We all reserve the right to change our lives. That’s the underpinning of everything from self-help hustling to religious conversion to psychoanalysis to “The Biggest Loser” to many of the greatest novels. The New Me may be the biggest schlock business in the world or the deepest philosophy. Some of it’s bogus, some of it’s gold, who knows which is which, and to each his own. But nobody denies our right to a new leaf, a radical reinvention of ourselves or the correction of deep personal problems.
You take it where you find it. Tiger Woods seems to have found it, for the time being at least, and longer we can hope, in Buddhism, sex-addiction therapy, a putting tip from Steve Stricker and a romance with legendary skier Lindsay Vonn. “It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack.”
If some people don’t identify with what Woods has been through for the last 40 months, then perhaps they’re lucky. But they’re also not like a lot of us. It’s hard to find a life that never blew up. If that weren’t true, all the helping professions would be out of work.
With his back-to-back, always-in-command two-stroke wins at Doral and the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Woods has now won six times in his last 20 PGA Tour events over a 53-week span and is, indeed, No. 1 on earth again.
Some of his post-victory quotes to the press almost sounded like they were meant to have double meanings. “It feels good right now. I’m getting there,” he said. “I’ve turned some of the weaknesses I had into strengths.”
When was the last time he was this happy with his golf game?
“It’s been a few years,” he said.
It’s hard not to wonder, or perhaps just hope, if he’s ever been this happy being himself. When you’re a golf prodigy at the age of 2, have a pair of dominant stage parents and never rebel against authority at any of the conventional ages that every parent recognizes, something’s going to give eventually — with plenty of damage all around.
Now we’re seeing the effects of healing, which needed a ton of time, on and off the course. “If I got healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level,” said Woods, now a 17-year vet at 37, after his win on Monday. “That was the first step in the process. Once I got there, then my game turned.”
Part of his recent success is insanely good putting, like his final lag putt from 73 feet on Monday that stopped one inch from the cup, almost more of an exclamation point than if it had plunged into the hole. Great putting may last for weeks or months, but it never stays indefinitely.
Though various parts of Woods’s game will disappear at times and need a search party to reclaim, Tiger is now back as the best player in the world. As Vonn tweeted: “Number 1” with 14 exclamation points. That’s about right.
Many will say Woods has to win another major championship to finish this whole cycle of crash, burn and recover since winning the 2008 U.S. Open. That’s true. However, it’s hard to imagine that Woods won’t win more majors, even if he fails to capture his fifth Masters in two weeks.
What we have all regained is a resumption of the greatest career-long saga in contemporary sports: Woods’s pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s 18 major titles. That record went from unassailable to almost-sure-to-broken after Tiger got his 14th major at just 32. Now the probability of a 19th major may be teetering perfectly balanced on many knife points.
How many years will Woods’s injuries, and surgeries on top of old surgeries, especially to his left knee, allow him to play at his current level?
Will the new Woods, who has replaced everyone from his inner circle, who choked up while apologizing for his infidelities, who fell to 52nd in the world and who has collapsed when in contention in recent majors, have to go through the same wall as a far younger player trying for major No. 1?
Is the doubt-free, indomitable Old Tiger still available in moments of crisis to New Tiger? We all know the answer to that. He’s not. No Sunday at a major will ever look easy again for him. That just ups the drama.
Finally, does Woods believe, deep down, that he deserves golf’s greatest distinction? Guilt could trip him, even guilt toward the game he damaged more than that fire hydrant outside his home in 2009. But it’s just as likely that he feels pride in facing so many crises and emerging as his own re-formed man.
Many champions have said that a prerequisite to winning majors is the state of your golf; but the rest of the battle is the state of your psyche. Where is Tiger’s? A publicly acknowledged relationship with someone as accomplished and respected as Vonn, who’s also divorced, may hint that Woods is not sabotaging himself.
If Woods had never regained the golf gifts that most define him, it would have been a pitiable example of a fate so harsh it exceeded any of his misbehavior. Now, after more than four years of waiting, that has changed.
“I’m really excited about the rest of this year,” Woods said this week.
He means far more than that. His 40 months in a self-inflicted, mid-life re-examination have left Woods a more complex, flawed and vulnerable man, but a no less fascinating protagonist. Now, the golf world can’t wait for the rest of his year — no, his whole career — to resume once more.