tiger
ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND – JULY 15: Tiger Woods of the United States acknowledges the crowd as he crosses the Swilcan Bridge during Day Two of The 150th Open at St Andrews Old Course on July 15, 2022 in St Andrews, Scotland. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Godspeed, Tiger

A bittersweet goodbye to the Old Course was a reminder of how much Woods has given us,
and how much has been lost along the way

By Alan Shipnuck
July 15, 2022

ST. ANDREWS — During the second round of the 1996 British Open, the young U.S. Amateur champion from California shot a scintillating 66. Golf would never be the same again. That was the day Tiger Woods proved to himself he could compete with the pros. Six weeks later came “Hello, world.” The legend has been growing ever since.

The Masters was where Woods displayed his firepower and, later, his resiliency. The U.S. Open would become a monument to his precision and grit. But it was the Open Championship that touched his soul. The linksland allowed Woods to access his artistry and intellect. A would-be historian ever since tacking Jack Nicklaus’s playing record above his bed as a wee lad, Woods became particularly smitten with the Old Course, where he summoned a defining performance in 2000. Five years later, Big Jack bid adieu to the Open at St. Andrews, and Woods has never forgotten the thunderous ovations that followed Nicklaus around the property.

For such a perfectionist, Woods has always had a Calvinist streak, which he boiled down to his catch-all catchphrase: “It is what it is.” He suffered the worst break of his playing career — but surely not his life — at the 2002 Open, when he had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to cross the ocean chasing the Grand Slam. He was only two shots off the lead through 36 holes at Muirfield, but on Saturday he got sent off into a hurricane. Woods never found his drive on the 1st hole and struggled to a soggy 81, the worst round of his career to that point. The next day, in a monumental showing of pride and professionalism, he dropped a 65 on Muirfield that tied for the low round of the day. It is what it is.   

Owing to the pyrotechnics of his early win at the 1997 Masters, Woods was often mischaracterized as a freewheeling bomber. In fact, plodding, boring, cerebral golf is what gets his engine revving. The most underrated performance of his career is surely the 2006 Open Championship, when Hoylake was a burnt-out moonscape. Woods expertly dinked his way around, pulling driver only once across four days but producing long irons of such purity that nearly two decades later I can still close my eyes and summon their sound. In victory he was overcome with sobs, longing for a father who had left him two months earlier.

It has often been suggested that Woods’s path became more wayward without Earl around to guide him. Three years after Hoylake, all hell broke loose in Tiger’s life: tabloid infamy, sex addiction therapy, divorce, the police blotter, rehab for an addiction to painkillers, and a slew of back problems that brought him to his knees on the golf course. He would never be the same player he was before Thanksgiving 2009, and the void was felt most acutely at the Open Championship, where, incredibly, the game’s preeminent shotmaker would contend only twice more during what should have been his prime years. Rock bottom arrived in 2015 at his beloved St. Andrews, what Woods calls his favorite course in the world. He duffed his opening tee shot so badly that players gawked at the gouge in the earth as if it were the scene of a car crash. He missed the cut by a mile.

Woods slowly reconstituted himself, and in 2018 at a fiery Carnoustie, he summoned one final Open run. Straining for his first major championship victory in a decade, he seized the lead late on the front nine of the final round. But slowly, agonizingly, he gave it away. There is no setting in golf quite like the final green at the Open, ringed as it is with towering bleachers. Woods received a thunderous ovation coming up the last hole, as always. In 2015 — he had skipped the preceding two Opens due to back surgeries — the applause was tinged with melancholy, as fans came to terms with how much Woods had been diminished. The roar at Carnoustie was not about Woods’s illustrious past but the unexpected gift he had given the gallery.

Godspeed

Less than a year later Tiger climbed the mountain one more time, with his thrilling victory at the Masters. The hopes that this aging warrior would enjoy a wondrous final act were dashed in February 2021, when Woods smashed up his right leg in a single-car accident in Los Angeles. Something dark visited Woods on that Wednesday morning: At the time of his crash he was traveling an estimated 84 to 87 mph, more than double the speed limit in a residential area, and the car’s black box revealed that Woods kept stepping on the accelerator throughout the crash, and that the pressure applied to the pedal was 99 percent. We will never know the extent of the wounds to his psyche, but heavy metal made his leg functional again. 

Throughout this season Woods had displayed an almost maniacal desire to return to competition. That he made the cut at the Masters and the PGA Championship deserves to be remembered among the most impressive accomplishments of an unparalleled career. But all along Woods was focused on St. Andrews. He believed in his heart he could contend on a flat course that is a much easier walk than Augusta National or Southern Hills. More to the point, the Old Course is a chessboard as much as a golf course. Woods has repeatedly broken his body, but this master tactician’s mind remains intact. In the run-up to the first round, he pushed himself harder than he has in years. Could he somehow summon one more performance for the ages?

