In the Nicklaus-Palmer-Watson era, professional golfers, after playing their rounds, smoked, drank, “lay with pretty women,” never (ever) went to the gym. One of the things that Tiger Woods brought to the game was the idea that you had to be in peak physical condition to compete. Another was iron discipline. Another was discipline’s derivative — blinding focus.
At one of his five (5) Masters victories, on the first day of the tournament, his mother was waiting for him outside the locker room, there to wish him well. He looked up, saw her, but didn’t recognize her. Her feelings were not hurt, she said later. It just meant that he was ready to play and nothing would or could break his concentration.
Tiger’s conditioning regimen gave rise to the “buff” golfer. Bryson DeChambeau, winner of last year’s US Open, has taken manic physical conditioning and converted it into a strategy for winning golf tournaments. The strategy being: hit your drive a mile and in the event it does not find the fairway, be strong enough to carve it out of the deepest rough, Your longest approach shot with a 355-yard tee shot (on a par 4) will be 150 yards, 135 to the very front of the green. Putt with any consistency and you’ll be atop the Leaderboard.
Brooks Koepka, who in the last four years has won two US Open Championships and 2 PGA Championships, works out for 2 hours before he plays his (afternoon) rounds in a tournament. He’s not “warming up” or “stretching.” He’s weight training, cross-training, heavy lifting, etc. He credit his success, in part, to his physical conditioning.
Woods’s life began to unravel after his father died. His descent wasn’t precipitous, but somewhere along the way it became irreversible. It cost him his marriage, it put him in rehab for “chemical dependence,” it shattered his “public image.” Emotionally immature to begin with, it wasn’t clear he would be able to handle his crash. He was written off by everyone except his main sponsor, Nike, and his fellow professional golfers (one said: “I guarantee you he’ll be back.”)
Come back he did. The 2019 win at The Masters was one of the great achievements in all of sport. To return to the winner’s circle after four back surgeries, including lumbar fusion surgery, and win over a wildly talented field, was astonishing. breath-taking, thrilling. Put those three words together and you’d still be understating the matter.
He won by one stroke, but it was equivalent to his win at the 2000 US Open Championship at Pebble Beach, which he won by 15 strokes. His 2000 US Open win stands as the greatest 4 rounds of golf ever played in a major tournament. His 2019 win stands alongside Ben Hogan’s resurrection from an automobile accident as one of golf’s greatest comebacks.
And now the accident, which seems certain to end Tiger’s career. Without Tiger, professional golf is a much diminished thing. It will no longer be as compelling; what TV executives used to call “must see TV.” Post-Tiger, you can probably catch the major tournament highlights on ESPN or one of the network websites and feel like you haven’t missed much, if anything. Dustin Johnson’s last nine holes at last year’s Masters were both extraordinary and altogether missable.
You could never take your eyes off Tiger. He was Seabiscuit. No one ever ran the stretch like Seabiscuit, except for Tiger Woods. When he was in the hunt (or in the lead) on Sundays, you could see him practically willing victory from a few shots back or slamming the door shut on those chasing his lead. At his peak, it seemed like he was always in the hunt or in the lead on Sundays.
Other great golfers will surely emerge. But in Tiger’s case, the most hackneyed cliche applies: We will never see his like again.
(Links from Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, Bill Pennington of The New York Times, ESPN.com, and USOpen.com)
P.S.: Okay, maybe Secretariat ran the stretch like Seabiscuit. Sue me.