So, to begin at the end, we have the oft misquoted line from F Scott Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Au contraire, Scottie, au contraire. America, it can be argued, has been the most forgiving of societies when it comes to epic falls from grace; Cassius Clay, Robert Downey Jnr, Ray Rice, its current president Joseph Biden. It — the country, its media and consumers — love nothing better than a second act, a comeback. Fitzgerald, it should be noted, fulfilled his own misquoted prophecy; he was dead at 44, broken by a life of sporadic brilliance and incessant excess. There was no second act for him, or for his tortured wife Zelda, who died in a fire within the hospital she was a patient of, aged 48.
There’s a catch, though; it may be the most forgiving (or fickle) of societies; but, before any atonement, there must be given copious pounds of flesh. Perpetual perp walks. Few of its subjects know this better than Tiger Woods, who last week was cut from his car in a crash that might have killed him.
As Rory McIlroy pointed out since, whether he ever plays golf again is irrelevant; he’s lucky to be alive. As with everything in Woods’s world; the crash and the reaction to it exist on two conflicting levels; the human, and the voyeur. For Tiger, dealing with the overlap has been a life’s work.
Woods first appeared on national television aged two, with his dad Earl, on the Mike Douglas Show, when he trotted out, golf bag on back, and flushed shot after shot off to the amazement of Bob Hope. He was two. Two!
He was not an adult, or a child, but a baby. Between that and winning his first US Masters by a record number of strokes, aged 21, there was unprecedented hype. He didn’t live up to it, but surpassed it in a way few could have imagined possible. That he did it playing the game of golf, as a mixed-race kid in the whitest of white sports, only serves to amplify his genius.
Between 1997 and 2008, he won 14 majors, and looked a dead cert to catch Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18. Fate had other plans for him; first, his body started to give in. Second, his personal life fell apart, and so began the perp walks.
Even by American standards, Woods’ televised apology following revelations of infidelities in 2010 was extraordinary. Surrounded by friends, his mother and members of his family, he flagellated himself in front of the world’s media in a performance every bit as calculated as one of his famed Sunday charges.
The narrative — there is always a narrative when it comes to the telling of Tiger’s story — is that Woods’s decline as a golfer began with the very public dismantling of his convoluted private life. As messy as that life was, the narrative was neat. It ignores the hard truth that it was his body that ultimately betrayed him, not his wandering eye. Had he stayed healthy, it is more probable than possible he would have endured his public flogging for his marital misdeeds and emerged soon after, contrite and consistently brilliant again (it’s often overlooked that Woods was world no.1 as late as May 2014, four and a half years after the infamous Thanksgiving night crash).
But, we need a story, a narrative. And the story is that Woods’ game fell apart because his life did. Every comeback needs a rock bottom, and Woods obliged with another perp walk in 2017 when he was arrested close to his Florida home, asleep at the wheel of his SUV. That episode (which he attributed to a reaction to prescription medication) provided the world with the most American of phenomena; the mug shot, accompanied by a running commentary from the Palm Beach Sheriff’s department, a toxicology report, and dashcam footage.
In the US, you don’t just get an arrest, you get the director’s cut, complete with DVD extras.
The very public window into Tiger’s world stood in stark contrast to that of the PGA tour, and its almost catholic aversion to scandal. (Unlike other professional sports, golf does not disclose the fines or suspensions levied on its players. Only in the rare cases when a player tests positive for a performance-enhancing drug has the discipline been made public).
The tabloids made hay, and sports media wrote obituaries for Woods’ career, no doubt with one eye on his glorious comeback — the more ‘finished’ he was, the more epic his return. Once again, as if starring in a Truman Show type charade, Tiger indulged us.
His 2019 US. Masters win was movie-worthy, all by itself. The images of him bending his back — a back that had been literally fused together — to embrace his kids greenside gave us the next chapter; his Augusta redemption launched a thousand backpage columns; Tiger the high-fiver, the hugger, the friend, the father, the son. Tiger Woods; Changed Man.
In truth, he probably just got old. For most of us, life can sometimes be hard, but golf is harder. For Woods, it seemed the opposite. That speaks more to how good he was at the game rather than how bad he may have been at life.
All things considered, his ability to have made it this far; to have a seemingly healthy relationship with his kids and their mother, is maybe his greatest achievement when viewed through the unique prism of his journey.
That he supposedly bears grudges, that he’s allegedly tight with money, that he was definitely a bad husband once upon a time, only serves to bust the myth we all played a part in creating; Tiger Woods is human, not an unbreakable athlete, and not an icon, who would be “bigger than Gandhi” as his late father predicted.
Against incredible odds, he has given us the second act, only time will tell if he delivers a third. The world will be waiting and watching regardless.