The delicious anticipation lasted about 10 minutes into Woods’s first round, when he fatted his approach shot on the 1st hole into a burn that is rarely in play. (He had done the same thing in 2015, though at least this time he could blame having to play out of a divot … and, spuriously, into a gust of wind; in his prime Woods never made excuses, and he never would have missed short on a watery hole when he had all of Scotland long.) Woods never stopped trying during the first round, but his body betrayed him, with imprecise short irons and faulty lag putting and myriad maladies. He looked rusty in the extreme during a 78 that left him in 145th place. The only cure for play like that is tournament reps, but those now must be parceled out judiciously.

Still, Tiger has always had a way of warping our expectations. Overnight rain made the Old Course less fiery for the second round. If he could get off to a hot start, and get the putter working, maybe shoot a sixty-s… No. Woods flagged his approach on 3 but gave back that birdie on the next hole with an errant approach. He failed to birdie the par-5 5th, missing a 5-footer, and then foozled one out of the rough on number 6, leading to another bogey. The crowd went limp, and Woods became more inward. It was now a certainty he would miss the cut, setting up a 3-plus hour requiem. 

By the time Woods arrived at the 18th tee, all of St. Andrews had gathered to see him off. He roped a 3-wood into the Valley of Sin and headed home. (Having recently been made an honorary member of the Royal & Ancient, he now has a locker within the stone fortress behind the 18th green.) As Woods walked toward the Swilcan Bridge, he suddenly became aware of how lonely it is at the top; the other players and caddies in his group had lingered by the tee, ceding him the stage. He marched down the rumpled fairway, tears welling. Sheila Walker, the great-great-granddaughter of Old Tom Morris, watched from the window of her second story apartment near the 18th green. Tweedy gents crowded the balcony of the R&A clubhouse. The vast grandstands shook. Rory McIlroy, walking down the adjoining 1st fairway, gave Woods a nod and a subtle tip of the cap, and something broke loose inside of Tiger. The tears tasted of more than salt: pride, regret, passion, wistfulness, willfulness. Woods vowed to try to keep playing the Open, but he will be in his mid-50s the next time the tournament returns to the Old Course. “It’s hard just to walk and play 18 holes,” he said after he finished. “People have no idea what I have to go through and the hours of work on the body, pre and post, each and every single day to do what I just did.” This was goodbye. Even he knew it.

Woods was determined to grind it out until the bitter end, and the crowd hushed as he approached his ball. St. Andrews is always bathed in sound, including the sodden chatter emanating from the pubs. Now seagulls could be heard shrieking. So could the evocative, faraway sounds of a bagpiper busking on North Street. It had become a blindingly bright afternoon, but just then the sun disappeared behind a puff of clouds and the temperature instantly dropped and suddenly it felt like Scotland again. U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick had driven his ball close to Woods’s and played first. On such a touch shot he normally employs a wedge but, feeling the magnitude of the moment, and knowing the whole world was watching, Fitzpatrick went for a safer play with a putter. Woods followed with a lovely shot to within three feet. The crowd roared again. But he missed the birdie putt, one more letdown during a bittersweet day. It is what it is.

Afterward, Woods talked movingly of the emotional goodbyes that Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer made from the Open. They were almost two decades older than Tiger is now, yet haler and heartier. That is the thrill and the tragedy of Woods’s career: He gave so much to the game, and to us, but it came at a steep cost. This Open was a chance to remember and celebrate, and to anguish. From all of St. Andrews: Goodbye, Tiger. Thank you. And Godspeed.

21 thoughts on “Godspeed, Tiger”

  1. Time for him to walk away. His body will never allow him to get the reps that made him what he once was. The constant focus on him has become beyond tiresome. Anyone who thought he had a chance to win this week has no clue. He’s 46 years old with a broken down body who has played 7 competitive rounds this year prior to this tournament. Oh yeah, and he’s won one major in 14 years. People still think it’s 2000. Maybe he can get ready to be an honorary starter next April with Jack and Gary.

    1. He can do whatever the hell he wants. The claim that all the focus is put on him, is absolute BS. The majority of his shots were not shown on the broadcast. Plenty of space for other players to write their own history. Just a shameful comment from a small man.

      1. On Thursday the telecast showed very little other than the Woods group while they were on the course. Friday was more diverse as the producers accepted reality. Those were both improvements on the first 2 rounds at Augusta when the narrative those days was all about him possibly winning until reality set in over the weekend. But while it may not be the best way to do coverage of an event, I don’t begrudge him from receiving that attention, especially this week. While most of his misfortunes were of his own making, for all of what he has accomplished he can leave the stage in any way he chooses.

    2. Maybe for 2 days we all just wanted to believe it was 2000 all over again.

      Let’s not write him off just yet.. we owe him that & so much more

  2. Wow. So much has been written about Tiger but I’ll take this and leave the rest. I did not remember he had his foot on the gas when he almost killed himself. It’s a sadly important part of that chapter.

