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Tiger Woods: Becoming human

Alan Tyers
August 11, 2014
The iconic Tiger Woods smile of his youth has been replaced by a perma-scowl and grimace © Getty Images

"I need to get my glutes strong again, my abs and my core back to where I used to have them," said Tiger Woods. Mate, don't we all. Tiger, speaking after a pair of 74s saw him miss the US PGA cut at Valhalla, is facing up to a realisation that hits all of us at some point. He is getting older, and weaker, and nearer to death with each second that passes.

Tiger, welcome to the human race.

When we first came to watch him play golf, in the mid-1990s, the only reasonable explanation was that he was some sort of superhuman. They talked not of whether he could break Jack Nicklaus's Major record, but when, and by how much. Some soon lamented that he would kill the sport of golf, that competition among other top professionals would become only for second place. They came up with schemes to Tiger-proof the courses, ways to protect their carefully-tended fairways and greens from this monster who hit the ball harder and farther and more accurately than anyone had ever seen.

The cliché that no player is bigger than the game seemed hopelessly out-dated. Not only was he brilliant, he was beautiful. It wasn't just that he played better than everyone else, he looked totally different. Apart from the occasional flamboyant Spaniard, golfers had generally looked like accountants who did a lot of keep fit, suburban white blokes who enjoyed a good steak (well-done) and chips, and a moan about the price of petrol. The sort of people you traditionally found in golf clubs, basically. Tiger was more interesting, bigger and better than golf right away.

Rory McIlroy has now beyond question replaced Tiger Woods as The Biggest Deal in golf

That his breakout triumph came at Augusta, the spiritual home of golfing conservatism and small-mindedness, made it all the more exciting. He didn't look like the sort of person who played golf, indeed he looked like the sort of person that the people at Augusta had very much not wanted to play golf at Augusta. He was freakishly good, he was handsome, he was mixed-race, he was modern. Sponsors were wetting themselves with excitement.

The superhuman was well-spoken, a bit detached, he seemed secure and unruffled by it all. And for about ten years, he kept winning everything. Some started to read his calm self-possession as arrogance. Some were frustrated that he refused to bang the drum for diversity and empowerment through sport, choosing instead to deflect these unsought accolades with blandishments. Others found his enormous appetite for commercial deals wearying. His perceived discomfort with the team ethic of the Ryder Cup was taken as an indicator of anything from selfishness to a lack of patriotism.

None of it really mattered, because he kept winning, but then came the events of Thanksgiving 2009, when his then-wife confronted him about an affair and attacked him. With a golf club. There is no doubt that it was one of the greatest sports news stories of all time.

Overnight, the narrative about Tiger changed. He was no longer the aloof guy who won all the golf. He was a serial cheater, a calculating swine. The sport of golf, which requires that unusual detachment where you play not others but a course, seemed ideally suited for a man now viewed by many as all-but a sociopath. No longer superhuman, but less than human. He hasn't won a Major since.

And now at the US PGA, he has watched on as the player who was for a long time his nearest (albeit still distant) rival, Phil Mickelson, fought the good fight against the young man, Rory McIlroy, who has now beyond question replaced him as The Biggest Deal in golf. They say Tom Watson won't pick Tiger for the Ryder Cup. On current form, Watson could pick himself over the man who won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots. It is some fall.

Tiger has spoken about his back problems, how they limit his movement and control. He can no longer hit with the beautiful brutality of old, when he could rely on a wonderful overall physique to get the club head to the ball at the precise location needed. Now he has to control it with his hands, his touch, like a person, not a gleaming golf cyborg. He may take time away from the sport to mend his back. It's unclear how much the rest of him needs healing, or how much he is prepared to admit that he is hurting.

If he does come back and win another Major, it will dwarf all his other achievements, because he will have done it not as a superhuman, but as a human. With his flaws, his weaknesses, his unpleasant characteristics as well as his great ones. Welcome to the human race, Tiger. We hope you like it here.

Tiger Woods is in danger of missing out on selection for the United States' Ryder Cup team © Getty Images

Alan Tyers writes for the Daily Telegraph, ESPNcricinfo and is the author of six books, the most recent of which is Tutenkhamen's Tracksuit: The History of Sport in 100ish Objects

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