News & Opinion

Woods evolves from winner to winsome

Tiger Woods was smiling. Grinning, actually, which used to never happen in front of the media. In the old days, even in victory, the greatest player of his generation – maybe the greatest ever – could manage only a smug smirk, and that often was reserved for a question that he liked. Otherwise, he always appeared absolutely grim, even a little angry, as he completed what he considered a pain-in-the-ass obligation.

Sunday afternoon, after winning the Masters for the fifth time – and first since 2005 – Woods appeared to be genuinely joyful. And who wouldn’t be after climbing out of the abyss and back to the mountaintop?

Woods had been taught for years by his late father, Earl, never to show any kind of emotion or vulnerability that his competitors could see. It was a sign of weakness for anyone to know if Woods was happy or hurting. Earl preached never to give any competitor a mental advantage.

Make no mistake: Tiger Woods is different now. He seems to truly appreciate the overwhelming outpouring of support that golf fans still freely send his way. When he won the Tour Championship in September, the crowd that surrounded the 18th green at East Lake on Sunday, with Woods smack in the middle of it, was a scene without compare.

It was much the same at the Masters. Players on different parts of the course easily could tell the difference between a regular roar and a Tiger roar. Lots of golf fans still love Tiger, no matter what. And lots of them hate him, no matter what. Nothing will change the mind of either side.

But no matter how you feel about him, you can’t deny the accomplishment. To win the Masters at age 43, after four back operations and a longtime battle with addiction – which no one seems to want to talk about – is not only a comeback story but a tale of redemption.

Two short years ago, police in Jupiter, Fla., found Woods passed out in his car at 2 a.m., under the influence of painkillers Vicodin and Dilaudid, anxiety drug Xanax, sleep-disorder drug Ambien, and THC, the intoxicating ingredient in marijuana. He was arrested under suspicion of DUI and later entered a plea agreement that allowed him to plead guilty to reckless driving and avoid the DUI charge. He subsequently entered what he called an “intensive” drug-treatment program.

The arrest and back surgeries prompted many observers, including a number of players, writers and broadcasters, to declare that Woods was done.

The golf media never will ask him about his experience in treatment and how it might have changed him and his perspective. One prominent golf writer tweeted during Masters week, “I don’t care about his personal life. I just write about golf.”

But people who come out of treatment, especially those who participate in their own recovery, have an altered sense of what life means to them. Woods seemed happier and was a willing assistant captain for Jim Furyk at the 2018 Ryder Cup, a position to which practically no one would have predicted that he’d humble himself. Can you imagine Justin Thomas or Rickie Fowler or Dustin Johnson asking Woods for a sandwich and a couple of extra towels?

Give a great deal of credit to Notah Begay III, a former PGA Tour player and Stanford teammate who is Woods’ best friend and has his own experiences with addiction. Begay, who is also a Golf Channel broadcaster, was a constant presence by Woods’ side during the worst of times. Begay was asked during Masters week what was the most radical change to Woods, and he replied, “The man he has become.”

Woods could be surly, reclusive and entitled. Can you imagine 15 years ago that any other player on the PGA Tour would wait around to congratulate Woods after a major-championship victory? But there was practically a receiving line outside the scoring area at Augusta National on Sunday afternoon: former Masters champions Zach Johnson, Bernhard Langer, Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Mike Weir, plus Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas, among others.

Although Woods is no longer feared by the young players on the PGA Tour, he is now admired, not only for his golf but for what he has overcome, physically and personally. Woods has been given a gift, not only to have his golf to return but to have his life back.

It was important to him that his children, daughter Sam, 11, and son Charlie, 10, were present behind the 18th green to give their father a huge hug after his victory. Woods hoped that they would remember the day for the rest of their lives, to see their father win a major championship. But you can't help but wonder whether Sam and Charlie would think the fifth green jacket is as important as having a clean and sober father who is active in their lives.

Still, most people will measure Woods’ comeback by his 15th major championship.

“It's got to be right up there, right, with all the things that I've battled through,” Woods said. “Just was able to be lucky enough and fortunate enough to be able to do this again. It's ironic that I'm given a chance to play golf again…”

Not just ironic. Some would call it a miracle.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf