Tiger Woods, who won a golf tournament Sunday for the first time in 1,876 days, knows all about that.
If we fall but the damage is not just physical, what else might get smashed? The body can break, but so can the spirit or the character. We can even lose that most basic belief in ourselves: that we deserve to rise again.
In those other falls, will the damage be primarily to our careers, to our families, to a marriage, to our public reputations or perhaps to our ability to use the skill that we love best and that defines us most? Who could endure losing more than one or two of those? Who could suffer them all, some his own doing?
Yet Woods, who led the Tour Championship by five shots at one point Sunday but won by only two, finishing with two late bogeys as the crowd at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta loved him toward the finish line, knows about them all, rolled together.
On Sunday, Tiger rose. It has taken 10 years, but finally everyone, or almost everyone, understands that what distinguishes Woods, what has brought him some dignity — and finally a great deal of it — is his will to get back up after all his falls.
Who ever imagined that we would see ourselves in Tiger’s struggles, in his humiliations and often futile comebacks, or that he, fighting back tears as he walked up an 18th fairway, listening to the crowd roar, would finally see himself in us, too? The man whose yacht is named “Privacy” let down the gangplank.
Woods was born a golf prodigy to two stage parents. The notion that he understood “common humanity” — which would be us — was as peculiar as the idea that we could really know him, his life, his wealth, fame and often isolation.
Yet Woods and the world he never trusted, and often for good reason, shook hands in the moment of his victory. Or maybe it was warmer than that, more like the embrace he shared with playing partner Rory McIlroy on the last green or his raised arms that seemed to recognize his fans as much as his own feat.
As long as Tiger kept his hat on top of his head in that last round, time seemed to have stood still for a decade since he won the U.S. Open in 2008 playing 91 holes on a broken leg. Or perhaps time has somehow reversed upon itself, like an open-field runner in an extra dimension, and with the disappearance of those years, Woods had forgotten his case of putting yips, his chipping yips, his wild driver and the days when he withdrew mid-round because he could not bend over and take his ball out of the cup.
There was Tiger, lean and long, clad in red and black, the image of an evergreen self, indistinguishable in stride or stroke from any of his greatest days. Around him, strewn like duckpins, lay 29 of the best golfers on earth, so far behind him they might as well not have bothered to play. Just like the old days.
Well, until the middle of the back nine.
Finally he made it to the finish — with a four-inch putt that he paused over for a meaningful few instants. Then Woods took off that hat. And the millions watching, whether we were among the lucky ones at East Lake or viewing his image on TVs or, in my case, in my palm, saw the same thing.
Tiger’s hair, or lack of it, testifies that he is old, 42 years old, ancient for most athletes and well into the final holes even for a golfer. And that links us again. This wasn’t a day for those double Woods uppercut fist pumps. He held his emotions in, no energy or will to spare. “Fight and grind,” he said afterward of his day. Then, referring to his year: “I found a game. I put pieces together.” And of the final hole: “I was having a hard time not crying coming up to the last green.”
Against injuries, against eight surgeries, against self-inflicted shame and mortification, against the golf gravity of a 10-year slump without a major championship and five years without any victory, Woods still led by two.
At that moment, the same question went through 19th holes, press boxes, living rooms, bars, sports departments and locker rooms all over America, all over the world for that matter, as everyone realized that one evaluation needed to be made about Woods’s win.
Was this the greatest individual comeback in the history of sports?
Some will mention the four years when Muhammad Ali was stripped of the world heavyweight title because of his objections to the Vietnam War and how he came back to reclaim that title. He was reviled by many but never mocked like Woods at times. And Ali was afflicted only with a few years of age, not new injury.
Others will point out that Ben Hogan was almost killed by a bus in a car accident but that, after many injuries and a long recovery, he returned to win the U.S. Open. Magic Johnson came back to play in the NBA for a year after an HIV diagnosis. And his return to full recovery, and long years of good health, helped de-stigmatize HIV and inspired sufferers. This year, Serena Williams returned from life-threatening surgery to have yet another great tennis season.
However, it is unlikely that any of these great athletes checked so many of the Tiger Woods boxes that no one ever wants to check.
That is, when Woods truly finishes his comeback — in the terms that he has always insisted upon.
Hogan won more majors after his crash and Ali more titles after his ban. No one has been through so many different kinds of falls — nor from so high to so low.
Only four months ago, the idea of a gloriously historic Woods comeback in a major, not just a discouraging feint, was as shaky as Woods’s own game at his lowest points. Since then, he has contended at the U.S. Open and finished second at the PGA Championship.
Nothing as improbable as Woods winning another major should be taken for granted. But now the watch is well and truly on and totally deserved. If that day comes, we can try to frame and define it then.
For now, Tiger, who seemed a solitary, hidden and even lonely legend when he fell, has gotten to the top for a day. And the number of hands reaching to help him, to understand and truly get to know him, must astound him.
This day speaks wonderfully for him. But not so badly for all those lining his fairways, bonded by our failures and our hopes that we can help each other rise.