By late August of 2003, Tiger Woods had reached four consecutive years as the number one golfer in the world. His career highlights and records do not need to be recited at length as by now, everyone is well aware of the impact that Tiger has had on not just the world of golf, but sports in general. He was the first golfer that made people stop and consider that he was quite possibly the best athlete in the world. Tiger Woods was simply astounding in every facet of the game, a marvel to watch. When my father took me to my first professional golf tournament to see the modern legend in person, the thought of talking about his dominance in the past tense seemed incredulous.
Older golf fans have Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and many others, but for those of us that grew up during the late nineties and into the new millennium, there was only Tiger Woods. The magic that he created on the course was amplified through the wonder-filled eyes of a child. Growing up as a young fan and learning to love and play the game during the years of his dominance makes watching the fall that much more painful to watch.
Every year, roughly 75 of the best golfers in the world gather at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio for the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. When I first saw Tiger in person it was the NEC Invitational. At that point, I had been playing golf with my dad for a couple of years. Tiger's reach was evident with the tiger head cover on the driver that I could barely use successfully enough to reach the fairway. My passion for the game was just beginning to emerge, but as I walked along the ropes of one of the best courses that my home state has to offer, observing the best in the world, I started to fall in love with the game.
Not only did I watch some great golf, but I was able to secure autographs from many of the players on several of the free pamphlets handed out at the gates including Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Ernie Els. I had a conversation with Mike "Fluff" Cowan outside of the clubhouse, one of the most well known caddies on tour who previously had caddied for Woods before looping for Furyk for the past sixteen years. Phil Mickelson, then the second best golfer in the world was kind and approachable, even greeting fans personally and signing nearly everything presented to him before and after his round.
Following Tiger, as it always is, was a struggle at that young age. He commanded massive crowds, and catching a glimpse of the man at work when I was nearly a foot shorter than many of his other fans was not ideal. He did not play well that day, going over par on his last few holes on a course that he has dominated throughout his career, winning eight of the sixteen total tournaments that have been held at Firestone. It was on the walkway from the eighteenth green to the clubhouse where hoards of fans gather closely against the ropes and reach out for autographs where my small size became useful.
Tiger Woods is notorious for not signing a lot of autographs, and say what you will about that, but it is understandable. He gets ten times the amount of spectators of any other golfer out there, regardless if he is in contention or not. If he stopped to sign a few autographs there would be mass chaos, something that tournament officials would be hard pressed to stop. Instead, Tiger keeps walking, occasionally grabbing something from an outreached hand to sign while maintaining a brisk stride, and one of his escorts walks it back to the lucky fan. I was the luckiest twelve year old in the world that day, as Mr. Woods grabbed the picture of himself from my hand, and a few seconds later I had Tiger Woods signature. I remember that feeling so vividly. An autograph is nothing special when you really think about it, but there is something about possessing something that someone of that level of talent has put a Sharpie to, etching his personal emblem for you to have forever. It creates a personal connection, and so my love affair with Tiger Woods had officially been solidified in that moment.
That was twelve years ago, half of my life spent looking up to Tiger Woods. Over the years my golf skills improved to the point where I was consistently breaking 80, winning a few tournaments and accolades in high school, and all the while emulating Tiger Woods. Every serious teenage golfer was trying to juggle a golf ball on the club face like Tiger, pick up the tee after a drive without watching its flight, and twirling the club after the followthrough. Tiger inspired fist pumps were displayed throughout my young tournament golf career. And when I came home after a round, the autograph that Woods had signed years ago, visible on my dresser, as it is to this day. Now, looking at it brings fondness combined with a ping of sadness.
Tiger Woods has not won a major in seven years. When he won the U.S. Open on a broken leg in dramatic fashion in 2008, I was seventeen, playing summer tournaments and looking forward to my senior year of golf. The season came and passed with new heights reached, but by the time I entered college, Tiger was more than a year removed from that remarkable win, and it was only about to get worse.
I was eating breakfast in the dining hall when I saw the story flash on the screen of the infamous driveway incident. In the weeks that followed, the golfer that I had idolized since childhood was broken down to the punch line of jokes after the news of his many affairs had been well noted. Then came his stint in rehab, his public apology, divorce, and absence from the game until the next Masters. He was more than a golfer for countless young fans, he was seen as a role model, an ambassador to the game, and a genuine good guy, but his indiscretions knocked down his public appeal and started the downhill spiral that has been in full effect, more or less, for the better part of six years.
Perhaps my opinion of Tiger Woods was biased because I considered myself a serious golfer and a longtime fan of the game. To most, Woods was seen as a bad person, a cheater, a liar, a disgrace to the legacy that he was building for himself. To me, his personal life was just that, his personal life, not mine. I'm sure I'm not alone in speaking for my generation of golfers, that my opinion and liking of Tiger Woods was not affected very much by his actions off the course. I was a fan because of what he did on the links.
Unfortunately, the tipping point for me is starting to come to fruition. The man that has won 78 tournaments, 14 majors, and been player of the year a record eleven times, has failed to break eighty in two of his last three rounds. This marked only the second and third times in his whole career that he performed at such a low level. I have held out hope for the resurgence of Tiger Woods for so long that I was blinded by the signs that he was showing on the course. He started to miss cuts, have prolonged absences due to injury, withdraw from tournaments, and appear as mortal as the rest of us, and entirely beatable.
Now that Jordan Spieth has won the past two major championships at the young age of 21, Tiger Woods at 39, seems as if he is just past his time. Rory Mcllroy, who currently holds the other two majors and is number one in the world ahead of Spieth, has been the prized athlete for Nike golf for a few years now, and even has taken Tiger's place as the title athlete for the PGA Tour video game.
I watch these young golfers that are my age or younger, ones that idolized Tiger as well, with great joy, but in the background I hope that the golfer that I looked up to becomes relevant again. All good things must come to an end, and it seems as if the torch has finally been passed, however reluctantly. The game of golf is in limbo without Tiger, even touching sporting good stores that cannot sell golf equipment anymore without him being relevant. His effect on the world of golf was so profound that the fall is that much more noticeable. His autograph has faded just slightly along the edges, but his reign at the top the golf world has evaporated almost completely. Watching someone who was once so great, no matter your opinions of him as a person, fall to the point that he has, is not easy, but observing a childhood idol plummet to these depths is undeniably painful.