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The Fall of Tiger Woods

Not too long ago he was mentioned in the same breath as Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. He’s not anymore.

While mindlessly scrolling through Instagram on Memorial Day, a picture posted by Barstool Sports stopped me dead in my tracks. Staring back at me was Tiger Woods, but not from some promo for an upcoming major golf tournament. The image that transfixed me was a mugshot. Although the picture didn’t look familiar, the accompanying caption, which poked fun at the golfer’s infamous penchant for infidelity, made me reconsider its legitimacy.

Naturally, I opened Twitter to find out. My feed was blowing up with the breaking news: Tiger Woods Arrested for DUI in Jupiter, Florida. It sunk in as I scoured over each report by ESPN, Yahoo, CBS, and NBC. My initial reaction wasn’t one of shock — as it was in 2009 when Tiger crashed his Escalade into a fire hydrant in the wee hours of the morning — or even surprise; rather, I shrugged off the arrest while considering all of the well-known athletes who’ve suffered through worse.

My nonchalance lasted less than an hour. By the time I went back on Instagram my feed was flooded with Tiger Woods — specifically, a continuous scroll of Tiger memes featuring the mugshot as the centerpiece.

For some reason, in that moment, I was overcome by a feeling of unshakeable pity. As I stared at the endless display of mugshots, I couldn’t help but think about the color red.

While I couldn’t tell you what my earliest experience hearing about, or watching, Tiger Woods was like, I know for certain that I first encountered golf through him.

As a kid, my mom’s family — eight siblings and 14 grandkids — would go to my Grandma and Grandpa’s for weekend get-togethers. During the spring and summer, Sunday Dinners took place every week, and it felt like every major golf championship was decided in the same living room — with the men crowding around the old-school box-set while my Grandpa sat reclined in his La-Z-Boy.

Although I always made sure to get a view of the TV during the biggest sporting events that were witnessed in that room, golf was the exception. That changed in 2000, which is when I first laid eyes on Tiger Woods.

For an 8 year old, Woods represented an image far different than the one I had forever associated with golf — that of old, unathletic white men wearing dull colors that matched their grey hair, while carrying themselves in a quiet manner.

Tiger was the complete opposite. There was an energy to him. He looked like he was having fun — at golf! On top of that, he had a cool name and was always dripping in Nike apparel. His emergence was like a jolt of youthful exuberance into the heart of a Senior Citizen’s Club.

The beginning of my Tiger obsession coincided with his first career peak. From 2000–01, he won four straight majors — 2000 U.S. Open (highlighted by a record-setting 15-stroke win), 2000 Open Championship, 2000 PGA Championship, and 2001 Masters — becoming the first golfer to hold all four major championships at the same time.

In 2002, Tiger won his second consecutive Masters and third overall, followed by a win in the 2002 U.S. Open. At the time, Tiger was 27 years old, with 8 majors (fifth-most ever) and 3 Green Jackets (third-most ever). At that moment, the impossible expectations that fell on him since the 1997 Masters became imaginable. Going forward his career would be measured against the GOAT — Jack Nicklaus.

Following a stellar 2001 and 2002, Woods’ career hit its first slump. After failing to win a major in 2003 and 2004, Tiger’s record streak — 264 consecutive weeks as the #1 ranked golfer in the world — ended. The golf world was puzzled by his struggle, attributing it to a rift with his swinging coach and/or his recent engagement and marriage. For the first time in his young career, Tiger entered the peak of his prime with his back against the wall. In retrospect, it was an obstacle that paved the way for the most iconic moment of his career.

The 2005 Masters was the first major Tiger headed into without the #1 ranking since the 1997 U.S. Open. Playing against a competitive field, Tiger found himself four strokes back of leader Chris DeMarco heading into the final round. On the back nine, after Tiger quickly turned a four-shot deficit into a three-shot lead, DeMarco cut it to one-stroke as both golfers walked to 16. On the par-3 hole, DeMarco sat comfortably in the center of the green — 15 feet out for a birdie — while Tiger hit his first tee shot into the rough.

CBS commentators called it “the toughest pitch on the course.” Facing a potential bogey, Tiger got the ball up in the air, landing it on the hill, from which it slowly rolled down to the hole where it rested for what seemed like an eternity, before finally falling in.

For as much as I remember the unfathomable chip-in, I’ll never forget what happened immediately after: Tiger, dressed in his signature red Nike shirt and black Nike hat, unleashing his famous fist-pump while the peanut gallery erupted behind him — an electricity never duplicated on a golf course. Twelve years on, it serves as the most exquisitely cinematic moment in golf history.

