I didn’t feel a thing when Tiger made the final putt. No, really. My body was depleted, my mind a thick sludge slushing inside a steel crate in zero gravity. I got four hours’ sleep last night and woke up at 6:05 a.m. California time, because an unprecedented Masters schedule moved Sunday’s final round up several hours to avoid thunderstorms in central Georgia.
And because Tiger. Nostalgia. History. Destiny. Magic. It was possible that all of it could come together in one moment, an inconceivable array of disparate circumstances, emotions and characters converging into a sporting supernova that would transcend golf and reverberate around the world. It was possible.
Over the top? Yes. The way I felt? No! I was dog tired, man. That is until…
The release. The sweetest release ever witnessed on a golf course.
Tiger picked his ball out of the 18th hole, threw his arms skyward and unleashed his most primal roar to date, his remade body suddenly releasing 11 years of turmoil. The sex scandal. The injuries. The NINE surgeries. The dependence on painkillers. The 0-42 drought in the majors. The naysayers who declared him finished.
All of those indignities vanquished in one moment of pure release.
It was the greatest scene in the history of golf. The athlete who transformed a game into a sport, the player who inspired so many, the man who fell from grace, resurrected on the grandest stage in golf, his lifelong quest to eclipse Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major victories — recently pronounced dead by most every expert — suddenly alive again.
I grew up playing soccer and basketball. My dad used to watch golf on Sunday afternoons, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. It was agonizing. He’d kick back in the recliner, flip the channel to CBS and proceed to nod off and on as the dulcet, bird-chirping tones of golf washed over our living room. I thought it was pretty cool when he’d ask me and my brother to get him a Coors Light from the fridge, but then I’d start pestering, begging.
“But dad! The Bulls are playing the Knicks!” (That sentence made sense at the time.)
Before middle school, the idea of playing golf didn’t even register to me. It was a game reserved for stiff old men no longer capable of playing real sports, for husbands and fathers in need of reprieve, for shit-talking fat guys (John Daly stood out to me, I recall). It smelled like stale beer and cigarettes. It was boring as HELL.
But then the new millennium arrived, and with it, Tiger Woods. He won the U.S. Open, then the British Open, then the PGA Championship, then the Masters — back to back to back to back, a gobsmacking run of dominance later dubbed the Tiger Slam. I was obsessed with SportsCenter back then, and suddenly my favorite program couldn’t stop talking about golf.
Here was this skinny kid who didn’t look like anybody else, who rocked baggy clothes and wore my favorite brand, who lashed viciously at the ball and hit it absurd distances. He wasn’t just a black kid beating older white men; he was pummeling them into submission, beating them by five, 10, even 15 strokes. He hit shots never before conceived, let alone attempted, and he looked cool as hell doing it.
But what really converted me was the fist pump.
Tiger was the first golfer to wear a killer instinct on his sleeve, and the fist pump was his weapon of choice. There’s something about the way his whole body tenses up at precisely the same instant, priming his right fist to swing powerfully through the air, as if to fell his playing partner in a boxing ring. The way he roars at the same time, his mouth opening impossibly wide, those big, gleaming white teeth bared, the frenzied crowd feeding off his uncommon energy. When most other golfers pump their fists, it looks forced, corny even. When Tiger does it, it’s downright predatory.
And that’s the thing about Tiger. Like MJ, he is not a nice man. He’s a killer. On the course, he has always wanted to go right at you, rip your heart from your chest and show it to you. It’s a professional athlete’s mentality, and it’s what spurred a generation of young athletes to take up golf.
Like Tony Finau, the big-hitting phenom of Tongan and Samoan descent. Finau’s dad, Kelepi, supported a family of nine making $35,000 a year as a baggage handler at an airport. Most everyone in the family played football, but Finau, at age 7, flipped on the TV and saw Tiger destroying the field at the 1997 Masters, his coming-out party.
“I saw this kid who was the same color as me,” said Finau, now 29. “I saw him fist pumping, I saw him wearing the green jacket. He made the game look so cool.”
On Sunday, Finau played alongside his golfing idol and bore witness to history. And while he fell prey to the Tiger Effect on this day, the crammed leaderboard brimming with stars — Tiger, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Francesco Molinari and Xander Schauffele were all tied at one point near the end — epitomized the paradox that will make Tiger’s run at Jack’s record so difficult: His dominance bred a generation of golfer-athletes that sought to emulate his style and, thus, plays without fear.
“Tiger taught us how to compete,” Finau said. “You shouldn’t fear anyone… All of us relish a chance to compete against him.”
I’ll never forget watching with my dad in a hotel room as Tiger’s chip dropped into the 16th hole en route to his last Masters victory 14 years ago, just as I’ll never forget Tiger, 43 years young, pumping both fists into the air before embracing his son, Charlie, green-side. It was surreal to watch him striding through those throngs of patrons, grinning ear to ear, unloosing all his pent-up demons through sporadic, near-involuntary shouts.
I’ve got a lot more to say, but first it’s time for a nap. Tiger and Virginia winning titles in the same week? Am I living in a simulation? This is getting suspiciously weird.