Why True Sports Fans Will Always Root for the Self-Inflicted Comeback
At its peak, more than 12 percent of America was watching The Masters. Waiting…hoping… praying… that Tiger Woods could win his first Major in 11 years. Making deals with whatever gods (golf or otherwise) that they could, for at least one more time, see the iconic fist pump. What they got was beyond even their wildest dreams. They were given the chance to see something transcendent. To be witness to one of those moments that will have them saying decades from now, “I remember when…” Despite everyone knowing this was a self-inflicted comeback bid, nobody cared. It was still something straight out of a movie; the spectacle of Tiger once again lurking in the brush, patiently biding his time until he could pounce. Then Francesco Molinari, who had at one point gone 49 straight holes without bogeying, put his tee shot on the 12th “into Ray’s Creek.” Tiger pounced. All of a sudden the fantasy was slowly turning into reality and like peak Tiger, Woods did not disappoint. He ended up winning the Masters, his fifth, at 13-under.
But it was the exultation afterward that made the story so pure, so worthy of our time, hearts and souls. Bear hugs for the caddie. For fellow players. And most importantly, for his own son. In the same spot where more than 20 years before, he shared a similar display of affection with his own father. Back then Tiger was a cyborg sent into the golf world to show the world the future. He was the terminator; a seemingly unstoppable presence that could walk through walls and mimic the greatest players of all-time into one course-killing nightmare. The years since though have not been kind to Tiger Woods.
While he penned the most recent “I remember when…” moment just this past weekend, he was also the author of a much more infamous one on Thanksgiving 2009. The world watched as his SUV crashed. As stories started to come out about his infidelity. In the years since there were four back surgeries including the dreaded spinal fusions. Surely no athlete, and especially no golfer–an athlete required to wrench and torque his back 65-80 times a day for four straight days to win a tournament–could come back from such circumstances. Then add in the addictions. Pills and otherwise. Plop on top a DUI as the cherry to Tiger Woods’ self-inflicted ice cream sundae fall from grace. It appeared that the one time greatest golfer in the world, and perhaps the greatest golfer of all-time, would no longer have the skills or temperament to get back to the mountaintop. Sunday proved us wrong.
Yet through it all, we cheered for Tiger. We acknowledged his fall from grace was mostly self-inflicted. But we did, and do not, care. Why should so many people, millions in America and millions around the world, care so deeply for somebody that was practically molded from birth to dominate the golf world? Yes, we do root for the otherworldly talents because it lets us glimpse perfection–something that is almost impossible to achieve in this imperfect world. We sit and watch in rapture as Michael Jordan wins six championships and six Finals MVPs in six appearances. Tom Brady’s story tells us that even when everybody counts you out as not good enough, first in college, and then in the NFL draft, they could be more wrong about you than anybody else to ever exist.
However, this Tiger story is different. This is not Tom Brady winning Super Bowls more than a decade apart. Brady was always at the top of his game. Nor is this Ray Bourque winning the Stanley Cup in his final season, ready and willing to ride off into the sunset. Brady’s obstacles were put in place by others: by coaches, Bernard Pollard, and Roger Goodell. Bourque overcame an organization that was wilting and needed a restart. Woods’ obstacles were erected by none other than Eldrick Tont Woods. With the exception of the back surgeries, it was Woods’ self-inflicted wounds that made this comeback necessary.
He was the cheater. It was Woods who decided to take pills to excess. Nobody forced him to take those same pills and get behind the car, endangering not just his life, but the life of others. One of the gravest of sins. Through it all though, there was America to root on Woods. It did not matter that this was a comeback of the self-inflicted variety. Those who cheer on Woods are admitting something human and something we all share in common; we are fallible. We humans: us sinners, the do-wrongers, the failures. Nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes. “There but for the grace of G-d go I.” That is what we are saying when we cheer for athletes like Tiger Woods, Josh Hamilton, and Josh Gordon. Yes, we are cheering on somebody else, but we are also going leather-throated for ourselves. We are cheering for the mere possibility of hope and redemption.
Woods is an avatar for anybody that has screwed up so royally they thought their career or life was over. His win is a beacon of light for those lost in the stormy seas of their own faulty decision making. Those poor souls who never seem to do anything right, and then when things are at their worst, make an even poorer judgment call. But those harmful calls usually stem from a selfish place. That is exactly what happened with Woods. However, going day-to-day simply not screwing up is usually about being selfless and making decisions for others. That is why Woods’ hug with his son was so moving. He went to the pits of personal hell because he was gratifying his own desires. He climbed out because he wanted to show his children there was a better way. That there is no depth too deep to climb out of.
A 2-or-3-hole deficit on Sunday at the Masters is nothing compared to battling Woods’ type of demons and self-inflicted wounds. For all the happiness and sports joy Woods has provided over the years, Sunday’s was the most special. Not because he showed us he was once again the Golf Goliath of his prime, standing feet above everybody else. No, in fact, it was the opposite. His celebration showed us he was anything but. He was a Sunday golfer, a son, a father. In short. He was human. He was one of us. Self-inflicted wounds and all.