The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tiger Woods’s Masters wasn’t perfect. But it was profound.

Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the 12th hole during the final round of the 2022 Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia on April 10. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/REX/Shuterstock)
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There is a point — only vaguely defined, because so little data exists — where talent plus discipline plus focus adds up to a prison, where the pursuit of perfection becomes a cage and a curse. One can be universally famous, yet utterly alone, cut off from the world by the very thing that makes the hero heroic.

Tiger Woods has occupied that realm of solitary greatness for as long as he can remember. His freakish talent for the ancient game of golf was first displayed on television when he was 2 years old. At 21, he began remaking a sport that had been around for centuries; venerable courses were remade in his image — “Tiger-proofed,” the saying went, although Woods went on chewing them up.

He was as beautiful as a statue, with ratios of shoulders to waist and chin to cheekbones that would have caught the eye of Donatello. Yet he was carved from stone of a hue that emphasized his singularity.

For a time, he left golf itself behind, in the sense that all the other players acknowledged his otherness. In tournaments where he opened a lead — and there were so many — no one dreamed of catching him. The world played golf in one dimension while Woods played in another, parallel. The dimensions did not intersect.

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With time, the effects of his solitary confinement in the prison of perfectionism became visible. A joylessness crept into his golf in the form of grimaces, slammed clubs and F-bombs. His personal life was a lonely blend of misery and hedonism that ultimately blew up a marriage in humiliating fashion. After the death of his father, who had driven him relentlessly to set himself apart, Woods embarked on a strange, almost masochistic, pursuit of his own limits, training alongside Navy SEALs who were about half his age and getting in the ring to brawl with ultimate fighters.

Then he nearly died after wrecking a car at high speed.

Had he been killed in that wreck last year, at age 45, Woods would have been locked away forever in that tragic Valhalla where celebrity culture preserves those doomed by greatness: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis — talents who reach the peak only to find themselves alone with nowhere else to go. Whose pain can never be discussed because the rest of the world perceives it as a blessing.

But he did not die. Nor did he lose his right leg, though that was a very close call. Instead, Woods was thrown into a regime of physical therapy that he has called “more painful than anything I have ever experienced.” And, not 14 months later, he put the unfinished results on display at the Masters tournament.

Beneath the verdant paradise of Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia is a deceptively grueling hike up one hillside and down the next, punctuated by full-body golf swings of graceful violence. I don’t think I was alone in being surprised to see Woods finish even a single round on that nearly destroyed leg. Even more astonishing: The aging champion was still in the tournament after the high-scoring players were eliminated for the final rounds.

On Saturday, the strain began to show. The putter that has always been an artist’s brush in his hands became a crude hammer. On Sunday, in the final round, Woods leaned on his clubs as he winced and trudged, limping to a final score of 13 strokes above par. A quarter-century had passed since he won his first major tournament on those same hills at 18 strokes under par, a record 12 strokes better than the next-best player, a lonely comet ripping the sky.

And here is the thing, strange and wonderful: Woods seemed lighter, somehow, less burdened and haunted, after taking those 31 additional strokes. After creeping down sidehills in visible pain. After the indignity of a four-putt green. With the world watching, he had been less than perfect — and the world had cheered him anyway.

In sports, there are stories of triumph and stories of defeat and stories of triumph despite defeat. This was something different, more nuanced, perhaps more profound: This nearly flawless wonder of an athlete, shackled to the pursuit of perfection — that solitary pursuit of an ever-receding horizon — forgave himself for being human. He seemed relieved to have found his limitations.

From childhood, a voice in his head had driven him relentlessly to do more, to be better, to suffer and excel no matter how excellent he already was; whether that voice was his father’s or had become his own, it had long since served its purpose. Tiger Woods by Sunday evening had finally silenced it. To be alive and still in the game was enough.

Perhaps he was free at last.