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Tiger Woods’ full importance wasn’t obvious until he was gone


When Tiger Woods won the Masters last weekend, it was a moment many thought would never happen.

Woods has been one of the most important figures in modern sports because of the way he rocketed into golf and exemplified excellence. He is second all-time on the list of wins (81) and majors (15), and reintroduced a generation to a tradition like no other.

It was hard to think a time could come when he would be irrelevant.

Until the moment he was.

You don’t need to be a fan of an athlete to be disappointed by him. And Tiger didn’t simply disappoint -- he disappeared. Woods’ infidelity on an epic scale was paired with a precipitous decline due to a cascade of injuries. For a time, Woods’ career paralleled those of Serena and Venus Williams’ in tennis, each breaking new ground in their respective sports through the combination of towering accomplishment and simply showing up. Then Tiger went away, and with him, much of the influence he brought.

A return to prominence for Woods could mean many things. (David Cannon/Getty)

In the years since the Williams sisters started playing, more and more young women of color picked up a racket. If you look across the WTA landscape you can see the full-grown results of a real push to open tennis up to young players of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. American tennis now has players like Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Taylor Townsend in the top 100 in the world.

When we look at golf, the sport hasn’t done as well with introducing the sport to new players – although you can’t exactly pin it all on Woods. The Masters was entrenched in an anti-inclusivity stance until 2012 when two women, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, were named members. Many private clubs remain expensive and exclusive, and public courses can be scarce in different regions. Eight months ago, then PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua said diversity was the top issue facing the sport.

“The biggest challenge is, I think, the challenge that everyone in golf shares, which is how do you grow this game?” said Bevacqua. “How do you make this game more accessible and more diverse?

Bevacqua said this two decades after the emergence of one of the greatest athletes in his game, the son of a black man and a Thai woman.

To address the inequity, the PGA, LPGA and other groups started the First Tee program to create a path for kids who didn’t historically have access to the sport, but the results haven’t been as robust as hoped.

How much of that could Tiger Woods personally change?

It’s hard to know. In a video that circulated widely after Woods’ win Sunday, a 14-year-old Tiger is asked what his ultimate ambition is in the sport, the one tournament he wants to win. “The Masters,” he says. Why? “The way blacks have been treated there. You know, they shouldn’t be there. If I win that tournament, it’ll be really big for us.”

Woods became an icon, but before he could leverage his platform as Venus did, for example by advocating for equal pay at Wimbledon in a 2006 opinion piece in the Times of London, he was absorbed by the chaos he’d created in his private life.

It's been more than a decade since Woods won a playoff with Rocco Mediate in 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
It's been more than a decade since Woods won a playoff with Rocco Mediate in 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. (Union-Tribune file photo)

With his reputation in tatters, his ability to inspire change became just another in a cascade of what ifs. If he could have made more of a difference, he robbed himself of the best years to do it. The biggest casualty of his 11-year title drought might not have been the majors and titles, but also the moral authority to advocate for inclusion in golf.

There was a time when I didn’t care if Tiger Woods ever won another round of golf.

But the 11 years since Woods won his last major title haven’t just weathered the former champion, we as a culture have examined what we are really looking for in our heroes. Woods didn’t cheat at his sport or physically harm anyone. After years watching violent players recycled by leagues, time has changed my perception of what is unforgivable.

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2019 Masters Golf Tournament

Last Saturday, Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman sealed a win with nary a mention of a domestic violence incident in which he allegedly fired a gun. Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt will play on after an eight-game suspension for kicking a woman in a violent incident caught on video. The list goes on.

By contrast, Woods’ sex scandal was humiliating, but not violent or criminal.

Woods’ second act has been as challenging as his first seemed easy. He was not winning. He required four back surgeries, and there were moments he fell to the fairway in pain after a shot.

So last weekend, when Woods finally earned another green jacket, it was hard not to be moved. When he walked to hug his children Sam and Charlie, who had not known their father as the active champion so many remember him for, the joy was evident on all of their faces.

Turns out, it’s not too late for Tiger. And, hopefully, it’s not too late for golf. Woods’ second act can mean a lot of things, and making the sport a more inclusive place could be one of them.

Sometimes people can disappoint you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t respect the comeback.