There’s an old maxim I coined a decade or so ago called “the Nancy Grace Rule” of sports stories: The more a sports story is talked about on cable news, the less sports fans can stand to hear about it. Once the story is picked up and signal boosted by outlets that are not known for covering sports — like, um, New York Magazine — sports fans have already moved on to something else and are desperate for the story to go away. These stories are usually negative, or somehow controversial: They can be of grave consequence, like the Penn State scandal, or they can be silly and pointless but compulsive and addictive, like Deflategate. The Nancy Grace Rule does not always reflect positively on sports fans; the widespread exhaustion from having to fully reckon with the Colin Kaepernick story ultimately led to the NFL, essentially, getting away with blackballing him from the game in an unofficial ban that now appears to be permanent. But you get it. Sports fans obsess, to their detriment, about sports all day, every day, their entire lives. Crossover stories can feel like your dad suddenly discovering your favorite band.
Rare is the positive story that crosses over into the Nancy Grace zone, a massive and happy sports occurrence that the rest of the world grasps as its own. The most recent one had probably been the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series in 2016, which mostly manifested itself in harmless GIFs of Bill Murray and Eddie Vedder. But then came this weekend:
Reportedly that’s the first sports game story ever on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, though, to be fair, “Billionaire Honored at Exclusive Club With Only Three Female Members” is a story that would seem destined for the front page of The Wall Street Journal whether it was about sports or not. But more to the point: When Tiger Woods won the Masters this weekend, it immediately became the biggest sports story of the year and the one that everyone in your life, whether they care about golf or not, had some sort of opinion about. It became the ultimate Nancy Grace Rule story, except it was one we could all feel good about. Your dad won’t stop talking about it through Thanksgiving.
The story is undeniably irresistible. Woods, who once seemed well on his way to breaking Jack Nicklaus’s all-time record for major championships, famously had not won a major golf tournament since his reputation exploded following the notorious Thanksgiving 2009 SUV crash, and in the wake of his arrest in 2017 for driving under the influence (and an all-timer “passage of time” mug shot), it was generally assumed, including by Tiger himself, that age, excess, and chronic back pain had finished him off once and for all. But he rebounded in 2018 and began to look somewhat like himself again, and Sunday, when he had a vintage Tiger takeover on the back nine of the most famous golf course in the world, the comeback was complete. Everybody could feel like it was 1999 again.
The lasting visual of Tiger’s victory is indicative of how his charms have always been separate from his aloof, almost entirely Nike-constructed public personality. After he won, Tiger (and he’s of course “Tiger,” not “Woods”) hugged his 10-year-old son Charlie upon leaving the green. The parallel to Tiger hugging his late father Earl in the same spot 22 years ago, after winning his first Masters and emerging on the global stage, was catnip for anyone watching, and, almost certainly for the first time in your life, Tiger Woods, robotic, Trump buddy, sex-addiction-clinic-attending, Dan Jenkins–hating, weird-ski-mask-wearing Tiger Woods, made you cry. But why, exactly, were you crying? It’s not as if any of us know anything about the relationship between Tiger Woods and his son; I’m not sure I even knew Tiger Woods had a son until he hugged him Sunday. The urge to cry upon seeing Tiger Woods hug his son after winning the Masters has nothing to do with the two of them, just like the enjoyment of Woods’s career has never had much to do with him personally. Woods’s win didn’t remind people of why they liked Woods. It reminded them of themselves. The kids in 1997 watching Woods now have kids of their own; maybe, like Woods, the parent they shared that win with back then is no longer here.
Athletes of such obvious world-straddling promise only come along so often, and when you see them while still young yourself, you can be fooled into think their reigns — like the fantasies of your own life you’re hatching — could be eternal. For a fan of the right age, this can happen even with a merely pretty good player who happens to be the most exciting member of the local team. (You will never persuade me that 1993–97 Fighting Illini point guard Kiwane Garris isn’t one the ten most thrilling athletes in human history.) But Tiger was, as soon as he arrived in the limelight, a star of an obviously different category — and because he played golf, perhaps the least “young man’s game” of them all, you could be forgiven for believing he’d win every tournament for a generation. Watching Woods Sunday, now balding and craggy but still with the flicker of who he once was, brings the story full circle. But it’s the audience’s story, not necessarily his.
It is also worth noting that the redemption narrative is, like everything else, something everyone’s piling on for their own benefit. There has been much “Tiger shut up the haters!” celebrating in the wake of his victory, without much acknowledgement that, well, those celebrating were the haters. The people embracing Tiger and claiming they believed him in all along are the same ones giddily passing that mug shot around social media two years ago. His looking so ghastly in that photo reminded everyone how old we’d all gotten; his victory Sunday allowed us to pretend we all still have something left. (We were more right the first time.) The story is never about Tiger. It’s always about what fans and media have collectively projected upon him.
But that’s what makes it that rare sort of universal sports story: It allows that sort of projection, and the sort of faux-redemption story that real life rarely provides. The fun of Tiger winning is that you don’t have to enjoy golf, or ever watch golf, or even understand it, to feel like you’re a part of his victory. That’s what the Cubs’ recent World Series win was too: You might not be able to tell the difference between a slide and a slider, but you know what it’s like to fall short your whole life but still believe that someday, finally, you’ll have your day. (It’s why the biggest potential American crossover sports story left on the board is probably the long-beleaguered Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl.) That’s both the fun of sports, and the limitation of them. Who Tiger Woods is matters less than what he means for people who, in many ways, are only slightly paying attention.
Sports allows us to think about athletic achievement in the context of ourselves. But mostly, they just allow us to think about ourselves.
Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.