Tiger Woods’ victory on Sunday at the Augusta National was one of those moments. One of the most successful golfers of all time returned to his winning perch after over a decade of deeply troubled times – physiological and psychological. All manner of demons – personal, emotional and physical had to be conquered.
Only people devoid of imperfection or those blissfully unaware of their own flaws would fail to grasp the mystical significance of Woods’ fifth Masters win – his 15th major title in all (second only to Jack Nicklaus’s record 19 in the golfing annals).
It was secured 11 years since Woods’ last win in a major tournament. There was a touch of the Cyril Ramaphosa about it. When South Africa’s President learnt of his own monumental victory at the ANC national conference at Nasrec in December 2017, I found myself by chance close to the front of the stage at precisely the moment the good news clearly reached him via his cellphone. He looked up and just before he closed them and spread his arms wide and his hands upwards as if to some greater political force, I looked into Ramaphosa’s eyes and what I saw was a combination of relief, disbelief and unburdening joy.
I did not need to be in the Southern US State of Georgia on Sunday to know that Tiger was experiencing a similar sense of euphoria and redemption after a protracted and infamous period in his life and career.
Ramaphosa had had to endure and somehow survive his proximity to Jacob Zuma as well as the many and various brickbats thrown by Zuma’s proxies and placemen and women. His reputation was severely endangered in the process.
Woods’ own reputation was greatly tarnished by the 2009 revelations of his addiction to sex and his many sexual infidelities and infelicities with a long list of women. It was a huge scandal. Woods divorced after his wife left him and was compelled to take time out from the game to receive treatment for his condition.
So Sunday was a moment to savour as a golfer (albeit in my case a desperately erratic one); as a lover of epic sporting narratives; as a father; but even more so, as a member of this confounding species known as the human race and in fact for anyone who has encountered adversity or had to contend with the consequences of their own human fragility and flaws.
Golf is not an easy game to play. To win any major championships, especially the Masters, requires extraordinary skill and mental strength, particularly when the leader board is so congested and so cluttered with such an eminent crop of the finest exponents of the game.
For Tiger to win it when even a year ago there were doubts about whether chronic problems with his back and knee – parts of his anatomy that had finally succumbed to decades of extraordinary high-torque pressure – would permit him to ever play golf again let alone compete for a major championship.
In the 12 years from his first major win at the Masters in 1997, to his last major victory at the US Open in 2006, he dominated the sport, winning 14 of the 46 majors during that period – an extraordinary, almost unprecedented ratio of success.
Around the turn of the century, he was unbeatable, winning four majors in a row – every Sunday seemed to end with Woods’ famous last-round red Nike shirt marching up the final fairway. It became boring, partly at least because he seemed as much of a one-dimensional a machine as tennis champions such as Pete Sampras, a Bjorn Borg or a Roger Federer. He was no Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe or Boris Becker – all of them “fully paid-up members of the human race” (to borrow one line from a eulogy of former British liberal party leader, Charles Kennedy, who was known to take a drink or two).
Little, however, did we know. It probably doesn’t require a degree in psychology to recognise that the fierce ambition of Woods’ father, who groomed his son to be a champion golfer from the age of two, suppressed Tiger’s natural human instincts.
As a result of the father-son duo’s pursuit of the perfect golf swing, Woods may well have “missed out on his childhood” to coin a cliché. In his glorious pomp, he was always courteous and immaculately attired, and so Woods was regarded as a golfer of integrity and an ideal role model.
It was not an act, but he was trapped by the unrelenting responsibility that had been thrust upon him and by his father’s incessant high expectations as well as the unremitting expectations of everyone who saw him as “the perfect champion”. But clearly, still rivers ran deep, as the 2009 National Enquirer revelations suggested, prompting over a decade of chaos in personal life and a sharp decline in his golfing abilities, compounded by multiple injury problems.
On Sunday, Woods recovered his lost honour. Children Sam, 12, and Charlie, 10, were there to see it; winning in front of them will have made this the sweetest of redemptive victories.
The distraction of Woods’ own lost decade cast doubts as to his real place in golfing history. Now, however, whether he wins another major or not, Woods’ place is absolutely clear.
To don the famous Green Jacket once again was clearly a source of profound unburdening joy from which we can all draw pleasure, able to savour the moment because of its universality resonance.
It adds a dramatic and crucial extra chapter to his remarkable story and will ensure that regardless of his personal flaws or perhaps even because of them, Tiger Woods will be always be remembered for what he is: one of the greatest of all champions in any sport. DM