By Tim Whyte
Why do we like Tiger Woods?
It was a question posed by one of my favorite sports talk hosts, Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports, the morning after Tiger’s thrilling victory last Sunday in The Masters, arguably golf’s most prestigious tournament.
Cowherd’s answer was a thoughtful one and I found myself nodding in agreement.
I’d already thought about it while watching the final round on Sunday, playing back the recording of the round in between chores and errands. What struck me then was that I like Tiger because, in a weird way, he plays the game like so many of us.
I swear there was a run of four or five holes where all of his drives went wide into the trees. I could relate to that. I can’t hit the ball as far as Tiger can, but I can sure as hell hit it into the trees.
It’s what he does next that makes him different. Tiger finds a way out of the trees. When I hit it in the trees, I usually hit more trees on the way out.
So there’s this blend of humanity and superiority that’s somehow appealing.
Tiger has that, and it manifests itself on the course and off. I think that’s why so many have forgiven his off-the-course troubles. Americans love a good redemption story.
There’s been plenty NOT to like about Tiger through the course of his life. In his peak years, he wasn’t exactly a charmer with the media, the fans or his colleagues on the PGA Tour. Did his fellow golfers like him? By most accounts, no. But they feared him, especially on Sundays.
And he gave casual fans a reason to watch. People who rarely ever watch or play golf tune in when Tiger, wearing his signature Sunday red shirt, is making a charge through the field on Sunday afternoon. You could love him, or love to hate him, but either way, you were watching.
Then there were the personal troubles. Sure, a lot of it’s not really any of our business. But the cheating on his now ex-wife, the self-destructive behavior that caused his family life to implode, the addiction to pain medication — those are things that can diminish the public’s respect of a high-profile person.
Add to all that the injuries — the knee, the leg fractures, the achilles, the four, count ’em, four back surgeries… This guy is Evel Knievel without a motorcycle. As recently as a couple of years ago there was doubt whether he would ever play golf again, much less win a major. At one point he even expressed doubt that he could go for a ride in a golf cart, never mind walk a course.
He had a mountain to climb, and if there’s one thing America likes, it’s a story of someone who has a mountain to climb, and climbs it.
Tiger did that. And it had all the ingredients of a great story.
When we teach journalism students to write feature stories, we tell them to look for certain common ingredients — there needs to be some kind of tension in the plot. It’s like taking a literary approach to the story, but unlike the work of a novelist, it all has to be true. Will he or won’t he? What forces are working against him? What forks in the road will the protagonist face?
It’s an unfortunate reality that people who have an easy path to everything are boring. We like tension, we like doubt, we like drama, we like people who face obstacles and overcome them, we like people who are flawed and work to correct those flaws, or at least become a better person.
There are common plot lines that make for a good story. I pulled these out of an old feature writing textbook I used to use. Not every great story has one of them, but most do:
Failure to success (i.e., rags to riches).
Victim to survivor.
Chaos to meaning.
Danger to safety.
Saving the world.
And, “love conquers all.”
The Tiger story may not have ALL of these. But it sure has a healthy mix of them. And they all blended together when he fended off a hard-charging field to win his fifth Masters, and his 15th major. People of all stripes, around the globe, were rooting for him, a testament to the power of sport at a time when there are so few things that unite us.
As he walked off the course to embrace his mom and his kids, in that moment, he wasn’t Tiger the legend, Tiger the intimidator, Tiger the wayward soul.
He was a son and a dad, a human being who had faced a mountain of challenges — some of them, of his own creation — and finally conquered them, and was able to share his victory with those he cares about most.
Congratulations to Tiger Woods, and thanks to him for giving us all a great story.
He found his way out of the trees.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.