social media was littered with testimonials from those who don’t even like golf. Not to get overly sappy here, but he touched a chord with this triumph, and our reaction has everything to do with his long, hard journey.
More than any other victory, he earned this one. He paid the hard price of time and ignominy, and so often those of us who pay the same price never have a singular moment to show for the struggle. With Tiger, at the Masters, we got to see that moment.
This also changes how he’s perceived. Those who considered him better than Jack Nicklaus had to rely on an argument of different eras – that Tiger winning 14 since 1997 is better than Jack winning 18 in his day, because of stiffer competition and a larger field of contender. They still have to rely on that, somewhat, but now there’s a new and very impressive bullet point on Tiger’s c.v.
He won after the fall. He won in his 40s. He came back. It adds a level to his greatness that was impossible to foresee at the beginning, when he emerged from Stanford ready to utterly transform the world of American sports. It was impossible to imagine even a year ago, or, hell, a week ago – he was playing at an elite level again, but not this elite. We couldn’t envision this in our wild dreams, so there was no way to forecast how it would also change his legacy.
But it has. Jack did this too, in ’86, but that was just an older man striking one last blow against inevitable drift of time. Tiger’s fall was harder, and thus his triumph was greater. It only adds a single number to his major count, and it’s still extremely doubtful that he’ll get anywhere close to 18, but it also adds grit, toughness, and resilience to his story.
He existed a week ago as a fading legend among wunderkinds, and at the Masters he beat the child stars – the ones who haven’t had to endure his hardships. It’s just another reason why this green jacket is so unbelievable. Even if he wanted to win, and even if he wanted it badly, it should not have been possible. The path was too hard. We counted him out.
I counted him out. He, also, seems to have counted himself out.
I have the unfortunate distinction of having pronounced Tiger done in a 2015 epically bad take dashed off in an hour. And now I will suffer for it, but I don’t care—this is one of the greatest sports moments I’ve ever seen, tears are happening, and I will enjoy my crow.
— Shane Ryan (@ShaneRyanHere) April 14, 2019
Now? I don’t think you can say that anyone, Jack Nicklaus or otherwise, is greater than Tiger Woods. Major counts be damned – you can’t say it.
For what it’s worth, he also broadened the limits of what’s possible. I mean that metaphorically, in some way, but I also mean it practically. With this win, the hard limits of Tiger Woods’ potential achievements have been vaporized into non-existence.
While 18 is unlikely, it is not beyond consideration. He will fight for more majors, at the very least. His health now seems like it will hold up as long as he needs it to, as long as his second prime can last.
He can beat the biggest, best fields on the best courses, and when the chips are down, he still has the mettle to hold it together better than the legions of young pretenders. He can be the king of the sport again. To write those words would have been unthinkable, once, but now…why not? This singular win changes everything, and now everything is possible.
Imagine it, and it can be done, because Tiger won the Masters.