World Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey eloquently and accurately described the mentality and psyche that creates boxing greats; ‘A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.’ There’s something of that doggedness and perseverance in the current trials and tribulations of Tiger Woods.
From 1997 to 2008, he won 14 majors. Tiger at the height of his powers was unplayable, no one could get near him. I’ve been a Tiger fan since he exploded on to the scene. I always loved his attitude. People said he was arrogant, I recognised the supreme competitor. When he broke through, he immediately transcended his sport, what Ali was to boxing, Pele to football, Tiger was to golf.
When the wheels came off in 2009, in typical Tiger fashion, everything dismantled in spectacular style. It transpired that Tiger’s ferocious appetite for golf was matched with an equally insatiable appetite for hookers and porn stars.
The fall from grace was even more dramatic because he was marketed as a global icon, an African American sporting superstar but also a family man, with good old fashioned values, a household name around the world. There was a great deal of schadenfreude in seeing it all go wrong for Tiger. The fall from grace was cinematic.
Even at his lowest, when sponsors abandoned him and he had to take time out, I still believed in him. I wanted him to come back better and stronger. His explosive game relied so much on upper body strength and power propelling club head speed to gain more distance. The knee surgery was a constant throughout his prime but the back surgery has hit him hard. Back surgery to any elite athlete is always problematic due to how debilitating it can be.
I was the same with Mike Tyson when his career got a tad chaotic. There are parallels between the two. Tyson and Woods have a great appreciation of the knowledge and history of their sport and its old champions, the greats who have gone before them and graced boxing and golf. Despite actions that would suggest otherwise, they are respectful of their forefathers while being ferocious in the sporting battlefield.
Both went off the rails when their respective role models died. Tiger’s father Earl died in 2006. Tyson’s coach Cus D’Amato died in 1985. D’Amato took Tyson under his wing and adopted him after Tyson’s mother died. Sometimes at that level, when fame and power turns heads, a gentle reminder from someone close can keep you on track.
What I also loved about Tiger Woods, apart from the Tiger phenomenon, was his actual golfing ability. His putting at one point, if he was within 12 feet, the ball found the hole, his bunker and iron escapes were dazzling. Not only could he play but his attitude was uncompromising. He was never prone to outbursts of humility. He was never subservient or reverential on the course, due to his unshakeable desire to be the ultimate competitor. Again, sometimes this was viewed as arrogance. I saw it as part of the psyche of a true champion and a winner.
He has approached rebuilding his game with characteristic refusal to accept that another major is beyond him. As he tries to navigate back to the centre and the top of his sport I respect him even more. I’ve been impressed as I watched Tiger’s approach and attitude as he heads into this week’s Open from 207th position in the world rankings. All in front of an unforgiving media. Tiger 2015 has manned up. He’s accepted he’s struggling to get it right and has never hidden. He smiles more and genuinely seems to be in a good place.
With athletes, like Tiger and sports like golf, you can never say never. All you need is that one part of your game to come right. At that level it’s all about feel. If he gets it together he could do well.
Woods flew overnight from Florida and has already played the St Andrews this morning (Saturday July 11). He was surprised at how green and slow it was. The balls were plugging. He was expecting it to be dry, hard and fast. Sorry Tiger; this that’s Fife.
Keen golf followers will have noticed that his opponents who see him on the range and see the work he’s putting in to get back are definitely not writing him off.
A few weeks ago at Chambers Bay in the US Open, Woods missed the cut after opening with an 80. Yet last week at The Greenbrier he closed with a 67, having not dropped a shot. His opponents will be watching with interest because if he does click he could be in amongst it.
It’s a long road back for Tiger but he’s only 39. Progress would be making the cut at St Andrews and shooting a respectable score that would see him in the mix for the final day. However Tiger will tee off still thinking he can put together a score that will win it. All we need is his mind, his body and his game to have a good weekend. The beauty of golf is none of us know. He could shoot an 80 and miss the cut or shoot a 67 and shut everyone up.
It’s estimated that Tiger has made $1.3b thus far in his career. He doesn’t need to do this; he’s a champion, he just has to.