The Masters win kickstarted Tiger’s second peak, as he won consecutive Open Championships (2005 and 2006) and back-to-back PGA Championships (2006 & 2007). In 2008, he had surgery on his left knee before the Masters. As we watched Tiger hobble around a few months later in the U.S. Open, it was clear that he had returned too soon. Even so, he entered Sunday with the lead, which was equivalent to Mariano Rivera going into the ninth inning with a Yankees lead. It was that much of a sure thing. In his career, Tiger had won all 13 majors in which he entered the final round with at least a share of the lead.

On the back nine, Tiger struggled while coughing up the lead to Roco Mediate. Teeing off on 18, he needed a birdie to force a playoff. After hitting his drive into a bunker, it felt like we were witnessing an invincible heavy-weight fighter being knocked out. It was surreal to watch in real time, as golf fans held their breath, hoping we wouldn’t see Tiger’s mortality on full display. With his third shot, Tiger reached the green, putting himself one 12-foot putt away from forcing a playoff. With his legendary clutch gene on the line, Tiger’s putt lipped the cup, before rolling in to force the playoff, as Jim Nantz encapsulated the moment with one line: Expect anything different?!

It felt like 2005 all over again. Tiger in red and black, fist-pumping in front of a crowd in sheer hysteria. After winning the playoff, Tiger snatched his 14th major — putting him 4 behind Jack Nicklaus. At 33 years old, it was no longer a question of if but a question of when. In that moment, with the entire gallery behind him, it was clear Tiger had the highest approval rating of any athlete alive. Everyone loved him.

Further, Tiger had cemented his position atop Sports’ Mount Rushmore — alongside Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, and Babe Ruth. He was better at golf than anyone was at anything. On that early summer evening he felt bigger than sports, a reputation that would surely only expand during the final chapter of his career. In hindsight, it served as the end of Tiger Woods as we knew him.

You know what happened next. At 2:30 AM on November 27, 2009, Tiger crashed his Escalade into a fire hydrant near his house. Four days after the accident, the first woman came forward, admitting to having an affair with Woods, kickstarting the the biggest sports story since OJ Simpson. Over the next few weeks his personal life unraveled amid reports of multiple extramarital affairs, as he lost major sponsorship endorsements from Gatorade and AT&T.

By the time he returned to golf in the 2010 Masters, everything had changed. In five months, Tiger had gone from sports’ greatest hero to its most loathed villian. Gone was the exuberance that sprang from excellence, and in its place, a distant-looking golfer who carried himself in a timid manner. The scandal continued to overshadow his comeback attempt, as Tiger finished the year without winning a PGA tournament for the first time in his career. He hit rock bottom the following year. After finishing fourth at the Masters, injuries forced him to miss the Open and U.S. Open, while he missed the cut at the PGA Championship.

After a semi-successful 2012 — three PGA tour wins — Tiger reclaimed the #1 ranking in the world by winning three tournaments to start 2013. For all that had been uncovered regarding Tiger Woods, the man, the sports world was dying to once again experience the electricity of Tiger, the golfer. At the 2013 Masters, with Tiger jostling with the top 4 leaders on Sunday, everything felt right in the world. Although he would fail to win his fifth green jacket, while ending the year without a major, all that mattered is that for the first time since 2008, it felt like Tiger was back.

Adding injury to insult, the comeback attempt we so badly wanted hit a new snag in 2014 when Tiger’s body began to break down, forcing him to miss the Masters for the first time since 1994. Despite returning to the Masters in 2015, Tiger failed to make the cut in the following three majors, and the unspeakable became undeniable: Tiger may never win another major.

Worse, that seemed like an understatement. When multiple back surgeries kept him out of the entirety of 2016, and when another back surgery ended his 2017 comeback attempt, the doubt shifted from wondering if he’d ever win another major to wondering if we’d ever see him on the tour again.

Many in the sports world have spent the last year awaiting good news, some kind of glimmer of hope. What we got instead was a mugshot and a bizarrely misreported, though ultimately just as unflattering, new Tiger Woods scandal. Tragically, it appears to be the final nail in the coffin of Tiger’s illustrious career.

In the future, there will be countless documentaries made on Tiger’s story. While you can imagine how the current rendition would play out — the child prodigy, the 1997 Masters, the chip-shot in 2005, the bum-knee in 2008, the scandal, the failed comebacks, the DUI — it feels like something is missing. Despite all the success Tiger has enjoyed, this story feels fundamentally like a tragedy. Is an ending possible in which he becomes whole again?

Maybe that’s just me being hopeful — dreaming about a satisfying ending for the greatest athlete this century. Perhaps you’re more cynical, yet there’s no denying you see it too: The final round in Augusta on a spring Sunday evening; Tiger wearing the red and black that forever served as his opponents’ funeral attire; an iconic drive, chip, or shot; followed by one last fist-pump.