Keith Strudler: Humanizing Tiger Woods
Perhaps Tiger Woods isn’t that different from all of us. According to his agent Leigh Steinberg, Woods simply wants to be pain free, play with his kids, and go out in the backyard to have fun with his friends. He also said something about wanting to enjoy his boat, which probably creates some distance between us common folk. To achieve a pain free life, Woods just had back surgery, fusion surgery to be specific, to end back spasms and ongoing pain, which can be problematic for someone who makes his living twisting his body to propel a golf ball hundreds of yards at a time.
Now a singular back surgery wouldn’t be all that notable for a 41 year old golfer, although it’s not ideal. The problem is, this is Tiger Woods’ fourth back surgery. Those are NFL numbers. The first one came in 2014, then he had two more in 2015. Throughout that span, Woods has played either no golf, or what we might call mediocre golf, at least for the person once assumed to take the moniker of greatest golfer ever. This comes after winning 79 tournaments, the most ever, and 14 majors, second only to Jack Nicholas. It was long assumed Tiger would blow by Nicholas’ 18 majors to become the undisputed GOAT – greatest of all time. But now he just wants to be able play with his kids and get some time on the lake. The difference four back surgeries can make.
Tiger hasn’t announced his retirement, even if this latest procedure will cost him six months, and thus this entire golf season. Of course, you don’t have to retire from golf the way you do from other sports, like football or basketball, where the realities of team rosters force the inevitable. In golf, age is less imperative, since golf skills erode far more slowly and more gracefully. Men in their mid 40’s can still play on the PGA tour, even if not that many do. In the NBA, people in their mid 40’s are referred to as coach. And if they so desire, aging golfers can still play on the Senior Tour. Which means golfers don’t so much retire – they simply change venues.
I don’t know whether Tiger Woods has any intentions of putting for victory at age 60. It certainly shouldn’t be because he needs the money, even after his reported $750 million divorce settlement. And it seems he’s getting into golf course development, which is how Nicholas and the late Arnold Palmer spent much of their retirement years, quite lucratively I may add. Add that to the long list of companies and banks that would pay handsomely for Tiger’s canned speech on winning and redemption, and I don’t think the former number one will want for well-paying employment opportunities. Say what you want about the American economy and the erosion of our workforce, but the occupation of famous motivational speaker will never go away.
What’s interesting here isn’t that Tiger Woods may never play competitive golf again, or even if he does, that he’ll never be the guy that used win tournaments simply by showing up. It’s also not so interesting that an athlete’s body gave out. That’s just what happens, even sometimes in a sport like golf, which is supposedly the sport that people retire to, not from. What’s remarkable here is the near finality of Tiger’s fall from greatness, if not grace.
When Tiger’s life came crashing down in 2009, he went from being perhaps the nation’s most revered human – not golfer, or athlete, but perhaps human – to another entitled male athlete that had nearly as many mistresses as majors. And that’s saying something. And as with every rags to riches to rags story, we assumed we’d have our story of redemption. That’s where Tiger would win five more majors and become the best of all time. And with that would likely be a new wife, new perspective, and a storybook ending to one of the more remarkable sports stories of our time. That was central casting – just like Kobe Bryant got, and Ray Lewis got, and even Michael Phelps, although for a far lesser transgression. But instead, we’ve got four surgeries in three years and someone that looks increasingly middle aged compared to Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, who looks like he could try out for the Bachelor. We’ve got Tiger who recently ended what felt like and arranged relationship with Lindsey Vaughn and now has a new, younger girlfriend that lives several states away from him.
This is the cold reality of sport. There are no guarantees. Even for the gifted and seemingly ordained. Tiger’s tale wasn’t entirely tragic, like say Lance Armstrong. It was simply anti-climactic, a hollow feeling for a public that expects a different narrative. Tiger’s story no longer feels heroic like it once it. It feels oddly human, like all the rest of us who at some point realize our lives may not reach our expectations. Perhaps that’s just one more way Tiger Woods isn’t all that different from all of us.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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