Tiger Woods didn’t win the PGA Championship yesterday, or any major this year. Get used to that sort of thing happening, because Tiger Woods will never win another major championship again.
He’s finished. He’s not catching Jack Nicklaus. He’s won what, fourteen majors? Well, that’s what he’ll stay on for the rest of eternity. It’s a shame, because he has put his entire being into chasing Nicklaus, and we, as fans, have followed him for over a decade assuming that the record would eventually be in his grasp, and sooner rather than later. It’s frustrating to get to this point and think that we’ll never reach that moment with Woods. But we never will. There are a few reasons why.
1. What’s the point?
Tiger Woods has been raised his entire life to break Nicklaus’s record. It was a goal established by his old man and seconded by Nicklaus himself. Tiger was going to smash the record, and then children of all colors were going to join hands in song and a giant rainbow would ring the Earth for the next eight millennia. That was the plan. There was no other plan. This is what Woods, his dad, and golf wanted for him.
Along the way, it became what everyone wanted for him. His life was about breaking that record. More important, his life was about the moment he broke the record. The wild cheers from the crowd. The breathless platitudes from the golf media. The hug from his wife and kids after coming off the course. (And the inevitable four-way in Vegas the weekend after.) That moment was what Tiger Woods’s soul was programmed for. Think about how often Tiger must have dreamed of that moment. Think about how much that consumed everything he ever was or will be.
That moment will never happen now. Not even if Tiger breaks the record (which, again, he won’t). Woods was heckled at an event after coming back a few months ago, and when someone in the gallery shushed the heckler, the heckler turned and said, “Come on, do you really want that scumbag breaking the record?” There are still people who expect their athletes to be perfect in every way, and Tiger Woods was well on his way to fulfilling that little wet dream until last Thanksgiving. That happy ending he had spent a lifetime orchestrating has no chance of ever happening.
So, knowing that’s ruined, why bother? What’s the point of winning all these majors if that moment has been ruined forever? Why keep trying to break the record if you know the end result will ultimately feel hollow? I’m not saying Tiger Woods doesn’t care anymore. I’m just saying that he has to know, deep down, that this doesn’t mean anywhere near as much as it used to. He’s a failure as a human being, and all the major titles in the world aren’t gonna make a goddamn difference. That’s what is likely in his head now when he walks the course, not the vision of 6 billion people simultaneously bowing in respect to his golfing legacy.
2. He isn’t made for this kind of adversity.
Woods was raised to believe he would be the greatest golfer ever. There’s a certain irony that, for his infamous ad earlier this year, Nike extrapolated some Earl Woods lecture about golf and tried to change it into a statement about Tiger’s life choices. But they — of course — couldn’t find any Earl Woods speech that talked about life instead of golf. Golf was life. The beginning and end. Everything Woods has been taught about adversity — from playing from behind to enduring racial taunts during his childhood — has been within the context of golf. Off the course? Well, off the course was the easy part. Everyone would love Tiger forever and ever and he’d be a super-awesome husband and father. No need to worry about that. Just focus on what to do when you’re stuck in a pot bunker.
I’m sure Earl Woods gave Tiger lessons on playing extra holes in a major on a compromised ACL. But I strongly doubt Earl Woods gave Tiger lessons on what to do when you’re having sex with 172 women at once and the media, your wife, and your mother all find out about it simultaneously.
Given how sloppy and brazen he was with his infidelities, Tiger Woods likely never expected to get caught cheating on his wife. Which means he also never expected to have to deal with any of the fallout from something like this ever happening. But now that has happened, and he knows control over both his personal life and his image is gone forever. He isn’t built to withstand that, which is why his game has collapsed.
Here’s a football analogy. In football, you’ll often see an offensively minded team go through a season on an absolute tear. They’ll win every game by 35 points, scoring seemingly at will. Then that offense will go up against a great defense in an NFL playoff game, or a bowl game, and they’ll collapse (see Florida State in the 2001 Orange Bowl). Why does it happen? Because the offense has such an easy run of things in the regular season that, when they get stuffed early, they begin to fret about why things aren’t so easy. Then they press, trying to score their customary 35 points all at once, then things get worse, and then suddenly their confidence is gone. That’s Tiger Woods’s personal life. He cruised until he hit a roadblock, and it was the kind of roadblock he was never trained to overcome. It’s not golf. It’s something that requires a whole other set of skills that he entirely lacks.
3. Other players are better now, and they aren’t scared of him.
It’s hard to be afraid of a guy who texts some chick telling her he’d “love to have the ability to make you sore.” Oh, do you lack that ability? Well then, guess you aren’t so intimidating after all. Woods is a laughingstock among his peers now. Maybe there was some Tiger Mystique before. That’s gone forever, now that everyone knows that Woods is a brat who pisses and moans at errant shots and talks a lousy game even with women who want him.
4. Turns out, Tiger Woods is not preternaturally immune to pressure.
If Woods fails to win another major in his career, no one will doubt that the destruction of his reputation was a very large reason why. If Woods fails to win another major, he will be perhaps the first great athlete whose game was destroyed by his own lechery, and the magnitude of that collapse is unfathomable. That record is all he has left. If he doesn’t get it, then what is he? In his own eyes, nothing. Breaking the record has now become both a letdown and an enormous burden.
We’ve just completed the first year of Tiger’s post-scandal career. There were three majors played at courses where he has been dominant (Augusta, St. Andrews, Pebble Beach), and he blew a shot at all of them. If the scandal hadn’t happened, he probably would have won one of those tournaments. But he whiffed on all four majors, and every major he fails to win from now on increases the suspicion that his golf game has been permanently marred by the damage he has done to his personal life. When Woods came back for Augusta this year, we all assumed he’d be back to his old self at some point. He was too talented and mentally tough on the course not to succeed again. Right?
It turns out Tiger Woods is not the wizard of compartmentalization many assumed. His putting average this year was 1.779, which would rank him 89th on the PGA tour if he played enough to be included in the stats. His rank last year? Twenty-fourth. You don’t have to play golf to know putting is a skill that involves atomically precise levels of concentration. He hasn’t gotten better over the summer, given his blowup at Bridgestone and his lackluster showing at the PGA. This scandal has messed with his brain, and every major he loses from now on means he has to think more and more and more about being The Guy Who Fucked It All Up. No human being is immune to that kind of pressure. Woods used to be chasing something great, and now something very bad is chasing him.
5. He’s not Tiger Woods anymore. So who is he?
Perhaps Woods would have been able to withstand this horrible year if there were an actual person behind all the ads. But there isn’t. Athletes like Woods and LeBron James were raised to cultivate a brand identity, and when you’re raised that way, your brand identity becomes your actual identity. There’s no separating the two. Woods spent his entire life cultivating his image, and when that image was destroyed, he was destroyed. There was no actual person to fall back on. No separation of church and state.
When Tiger Woods had the image of being an indestructible force of nature, he was precisely that. He needed that reputation. It fed him. And now that it’s gone, he has nowhere else to draw strength from. Tiger Woods built his perfection upon the illusion of it. And that’s why, as far as major championships are concerned, Tiger Woods’s career is now over.