The steepest downward spiral in the history of professional sports found a new rock bottom this week. We keep waiting for the triumphant comeback, for the story to pivot and turn fairy tale again. It isn’t happening. The heartbreak is in its ninth year now. It isn’t ending.
What Tiger Woods accomplished when he reigned was historic.
What has befallen him since is of a scale just as large.
There is no precedent for this.
We have never witnessed a fall — a fall from greatness and grace — like the one fate held for Eldrick Tont Woods.
The police mugshot from earlier this week was brutal, jarring, the picture of impairment, his eyelids heavy. The former biggest sports star on the planet had a few hours earlier been arrested for DUI, found asleep at the wheel of his still-running, newly damaged 2015 black Mercedes-Benz. Both left tires were blown out. The right blinker was on. It was roughly 2:30 a.m. in Jupiter, Fla., an upscale, oceanside suburb north of West Palm Beach. Tiger Woods spent 3 1/2 hours in jail before being released on his own recognizance and now awaits a July 5 Palm Beach County court hearing.
What seems a lifetime ago, this was the blade in the blood-red shirt tearing up Sundays on the PGA Tour, winning 14 majors by age 32, seemingly a cinch to break Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18. No athlete in America was more popular, and maybe more important. Tiger brought color to a sport nearly as white as that dimpled ball on the tee. There was nothing like him.
“I would like to apologize with all my heart,” he wrote this week, on his website. “I expect more from myself, too.”
The DUI charge turned out not to involve alcohol; the Breathalyzer test for that showed a 0.00 reading. It was a mix of prescription medication in his system that knocked him out, including Vicodin, the opioid painkiller. He called it an “unexpected reaction to prescribed medications” related to career-derailing back surgeries, the fourth of which was just last month.
The explanation hardly lessened the scandal, though. Impaired is impaired. But for luck he could have killed himself, or others, earlier this week. Questions are left floating...
What was he doing out in that condition at that hour?
He said just a week earlier his back hadn’t felt this good “in years.” So why was he still taking Vicodin? Has Woods become addicted to painkillers?
Will he ever win again? Ever play again?
“People have written me off,” he said in an interview late last year.
That number of people keeps growing.
Tiger has not played in a full PGA Tour event in 22 months, and says he won’t the remainder of 2017. He has sporadically appeared in only 19 tournaments with zero top 10s since his first back surgery in March 2014.
His number of majors has been frozen at 14 since the summer of 2008, with that year’s U.S. Open looking more and more like his last hurrah.
It would be just more than a year later, Thanksgiving night 2009, of course, when his whole life would begin to unravel before our eyes. When this most private man would see his serial infidelity splashed out tabloid-style. An ugly divorce. A confession to sex addiction. Rehab.
Celebrated to scandalized, overnight. Woods’ finely manicured public image took a hit from which it would not recover. The major wins stopped. The back problems started. Age encroached. Younger stars emerged. Comebacks were aborted. Today, at age 41, even if healthy, he would be at that awkward age in pro golf, past his physical prime, but still years from the safety net that comes with the Champions (nee senior) Tour once you hit 50.
No-man’s land is where Tiger finds himself. He is mired in the midst of a long, sad goodbye. A slow fade.
Have we ever seen a star of his magnitude fall so far? No. O.J. Simpson comes to mind. He went from All-America football hero to accused double murderer. But he was 15 years removed from the NFL when that sensational “trial of the century” happened in 1994-95. Woods was active. Still is. We have seen him wither on the vine.
Do you feel bad for Tiger?
Empathy comes hard for some. From the infidelity scandal to this week’s damning police mugshot, he has only himself to blame for the battering of his once-good name. But that just makes him human. When he was that invincible superman in the blood-red shirt all those years, we just hadn’t seen the frailty yet. Maybe his father dying in 2006 led to a crumbling.
“We all have our dark places,” as fellow golfer Bubba Watson told GolfDigest.com. “Tiger is human, which everyone seems to forget.”
He has been an easy target on social media this week. People can be mean, but I don’t see that his frailties merit laughter, or scorn.
I hope he is able to climb from his dark place, personally and professionally.
Part of that is that I root for good stories, and a now-unexpected career comeback by Woods would be one of the greatest we have ever seen. He was the world’s No. 1 golfer for a record 683 weeks. Today his official ranking is 876th.
So, yes, I imagine it, and I wish for it, one more time...
It is a Sunday afternoon in a major tournament as the final group walks up the 18th fairway toward the green, and the ovation from the bleachers and from beyond the ropes swells with every step he takes.
They are cheering for the man in the blood-red shirt.