News & Opinion

When Tiger's life veered off course

10 years ago this week, Tiger Woods drove into a fire hydrant near his home, beginning a public unraveling of a life too good to be true

Two weeks after his historic loss to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship, Tiger Woods was beaten again by another unlikely giant-slayer, as Heath Slocum holed a 20-footer for par on Liberty National’s 18th green to win the first leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs. Of the four men to finish a shot behind Slocum, Woods had the best chance to force a playoff or win in regulation, but his 7-footer for birdie at the 18th failed to fall.

If the PGA was monumental because it marked the first time Woods had squandered a 54-hole lead at a major championship, the scene at Liberty National was quite different. While everyone gathered in the media center to hear from Slocum, I hustled to the locker room in search of Woods. He walked in about a minute later and acknowledged my presence with the usual sarcastic, profane greeting, which was a good sign. If the loss had broken him up, Woods would have blown past me without a word.

2013 The Northwestern Mutual World Challenge :  Second Round
Tiger Woods' darkest hour began in the early morning of Nov. 27, 2009.

We didn’t speak for long; Woods’ body language indicated he was in a hurry. At one point, he pulled his cellphone out of a small pouch and began typing, which I’d never seen him do. He was courteous but short with his answers, which wasn’t unusual after a defeat, but if there was one thing I took away from the five-minute conversation, it was how distracted Woods seemed.

It all made perfect sense a few months later, when a chronological sequence of Woods’ text messages in the summer/fall of 2009 was published by the New York Post, among other media outlets. The world’s finest golfer had places to go and people to see, and in due time, those people would betray Woods and trigger a public humiliation like few we’ve ever witnessed.

Along with injuries and other personal issues, the scandal would derail Woods’ career to the point where it took him until the opposite end of the next decade to restore it.

Ten years ago on Nov. 27, the man with a stunning Scandinavian wife, two young kids and a seemingly unobstructed path to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles was laid bare, soon to be exposed as a victim of his own excesses. Fame may not be recognized as a drug by the chemists, but Woods’ adulterous rampage made it clear that a loss of perspective and the trap doors of celebritydom could wreck one’s life as effectively as illicit substances, prescription pills or alcohol.

Although reports of Woods’ infidelity had surfaced in the supermarket tabloids before November ’09, the ragsheet factor hardly dented his impeccable image. What the adoring public didn’t know couldn’t hurt Eldrick Almighty. That all changed on Thanksgiving night, when a suspicious Elin Nordegren began investigating the matter by scrolling through her husband’s cellphone activity.

The confrontation that followed turned Woods’ world upside-down. Still groggy from an Ambien-induced nap, he left his house in Windermere, Fla., hopped into his Cadillac SUV and struck a nearby fire hydrant and tree. Police summoned to the scene found him fading in and out of unconscious in the street. His wife had busted out both backseat windows with a golf club, a fitting metaphor to the shattered marriage and 13 years of immense commercial appeal left in countless pieces on the cutting-room floor.

Other than the traffic violations resulting from his foray down the driveway, Woods broke no laws. His transgressions landed exclusively in the category of moral behavior, costing him millions upon millions in endorsement income and landing him on the cover of the New York Post for a record 20 consecutive days – one more than the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The sordid sexual revelations would last well into 2010, however, turning one of the planet’s most famous sportsmen into a human piñata.

Woods paid a very high price for his extramarital dalliances. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was involved in a double homicide in early 2000, then negotiated a plea in which his testimony led to the dismissal of murder charges and a misdemeanor conviction for obstruction of justice. Lewis was never suspended for even a single game by the NFL. When the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV a year later and the linebacker was named the game’s MVP, the reconstruction of Lewis’ image was well underway.

Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault in 2003 by a Colorado hotel employee. Although she declined to testify in the case after filing a complaint, the ensuing civil suit and out-of-court settlement left little doubt as to Bryant’s moral conduct that evening. It didn’t take long for the public to re-embrace the Los Angeles Lakers star, who reclaimed several of his primary endorsement deals en route to his fourth and fifth NBA titles.

And so it should come as no surprise that Eldrick T. Woods, a serial adulterer who owned 14 major titles at the time, was largely (and rather quickly) pardoned for his egregious breach of morality.

Everybody loves a winner, and when that champion graduates to indisputable superstar, such love becomes unconditional. A pair of rose-colored glasses doubles as a blemish repellent, but many of those unwilling to dabble in such eyewear are still highly receptive to a great comeback story.

“I don’t care what kind of person he is,” an old friend used to tell me. “I just love watching him play and appreciate his greatness as a golfer. That is the extent of my feelings about him.”

With the exception of 2013, when he won five times, Woods was gone for so long that he made the forgive-and-forget factor a lot more feasible. Attempts to revive his career in 2010-11 and 2014-15 didn’t generate nearly the giddiness and public support that quickly came to fruition in 2018. Why? Because Woods looked like a shell of his former self on the first two tries.

I am firmly of the belief that in the summer of 2017, while bedridden after his most recent back surgery, Woods reached deep for some introspection and wound up having a serious chat with reality. During this come-to-Jesus talk with himself, Woods promised to become more sociable and appreciative if given the chance to compete again in a fully healthy state. That wish was granted. And without question, Woods returned as a refined man, upholding his end of the bargain in splendid style while retaining enough of the old Tiger to claim a 15th major.

It didn’t seem all that possible all that long ago. My guess is that the guy will celebrate Thanksgiving 2019 with a far different outlook on life than the one he dragged into Turkey Day 10 years ago.

This time, nobody needs a pair of rose-colored glasses to figure that he’s very, very thankful.

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