It has long been said that sports has taken the place of religion. What better illustration than the simultaneous exaltation of a golfer in Augusta, Ga., and the conflagration at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The concept of American exceptionalism has experienced a drubbing in recent times. It takes a golfer, it seems, to fix it. Tiger Woods, if only for a brief shining moment, makes America great again.
Are people getting carried away? “I am literally in tears,” tweeted Serena Williams. "This is Greatness like no other ... I am so inspired …”
Some are saying the Woods Masters victory constitutes the greatest comeback in the history of sport. Step aside Ben Hogan, Muhammad Ali. You too, Seabiscuit.
Although I haven’t heard anyone call it the Miracle on Grass yet, Tiger’s achievement is being put on a level of the astounding U.S. hockey victory over the Soviets in the Cold War confrontation at the 1980 Olympics.
Mario Lemieux’s comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993 to average more than two points a game the rest of the season doesn’t even rate a mention.
Tiger did have no less than four back surgeries and four knee surgeries. He went through one of the most humiliating public shamings, owing to something as commonplace as extramarital sex, that any athlete has experienced. When he appeared at the 2010 Masters, tournament chairman Billy Payne had the gall to admonish him for egregious immoral behaviour. This from a golf club that had turned its back on blacks and minorities and women for decades.
Tiger, a mixed-race man dominating a white man’s sport, had every right to spurn the tournament like Lee Trevino sometimes did. Instead, Tiger continued to play the Masters and this time, at 43, stared everyone down on the golf course. As they had so many times in the past, his main opponents wilted. In the space of a few unbelievable minutes on the short number 12, four of them plunked shots into the pond fronting the green.
Tiger, who started swinging a golf club at 11 months, was taught by his Green Beret father, Earl, as told in a biography by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, to have a cold-blooded killer instinct and not trust anyone. Tiger followed the script to a magnificent degree on the course and to folly off of it. He was suspicious of everyone, obsessed with privacy. He didn’t suck up to the media. He was sealed off in an entitlement bubble. He blew up his marriage.
But Americans weren’t particularly upset about his extracurricular activities. Seemingly, they don’t mind sinners so much so long as they are spectacular. Athletic phenoms come along once in a generation. They weren’t going to let something as prosaic as infidelity take down their superhero. Even when Tiger hit rock bottom, most were cheering for him, yearning for the comeback, waiting patiently for it.
They liked bad-boy Tiger more than do-gooder Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear was a masterful player but a methodical plodder. In the ratings he could never move the needle like Tiger. No one could.
Tiger had a smile so luminous that, as someone said of Seve Ballesteros, it could change the weather. He had a look of burning mission, an intensity unmatched. You had to watch Tiger because he always gave off a sense that something momentous was about to happen, that he could expand the boundaries of greatness in his sport. In his peak years, he was the best player the world has ever seen.
Today’s fervour is about such qualities returning. They return with a Tiger who appears to have matured, who welcomes the world in.
It’s one of those occasions when the power of sport extends beyond the playing fields. It’s a story that uplifts an American spirit in need of uplifting. It takes the mind off fractious politics. Tiger’s greatness is something Republicans and Democrats can agree on. It’s something white people and black people can agree on. From the divisiveness of U.S. President Donald Trump, there is momentary relief.
And it may not be momentary. The greatness of golf is not just its emerald green venues or the combination of touch, power and mental strength it demands, but its agelessness. You can be as good at golf, as Bernhardt Langer illustrates, in your sixties as in your twenties.
It means great news. Tiger’s comeback is just beginning.