As 2018 Masters Begins, Talking Tiger Woods With His ‘Tail’

Bob Smiley followed Tiger in '08, when Woods last won a major. Can golfer win again?

April 5, 2018 5:00 am
Tiger Woods birdies the 18th hole and celebrates to send it to a playoff round against Rocco Mediate (not pictured) during the final round of the US Open Championship at Torrey Pines South Golf Course in San Diego, CA. (Charles Baus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tiger Woods birdies the 18th hole and celebrates to send it to a playoff round against Rocco Mediate (not pictured) during the final round of the US Open Championship at Torrey Pines South Golf Course in San Diego, CA. (Charles Baus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bob Smiley followed Tiger Woods for the 2008 entire season, hole by hole. The result was the book Follow the Roar: Tailing Tiger for All 604 Holes of His Most Spectacular Season. It concluded with Tiger’s legendary U.S. Open playoff victory, when he overcame a shredded knee to defeat Rocco Mediate and pick up his 14th major.

At the time, Woods seemed unbeatable—again, he refused to be defeated even as he spotted his opponent a leg—but he was about to hit a cold streak of epic proportions.

In 2009, Tiger’s public image imploded when his serial adultery hit the media. His transgressions received maximum coverage thanks to crashing his car on Thanksgiving and trying to spin his shattered marriage as his wife’s attempted rescue by smashing his window with a golf club. (In fact, there had been an argument triggered by her discovering texts from one of his mistresses.) The clean-cut superstar who had been arguably the world’s most desired product endorser suddenly developed a toxic public image.

He wasn’t the same old Woods on the course, either. The man who seemed certain to shatter the Jack Nicklaus record of 18 majors hasn’t won any since that U.S. Open. In 2009, his air of invincibility on the course evaporated when Y.E. Yang chased him down at the PGA Championship. (Tiger had previously been 14-0 at majors when he entered the final round with a share of the lead.)

Tiger’s life and career have been messy enough that a recap of recent low points has to be extended when Smiley notes, “We haven’t discussed his DUI arrest yet.”

Yet fans never lost faith in Tiger, even as his appearances on the golf course became increasingly rare and his performances troublingly erratic. A sense remained it’s all a matter of time, even as he crossed over into his 40s.

Smiley has been wary of Tiger’s comebacks. At least, he has been until now. For the first time, he feels we may see much of Tiger’s former form at the Masters: “I’d be surprised if he didn’t finish in the top 10.”

2008 Tiger

“He was a killer out there,” Smiley says of Tiger at his peak. Indeed, he seemed almost alien amongst his competitors. Obviously golfers with African-American fathers and Thai mothers were exceedingly rare in the PGA back then (just as they are now), but what really set him apart was his intensity. Smiley believes Woods brought a focus found in other high-level athletes, but never in golfers. Suddenly, Michel Jordan was on the greens and it was electrifying.

So you have an absurdly competitive man—Smiley recalls the one flaw Tiger displayed in public at this point was his temper, as he regularly grew enraged and cursed—who doesn’t look like everyone else on the course. It would be easy to see fans rejecting such a figure.

Instead, they embraced him completely.

“People loved Tiger,” Smiley remembers. “They were delighted by his cursing. They would be whispering among themselves: ‘Did you hear what profanity Tiger used?’ If he threw out his water bottle, people pulled it from the trash and kept it.”

Smiley believes Tiger’s popularity was best displayed before his playoff against Mediate.

“Rocco Mediate is one of the nicest guys in golf,” Smiley says—Mediate is particularly known for his warm interactions with fans. Yet this didn’t matter: “Everyone was rooting for Tiger.”

On the course, it was complete adoration and very often victory. It was easy to assume the rest of Tiger’s existence was equally perfect.

Then we saw far more of his private life than he ever intended to reveal and he largely vanished from golf.

