If you have every played Tiger Woods’ wildly successful EA Sports game you know that after a rough couple holes in match play you always have the luxury of restarting from the first tee. Say you find yourself 3 back after 4 holes vs. one of the Tiger Legends like Seve Ballesteros a simple Pause -> Quit -> Are you sure you want to quit? -> Yes and it’s like those first holes never happened. Since a bizarre driveway crash after Thanksgiving 18 months ago it seems as though real life Tiger Woods has been looking for a reset button as well. In just over a year and a half Tiger has lost his wife, several sponsors and the adulation of many fans that started following golf because of him in the first place. He has also replaced his swing coach and most recently coldly fired Steve Williams, his caddy of twelve years who was holding his bag for 72 PGA Tour wins and an astonishing 13 Major Championships. For many this most recent news is further proof that Tiger is a heartless golf robot who only cares about winning but isn’t that why we loved him so much to begin with?
Shortly after Tiger Woods’ life exploded I wrote that while his actions were despicable he is also one of the many targets of the non-stop new cycle. Each major story that comes along is dissected from thousands of people all with a public forum to speak thanks to the internet. Tiger’s modern day contemporary in terms of winning is Michael Jordan, a man who transcended basketball with a win at all costs, I dare you to bet against me attitude. Also (if you believe the stories you read) one of the biggest pr*cks the world of modern professional sports has ever known. Only with Michael his d*ckish behavior is lionized in retrospect. We now hear from former teammates and coaches about how Michael would start practice fights if things weren’t breaking his way but somehow this only builds his legend. “Michael Jordan wanted to win so badly he was willing to punch his own teammates in the face? AWESOME!” Let’s put MJ in today’s modern media and say the following situation plays out. The Bulls have a closed practice so beat writers and reporters have to wait for access after practice, strangely neither Michael nor Teammate X are present after practice for the media session. An ambitious young reporter is wondering why and catches wind of a practice fight where the world’s greatest basketball player has punched another teammate in the face. This reporter sends out a tweet with the story, it’s immediately retweeted by Ric Bucher, Adrian Wojnarowksi and Marc Stein. Suddenly tornado horns are sounding at ESPN's campus that MJ punched his own teammate. The next morning Skip Bayless’ head explodes on First Take and a horrified Scoop Jackson is covered in brain matter. This is the media world in which we live, everything is consumed and opined upon without stopping to think what any of it actually may mean.
We propped Tiger Woods up on Golf’s Mt. Rushmore for his achievements on the course. Never in his career was he the warm and fuzzy golfer Rick Reilly wishes he would be. He’s not there to sign autographs and take pictures with his millions of fans; he is there to win. He is not there to rub shoulders with Golf Channel reporters and schmooze corporate partners; he is there to win. He is not there to make best friends with his competitors; he is there to destroy them. All of this was fine with us until his Escalade hit the fire hydrant and his life unraveled in an exceptionally public way. Getting a glimpse behind the very private curtain Tiger hid behind has changed him forever, suddenly him not signing autographs was just further proof we was an adulterous jerk. His refusal to talk to the press about anything in regards to the scandal meant he still wasn’t sorry and he thought normal rules didn’t apply to him. Pulling out of a tournament after a +6 on the front 9 made him a sore loser not a guy with a sore achilles. We did a great job of keeping Tiger Woods the man and Tiger Woods the golfer mutually exclusive before 2009. The only glimpse of true emotion we ever saw from Tiger was him crying in Steve Williams’ arms after his first major championship since his Dad had passed away.
The scandal humanized the Golf robot sent to destroy all comers, now we know something about Tiger and that has changed everything. When he was winning major championships what separated him from everyone else was his steely resolve and mental toughness. We never knew what he was thinking but assumed it was nothing but the ball going into the hole. Now we see him and think about the escalade, the women and his bizarre “press conference” in which he just read for 10 minutes without really saying anything. Before it was just golf, golf and more golf. So when the news broke that Steve Williams had been kicked to the curb it had to be psychoanalyzed by everyone. Was this another step towards his slow unraveling as a golfer? Is he looking to change everything about his past and the people involved with it? Was he pissed Stevie was on Adam Scott’s bag at the British?
Is it too crazy to think that a guy who has had 4 operations on the same knee and who’s golf swing could be described as violent may be looking to reinvent his game? That seems to be one key element many have glossed over since Wednesday. Tiger hasn’t won a major since the surreal one legged US Open Playoff vs. Rocco Mediate. He hasn’t won period since the 2009 BMW Invitational and he’s looked terrible (by his standards) for stretches since he came back. Tiger set out with a vision of 18+ majors, the goal has always been to pass Jack Nicklaus and be crowned the greatest of all time. He’s 4 away from tying him but Father Time has landed his first couple of haymakers on Tiger. Woods turns 36 in December and golf history tells us that most Major winning comes before that. Nicklaus won his final four majors after he turned 36, Tiger will have to pass that number to achieve his goal. If Woods is going to get there he is going to have to take a different road than the one that got him his first 14. He can no longer rely on his ability to overpower his opponents with his ferocious swing and precision short game nor can he expect the field to buckle because the leaderboard has the name “Woods” at the top. The PGA field is younger and deeper than perhaps ever which means stiffer competition will stand in his way as he's trying to catch Jack.
It’s a different world personally and professionally for Tiger Woods. It’s hard to think of any athlete that has had an 18 month stretch in his career like Tiger just went through. All of it was self-imposed but if he’s going to turn it around that will be on his own too. Firing Steve Williams was another step in what Tiger hopes will make him a championship golfer again. Maybe he has finally made it through the reset menu in his professional career and finds himself on the first tee of the next phase. The key thing to remember is everything he’s done in regards to his professional life is to help him to get back to winning. So don’t cry for Stevie Williams and the millions of dollars he made carrying Tiger’s bag, realize the reason this looks cold blooded is because it is and that why we all loved Tiger to begin with.