  3. Alan:

    What a beautiful reflection on the game’s most important player/personality since The King. You reminded me of what the game looked like in 2006. His father passed in May of that year. Hoylake was a couple of months later, as you mentioned. I’m cast back in time, watching the first round broadcast and a commercial comes on: Tiger, full face portrait, looking… not quite AT the camera. Slightly downward. An odd look. Determined but not stressfully so. The view is accompanied by the sound of a cello, low and anticipatory. Cut to the clubface of a driver, just pulling away from a ball on a tee. The cello now is being bowed to produce an acceleratory series of notes. Cut to the grip, at takeaway. And then the full measure of the man, dressed in black, nighttime, the green grass of a tee lit in such a way as to seem otherworldly. It was the Nike Swing Portrait commercial, And for those who have not seen it, search for just that on YouTube. But I imagine you have, Alan. And the emotions, thoughts and considerations that your piece above evokes – awe, respect, surely love – came flooding back to me as I recalled that “advertisement.” It was Art. Zen Embodied. Technology Unleashed (a military grade camera capable of shooting 4,000 frames per second). The Standard. The Epoch. Pure Uncut Inspiration/Adulation.

    It was Tiger, the culmination of all who he strived to be in the swing of a driver. Tiger, as his own man but through his father’s eyes, as well. You could palpably FEEL the presence of Earl in so much of that 60 seconds. I then thought of my dad and his passage and the yawning hole that left in me for quite some time. I simply sobbed, inconsolably. I felt I had some inkling of what he was going through. Over the ensuing 4 days, he played some of the greatest golf the game had/has/will ever see(n) in that win at Hoylake. The release of emotion that we saw after the final putt on the 72nd hole allowed us to see a man who had become iconic at such a young age. Yet, now he was his father’s son had his life in front of him without that guiding hand. Fast forward to today. The cost HAS been extraordinary. But he is truly a Man In Full. We have been blessed to witness his prowess, his feats of brilliance, his falls from grace, his almost superhuman resilience and fortitude … and his redemption as a man and father of greater humility, gratitude and substance. I can only imagine that he can think to himself, “I am very much the man my father envisioned I would be.” Those of us who have watched his life from near or far have been informed by his odyssey. It has provided impetus for those of us who have striven to be able to say the same to ourselves.

    GodSpeed, to you, Alan. To Tiger. To golfers of all stripes who love The FirePit. Thanks for helping prompt a terrific journey, inwardly, today, that I otherwise would not have had.

    1. Thank you for such a beautiful reflection. I wept with Tiger yesterday. I always found golf boring until Tiger Woods came along. I think he is the most compelling athlete in the world.

  4. I don’t normally read essays of this type multiple times but I did with this one. A haunting portrait of a legendary athlete playing out the final act of his career. A real masterpiece Alan. Thank you.

  5. As I recall it was on the first hole of the 2003 Open that Tiger lost a ball. And I believe he skipped neither the 2013 nor the 2014 Open. A great read as always. Thank you.

  6. Tiger Woods. Never afraid to tell us just how hard he works but not much else. “People have no idea what I have to go through and the hours of work on the body, pre and post, each and every single day to do what I just did.” How about a little insight as to what happened on the crash or how much appearance money he took over the years. Maybe he could explain the difference between appearance money and ‘guaranteed’ money that he now thinks is so objectionable.

  7. Johan Cristian

    Nice eulogy for Tiger’s career, but I look forward to someday hearing the real story of what should have been the greatest golfer of all time, shattering Jack’s record, only stymied by his addiction to painkillers, body building, and Perkins’ waitresses.

    I’ve been surprised at how the golf world has forgotten about Hank Haney’s first hand account of how Tiger’s obsession with military training drills and associated injuries literally ended his career. His physical injuries have all been self-inflicted and it’s disingenuous for golf writers to not state the facts.

  8. ThisSeasonWillBeDifferent

    A polarizing figure to be sure. In the end, this game (and every other at the Pro Level) is about two things – winning and money, and not necessarily in that order. Tiger will be forever loved and lauded for his winning (it means everything to Tiger, which is why he simply cannot understand LIV’s appeal). I am not convinced there is much else about Woods to recommend him (the facts in support of this are too plentiful to recount here), but opinions will of course differ.

    This much is certain – if Pro Golf as we have come to know it is to survive, it needs to move on from him and not make every blessed tournament he plays in The Tiger Show. To suggest this year’s Open was not billed and advertised as such is absurd. Big challenge for the PGA and some dark days ahead I am afraid. Tiger’s exit, as overdue as it is, occurs at the most inopportune time. More and more of the top pros will migrate to LIV it seems – PGA needs its new hero(es). Time to recognize, retain and focus efforts on them.

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