News & Opinion

Tiger Woods faces biggest test, and it’s not about golf

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods faces his greatest challenge after a serious traffic incident Feb. 23 in California.

Rollover crash leaves Woods in serious condition, with golf a mere afterthought for a man who must defeat his toughest foe to date

This reminder is courtesy of Tiger Woods: Golf isn’t important. Life is.

It is always a shock when reality intrudes on our fantasy world of sports, whether it’s Payne Stewart, O.J. Simpson, Kobe Bryant, Steve Prefontaine, Tony Lema, terrorists and the Munich Olympics or the global pandemic that still won’t let us return to daily life as we knew it.

Real-world news and athletics seldom mix well. Tuesday was one of those days when we were jarred. That’s when we heard about Tiger Woods being in a single-car crash in the Los Angeles area. He had to be extracted from his badly smashed courtesy car, which had rolled over more than once, was rushed to a trauma center and had surgery for multiple leg injuries that were serious but not life-threatening.

We don’t know much else; we don’t know the how and why. But we know this: Tiger Woods has a new mountain to climb. It’s not the one he or we thought it would be. It has nothing to do with Jack Nicklaus and 18 major championships or Sam Snead and an 83rd PGA Tour victory.

That’s golf stuff. It’s no longer important. Life is.

Now, Woods, at age 45, has to climb a mountain to recovery and try to regain as much of his health as he can. It’s not about getting back to 100 percent of where he was. It’s about getting to 100 percent of what he can be. No one knows what that is yet.

The man had undergone a fifth back surgery two months ago, and he was fragile. Woods was hoping to get the go-ahead to start doing some light practice in preparation for April’s Masters Tournament.

This car accident changed all that. Woods’ SUV hit a median, jumped over it and into opposing lanes of traffic on a four-lane roadway, hit a tree and rolled down an embankment. From the look of things, Woods is lucky to be alive.

His next step is a one-day-at-a-time rehabilitation process that will not be played out in public. It will happen on the private island that is Tiger Woods. All those fans who swarmed behind him when he walked up the final fairway at East Lake in the 2018 Tour Championship en route to Win No. 80, or the ones who followed him like the Pied Piper down the last hole when he won the 1997 Western Open at Cog Hill surely will be pulling for Woods in spirit again, but they won’t be there in person for this comeback.

Woods has overcome injuries before to return to competitive golf and, obviously, against long odds. His most remarkable feat was coming back from a back fusion after even Woods figured that he was finished. He spoke at a Masters Champions Dinner four years ago and, according to Nick Faldo, whispered to another player there, “I’m done. I won’t play golf again.”

Two years and one back fusion later, Woods won an unlikely fifth Masters.

We don’t know the extent of Woods’ injuries or his prognosis, but we do know the measure of a man who won a U.S. Open in 2008 while playing with painful micro-fractures in his left leg, an event that stretched out to 91 holes due to a playoff.

That win was more of a medical marvel than you might recall. Woods tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the summer of 2007, while jogging during British Open week, he said. Woods kept playing but finally had surgery after the 2008 Masters to remove torn cartilage in that knee joint, a temporary fix that allowed him to return to action to play the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. If he’d had the ACL repaired, he would have missed Torrey Pines and the whole summer, and golf history would be different.

So, in other words, we know better than to put limits on what Woods can do.

In the meantime, the questions will have to wait. Will Woods be OK? How’s his back? Will he regain full mobility? Will he play golf again? Will he win another major? Is his last round of competitive golf going to be playing with his son, Charlie, in that parent-child tournament in December?

Any discussion of those questions would just be guessing without information.

This time would be better spent on prayers and support for Woods, and for stepping back to remember just how important he was to golf. He’s been the story of golf for the past 25 years or so, often seemingly the only story in the eyes of the media and the public, because he was just that good.

No one who watches golf, plays it, writes about it or even casually kind of likes it has been unaffected by Woods. It’s a fair guess to say that no player in history has had a larger percentage of his shots struck in tournaments televised. Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer played in the era when golf didn’t even come on TV until the weekend for the last three, four or five holes. In the 1980s, no golf was televised Thursdays and Fridays, and even on weekends, it still was limited to a few hours each day.

It’s no coincidence that TV coverage time exploded about the same time that Woods arrived on the PGA Tour. So did purses, thanks in large part to the ratings Woods helped deliver.

Palmer brought golf out of the dark ages into the TV age, but Woods took it to the moon and back. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, you could turn a lot of pages in a golf magazine before you got to one that didn’t include some mention of Woods.

Any half-serious golf fan has a memory of some amazing Woods clutch shot. There are too many to count. Hustling after a putt while pointing at the ball as he holed a key shot in the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla. The 200-yard 7-iron from impossibly thick rough at Pebble Beach’s sixth hole during the 2000 U.S. Open, which he won by 15. The 210-yard 6-iron shot from a fairway bunker over a lake to the final green en route to winning the 2000 Canadian Open. The putt to force the playoff at Torrey Pines in 2008. And more.

I won’t forget the first two holes he played on the PGA Tour. Woods was a 16-year-old high school sophomore, lean and quick, playing as an amateur in the 1992 Los Angeles Open at Riviera. He knocked it on the first green in two and lipped out the eagle putt. If you didn’t have goose bumps, you probably weren’t alive.

Then came No. 2, then a long-ish and challenging par 4. Woods pulled his tee shot left near the driving-range netting among some scattered oleanders. He tried to pitch a low one under the branches, but his ball hit the cart-path curb and caromed back at him. He looked to be in serious trouble then. He was 170 yards away and had a branch interfering with his backswing. Really? He powered a high 8-iron to 4 feet, and when he holed the par putt, he unleashed one of his soon-to-be trademark fist pumps.

It was absolutely electrifying. He went on to miss the cut, but so what?

A handful of years later, Woods was obliged to attend a dinner so my magazine could give him its Sportsman of the Year Award. He was clearly uncomfortable at his seat at the head table as an assortment of publishers, ad salesmen, editors, writers and other guests came by to meet him.

When I reintroduced myself, I mentioned I’d been there at Riviera for that first round and how memorable his first two holes were. He smiled a real smile and got into an animated recap of that birdie-par beginning. He hadn’t forgotten it, either, and he was clearly excited (and maybe relieved) to talk about actual golf shots. He always has been. The other stuff? No. Golf shots? Yes.

Woods always has been about the golf. He reached the game’s tallest peaks years ago.

Now, he’s got a different mountain to climb. This one is truly important. This is real life. And that may make it his toughest summit of all.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.