For three years or so, I’ve been a Tiger Woods skeptic. In the larger picture, this has not changed. I still do not think Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’ record for most major championships. I still do not think Woods will ever resemble, for extended stretches of time, the impossibly great golfer who won four major championships in a row or the unprecedented golf artist who won six major championships and finished second four other times between the Masters in 2005 and the one-leg U.S. Open in 2008. I think people in golf -- like people in baseball and football and all other sports -- tend to underestimate the erosion of the years. Woods turns 37 in December, his knees are reconstructed, his confidence has taken a beating. When people compare Tiger Woods to his younger self, Nick Faldo inevitably says: “He was a different guy then.” That seems true to me.
All that said: On Sunday, Tiger was Tiger again. I don’t just mean that because he won the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus’ tournament in Dublin, Ohio. Woods won in Orlando earlier this year; he will win tournaments. I don’t just mean that because he hit a near-impossible chip-in that Jack Nicklaus himself called the greatest shot he’d ever seen (it wasn’t clear if Jack meant it was the greatest shot he’d ever seen at the Memorial or in his whole life, but it doesn’t really matter; Jack doesn’t get gooey-eyed very often). Woods has hit a lot of impossibly great shots over the last three years; his ability to make magic on the golf course has never really gone away. I don’t even just mean that Tiger had what golf announcers call “the look,” that now-famous mode where he stalks every putt and stares down every approach shot and seems to go to that place within himself that allows him to remove all doubts.
No, what made Sunday different was that, for the first time since he came back, everybody else seemed to realize the inevitability of it all. This, I always thought, was what made Tiger Woods so remarkable. I believe it was first said about Jack Nicklaus: He knew he was going to win, the other golfers knew he was going to win AND he knew they knew he was going to win. Woods took that to a higher plane. I’ve thought often about the story a friend told me about Julius Erving in college. The Doctor was playing in a summer game, and there was another big college star playing. Erving got the ball on the break, this other player ran back to defend, and they both went up at precisely the same time. They both reached the same height at precisely the same time. And in this split second, Erving was looking to dunk, the other player was looking to block the shot, they were two great athletes in the prime of their athletic lives, in the blush of their youth …
And then, Julius Erving kept going up. And the other player started going down. And after Erving dunked the ball, there was no doubt in either of their minds who would become one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived and who would not.
That’s how Tiger Woods was -- nobody had any doubt how the story would end. Some people called it intimidation, and maybe there was some of that. Some people attributed it to nerves and sturdiness under pressure, and maybe there was some of that too. But I always thought there was a yielding to inevitability too. Tiger Woods was better. He was more focused. He was more confident. He was going to keep going up. He was going win. Tiger Woods and the other guy -- whoever the other guy happened to be -- were both going to bow to destiny.
That sense of destiny went away for all those reasons mentioned -- particularly age -- but on Sunday it returned. Yes, this time fate discouraged somewhat lesser lights like Rory Sabbatini and Spencer Levin, but the point remains. The Memorial golf course was tough -- it had a major championship kind of feel. The wind was blowing. Certain holes were all but unplayable. And Tiger Woods was the machine of old. He was not perfect. He pulled an approach shot or two. He missed a putt or two. Maybe that was age and the years. Maybe we forget that the young Tiger Woods missed shots too. Mostly, though, he was perfect. Time after time, he hit his drive and then did not even watch it -- that’s how straight he was hitting it. Time after time, he hit approach shots to precisely the right spot on the green.
The 16th hole was one of the impossible ones -- because of the wind and what I gather, reading between the lines from the CBS announcing crew, was a Mickey Mouse pin placement. Nobody could stop the ball on that green or get the ball anywhere close to the flag. Everybody was hitting the ball in the right bunker, or in the bunker behind the flag, or over the green itself. Tiger did the last of these. At the time, he was one shot behind Sabbatini, who might have been six shots ahead had he made a few putts.* Tiger was one shot ahead of Levin, who had started the day with the lead and had melted.
*Of course, this is ALWAYS true, and the very thing golfers say -- “If only I’d made a few putts.”
When Woods stepped to the tee at 16, I waited for something miraculous. I was totally caught up in his day. There is nothing quite like watching a golf tournament where Tiger Woods is engaged and locked in. And there is also nothing like watching a champion regain a few moments of youth. I remember when Tom Watson won at Colonial at age 48, the way he handled the wind and rain like the kid who owned the British Open, and though Woods is still a long way off from 48 years old, well, he has aged a whole lot over the last few years. He has looked old. This was Tiger as we remembered him, and on that tee I absolutely expected him to hit a shot that somehow, against all laws of physics, stopped near the flagstick. When he hit it over the green, I have to admit to being a bit shocked and saddened. I really thought he was going to come up with something magnificent. I really thought he was going to win.
When he followed that up with the flop shot that left Jack Nicklaus breathless, I thought: Oh, THAT’S how he will win this tournament.
He did win -- his 73rd PGA Tour victory, tying him with Nicklaus for second on the alltime list -- and immediately he became the betting favorite to win the U.S. Open, and announcers talked about him being back, and people on Twitter and talk radio, as well as many analysts, used such words. I don’t think he’s back. I don’t think time moves in that direction. I think he will have some magical weeks like this one, and some lousy weeks like the previous three, and the latter will take up more and more of his time as he ages. I think that’s reality, and I’ve believed that for quite a long time.
BUT … that’s not what I’m hoping. I never root for reality. I never root for myself to be right. I root for the story. I’m hoping that Tiger Woods can be this kind of player again at the U.S. Open at Olympic, be this kind of player again at the British Open and the PGA Championship and the Masters and for the next five years. When Tiger plays like this, the tournaments are thrilling. The other golfers have to be better. A sense of history lingers. Rooting for Tiger, rooting against Tiger, anticipating a spellbinding Tiger Woods moment, this is what turned golf into a major television sport. The sports world is more fun when Tiger Woods is playing brilliantly. I don’t think anyone knows how long it will last, or when it will pop up again.
But it was fun this week. When Woods walked off the 18th green, Nicklaus told him something about how great that shot was at 16. Woods broke into a smile and said, “Not bad, huh?” No. Not bad at all.