A long time ago, back when I was in graduate school in Florida, former INXS front man Michael Hutchence and then Florida Governor Lawton Chiles died in the same week, both seemingly out of nowhere. I happened to be a big, longtime fan of both, for different reasons of course. And this was back when it was still okay to admire a politician without it being almost obscene. And I remember writing for the University of Florida newspaper that as hard as it is to watch your heroes grow old, it’s even harder to watch them die too young.
Perhaps that should be the guiding ethos for fans of the golfer Tiger Woods, who this week held his first public media event since a truly horrifying, high-speed, single car accident on a winding road outside of Los Angeles in February. That accident left him hospitalized for months, where Woods estimated he had about a 50/50 shot of losing his right leg. And yet, after moving from hospital bed to wheelchair to rehab to swinging a golf club again, it’s clear that at 46, Tiger Woods will never be the athlete he once was, nor even the one he was assumed to be at this age, something that’s probably a tough pill for his greatest supporters who once knew he’d overtake Jack Nicklaus’ record for most majors. But, and this is the key, it could have been much, much worse.
This is by no means Tiger’s first traumatic moment. The first came when he crashed his car in his own driveway after an argument with his now ex-wife, the moment when his previously God-like persona came crashing down in stories of infidelity and possible drug abuse. It was the first moment when it became clear that the Tiger we thought we knew may not have been the Tiger that was – and to be fair, no one could be the Tiger we imagined, a social construction of commerce and perfection. But even when he returned, he then struggled with multiple knee and back injuries and started having more surgeries than tournament wins. Even with his remarkable Master’s championship in 2019, at that was something, I think even the most optimistic fan realized that Tiger’s long moment as the greatest golfer in the world had passed, a confluence of age, wear, and injury, and the Tiger other golfers once feared was now another part of American sports mythology – kind of like what we’ve been expecting about Tom Brady for the last decade.
As we look at Tiger Woods now, someone who is understandably a physical shadow of his former self, it seems to be a moment for everyone to consider who Tiger was and is, and what he’s meant to both the sport and the greater world around it. Life threatening experiences tend to lead to that analysis. Meaning, if you truly believe, like I do, that Tiger Wood will never again be an elite golfer in large part due to a series of highly traumatic events, including one that nearly cost him his life, what can we say about Tiger Woods – other than the fact that we’re happy that he’s alive and doing well.
In some ways, Tiger was always something of a Rorschach Test for the American public – meaning we all saw what we wanted to see in Tiger. Many, if not most saw a trailblazer for diversity and representation in a historically while and inaccessible sport. Others saw perhaps the fiercest competitor in sports history not named Michael Jordan. Some people saw a spoiled and privileged fraud who wasn’t the role model he seemed to be. And later, people often saw a somewhat tortured and tragically flawed athlete whose body simply couldn’t meet the demands of his or our expectations.
In the end, all of these are correct, at least to some degree. Which leads us to today, when we try to make sense of who Tiger is, a middle-aged father with kids, two bad knees and a bad back, a guy who used to be the best that ever was in golf and now is considering playing up on the blue tees. He’s no longer the vessel of our greatest dreams nor the exemplar of excellence, but rather a guy who’s had ups and downs and seems finally content in what lies ahead, something I doubt he could have said 10 or 20 years ago. And for Tiger Fans, you fortunately still have the wonderful opportunity to watch your hero grow old.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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