Tiger Today

For Smiley, there was a troubling refrain during each of Tiger’s previous comebacks: “People would always talk about how complicated his swing had become.” This is a serious limitation for any golfer hoping to reach a championship level—you’re unlikely to put on a dominant performance when you can’t count on your mechanics from shot to shot.

What caused this complexity? Was Tiger overthinking everything? Or was he desperately trying to compensate for physical problems? (“We kept learning about back surgeries after he had them.”)

Quite simply, Smiley says this is the first time in a very long time Tiger has consistently displayed something approximating his old swing. Smiley believes the data reflects a return to form: “He had the fastest clubhead speed on tour all season at 129.2 miles per hour and he did it at age 42.”

He feels Tiger has a healthy motivation for the first time in years: “He wants his kids to see him being great.” (They’re now 10 and nine, meaning they weren’t even born during his prime.)

Smiley also believes fans adore the golfing great as deeply as ever. Indeed, the bond may have actually deepened during his dark times: “People are ready to forgive. They think, ‘That could have been me.’” (Granted, they probably wouldn’t have dabbled in quite as many mistresses or controlled substances, but still…) Tiger has ceased to be perfect, but now is more human and generally interesting. Smiley feels that “people are still rooting for Tiger, even though he caused many of his problems.”

But Smiley also cautions everything’s day-to-day: “No one knows with back injuries. You’re great and you wake up the next day and there’s a problem.”

Tiger’s Legacy

“He feels like an overachiever and an underachiever all at once,” Smiley says. Tiger was the man who was supposed to shatter that Nicklaus record. Now Major #18 seems very distant. Which feels particularly strange because his friend Roger Federer, playing a sport that rewards youth far more than golf does, has entered a remarkable new chapter of his career and brought his record-breaking career total for tennis majors to 20, while Tiger remains stalled at 14.

“Second most majors ever and it feels like a failure,” Smiley says.

Yet Smiley says we may be looking at his career the wrong way. Maybe racking up those 14 majors in the first place was an all-time overachievement. Look at the career of another remarkably talented golfer, Rory McIlroy. By age 23, McIlroy had become the #1 player in the world and twice won majors by a staggering eight shots. He has since married and made a frightening amount of money for someone who’s only 28.

Rory has won only two more majors, none since 2014.

“Give a 20-something an eight-figure check and see how focused he stays,” Smiley muses.

And that set Tiger apart: He was all about golf. Nothing else mattered nearly as much, whether his fortune (which is admirable) or his family (less so).

The result was 14 majors and a man who, at age 42, still seems to be struggling to learn what it means to be an adult. (There are reports he recently threatened an ex-girlfriend for violating a non-disclosure agreement over their time together.)

“Golf calls on you to be selfish,” Smiley says. “That’s both good and bad, obviously.”

Tiger Tomorrow

Golf is unique as a sport where legends can continue to play even after they’ve long since lost the ability to compete. Winning a championship grants a lifetime exemption at some events. Sponsors have the power to grant exemptions at others. Arnold Palmer won his seventh and final major in 1964, finished in the Top 10 at a major for the final time in 1977 and made the cut in a major for the last time in 1989… yet continued playing in majors until 2004. (In the Masters alone, he missed the cut his final 21 appearances.)

Then again, Jack Nicklaus won his sixth Masters at age 46. And Tom Watson came a shot from his sixth Open Championship at 59.

Which fate awaits Tiger? Shall he be the legend who thrills fans every time he steps to the tee (even though they’d rather not notice where his shot went) or will he remain a contender, the player who’s well past his prime yet remains a perpetual threat?

Smiley thinks for potentially another decade it’s the latter, particularly at the Masters: “Guys who know Augusta play well there for long times.” He also believes, if Tiger’s return sticks, he may form an even deeper connection with his fans. All his secrets have slipped out where we can see them. The invincible man has been humbled—repeatedly humbled—and they’re still by his side and filling his galleries.

“Some people say, ‘Don’t trust anyone until they walk with a limp,’” Smiley observes. He pauses and adds, “Ironically, that 2008 season ended with him limping.”

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