Tiger Woods was not raised to be a team player. His parents long ago armed him with a driver and a putter and sent him out on a seek-and-destroy mission, shaping him into the ultimate individual in the ultimate individual sport.
Woods didn’t make friends in the locker room, and didn’t make small talk with opponents, and didn’t make eye contact with the fans. He was on a never-ending business trip. He would dominate a tournament, pack up, then go on to dominate the next one. Nothing was more fun than crushing the field by five strokes, other than crushing the field by 10.
His miserable Ryder Cup record in team matches? Hey, for most of his career, Woods was as self-centered a superstar as you could find, and man, that’s saying a mouthful. He was hell-bent on breaking as many records as possible, and he didn’t care much who got hurt in the process.
So in his final hours as a major-championship hopeful, as Woods tries to defy the odds and his broken 46-year-old body and win the British Open at St. Louis. Andrews, the fact that he has morphed into The Great Defender of the PGA Tour might come as a shock to those who follow the game. But in the name of protecting his colleagues and the infrastructure in place for his 82 career victories, including 15 majors, Woods did indeed rip off a series of low stingers aimed at Greg Norman, the CEO of LIV Golf, and at the name players who traded in old-school competition for guaranteed blood-money deals.
“I think what they’ve done is they’ve turned their back on what has allowed them to get into this position,” Woods said the other day, before pointing out that big, up-front cash can extinguish the fire within.
“What is the incentive to go out there and earn it in the dirt?” Woods asked.
The late, great Ben Hogan once said of the pursuit of perfection in a maddeningly imperfect game: “The secret is in the dirt.” Three years ago, when accepting the Golf Writers Association of America’s award in Hogan’s honor for overcoming a physical handicap or serious illness, Woods first showed signs of embracing a bigger picture than any that showed him lifting a trophy to the sky.
He spoke that April night of the longshot spinal-fusion surgery that alleviated his debilitating back issues and barely saved his career.
“I was able to start walking again,” he said. “I was able to participate in life. I was able to be around my kids again, and go to their games and go to their practices, take them to school again. ”
Woods actually thanked golf writers for their positive pieces in covering his comeback (he’d nearly won two majors in 2018). “I can’t thank you enough,” he said to a stunned dinner audience, before thanking all the “very special people” in the room for promoting the game.
Four days later, Woods made the planet stop to watch him win the Masters. He hugged his son, Charlie, afterward, the way his father, Earl, had hugged him after his first Masters victory in 1997. In the parking lot later, while wearing a Saquon Barkley T-shirt under his white jumpsuit, Woods’s caddie and diehard Giants fan Joe LaCava said this about his man:
“He’s high-fiving people, he’s talking to people, he’s signing autographs. He’s much more fan-friendly, which I think is awesome. He’s great with the kids, talking to guys in groups more… and everybody out there is pulling for him. How many guys did you see sitting there waiting for him on 18? ”
Many players and past champs were there to greet him. They saw Woods not only as an all-time great, but as a changed man with a more mature world view. Woods had committed serious unforced errors against his own legacy by way of the sex scandal and the DUI arrest, and ultimately the mounting injuries compelled him to confess to fellow pros that he was done. Humbled by his failures and flaws and grounded by fatherhood, Woods became more relatable to the galleries and more accessible to his peers.
The young Tiger forged tour friendships with those who weren’t serious threats to his reign, including the aging likes of Mark O’Meara and John Cook. The old Tiger is comfortable assuming the role of big brother to some of the world’s best players, including Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, who will out-drive him and out-putt him far more often than not.
Like Jack Nicklaus, Woods never wanted to be considered a ceremonial golfer. Yet by all accounts in Scotland, he has cherished every ceremonial minute of the celebration of the 150th Open at the game’s true home. Ever since his 2021 car wreck nearly cost him his right leg, Woods has badly wanted to be part of this at St. Andrews, where he won two of his three Open titles.
When he tees off Thursday morning at 9:59 EDT, with US Open champ Matt Fitzpatrick and Max Homa, Woods will surely believe he has a chance to win again. If he somehow prevails Sunday, it will go down among the most profound upsets in sports history.
But the bigger upset is that Tiger Woods, who probably could have scored nearly a billion guaranteed dollars from LIV Golf, has grown into a helluva team player. Nobody on the PGA Tour saw that coming during his seek-and-destroy prime.