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Deeper Dive: Has Passing the Torch Given Tiger Inner Peace?

by Photo of Tommy Dee

As the sports world looks on at Augusta Woods seems very much comfortable in his own skin. Is that a sign of a big week for the game’s former most dominant figure?

Deeper Dive: Has Passing the Torch Given Tiger Inner Peace?

If I could change jobs with anyone I'm sure it would be Jim Nantz. Fresh off calling yet another epic March Madness Final Four in Indianapolis, Nantz and his crew travel straight to Georgia in springtime to cover The Masters. There's always something special about this tournament, and if my gut feeling is any barometer then we may be in for another all-time great golf tournament courtesy of one Tiger Woods. 

In another life I covered golf on a daily basis. In another life, it seems, Woods owned not only golf, but the sports world entirely. He made people watch. It seemed in that world Nantz routinely was calling another Woods victory in a major firmly supplanting Woods as the game's most dominant figure sure to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18. Nicklaus' record still stands today not only as one of the all-time great benchmark achievements in sport, but it also serves as an insurmountable symbol of unfulfilled failure in the career of Woods.

Amazing isn't it?

Let me take you back in time to the Summer of 2006, just some 14 months after Tiger won his 4th Green Jacket at Augusta National in another remarkable performance that included one of the greatest shots in golf history and one that gets better and better the more you watch it. Man, there's nothing like Augusta in April with Tiger on the prowl (DiMeglio, USA Today, 4/8).

I was given my first assignment for a new digital golf property called Golf.com and I was instructed to pull quotes for our senior editors from the week leading up to the 2006 U.S. Open. By week's end the storyline was obvious and to this day no one has forgotten Phil Mickelson's blunder at 18 (Shipnuck, Golf.com, 6/12), especially Phil. But in the beginning of the week the entire world wondered about how Tiger Woods was dealing with the loss of his father Earl, who had passed away just weeks before. The sports world came to know very well just how close the two were. It was very public and it was the same relationship I wished for myself and my own father then. It's the same relationship I pray to have with my own son today. Earl was Tiger's mentor, he was his best friend and he was the person who knew Tiger the best. 

So as Woods entered the Grill Room of the prestigious Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, NY, site of some of the most memorable moments in golf history, he was met with question after question about his father. Fate had seemed to reserve a tee time that week as Father's Day would be that Sunday, so the obvious connection led to very personal, very emotional questions about what it would mean to raise the trophy on that day.

I remember Tiger handling it very well. I remember asking him a golf question in the midst of the reminiscing and I remember him giving me a look of relief that he could talk about the one thing that would help him escape, if for just a minute, the pressure of the moment. Tiger didn't stand a chance to compete that week. He walked away missing the cut badly after two days, still reeling from his loss, unable to combat Winged Foot's rough and at it's treacherously slick putting surfaces. He shot 76-76, slammed his trunk and went home and tried to regroup. In the years that followed the world got a chance to see Tiger's fall from grace in a very public and very raw tragedy that would have made Shakespeare's top 5

These were events that Arnold Palmer believes stemmed from the void that Earl left in Tiger's life. In a very candid interview for a book soon to be published and written by Michael Bamberger, Palmer offered the following on Woods (Golf.com, 3/31): 

“Tiger was somewhat of a robot golfer,” Arnold said. “He was so endeared to his father and what his father had him doing that it is almost difficult to explain. I watched him practice at Isleworth when he was in the midst of it. As long as he stuck to the routine that his father had laid out for him, he was going to succeed. Had he continued to do that, he probably could have established a record that would never have been broken.” Earl Woods died in May 2006. Since then Tiger has won four major titles: the 2006 British Open and PGA Championship, the 2007 PGA Championship and the 2008 U.S. Open, in the playoff over Rocco Mediate. “After his father died, and without getting into what happened and why it happened, Tiger got into other things,” Arnold said. “He went away from the routine and the work ethic that was so natural for him. It’s happened before. It has something to do with the psychological effect of the game. If he doesn’t try to go back to where he was five or six years ago, he will get worse instead of better. Could he go back to where he was? He could. Do I think he will? No.” 

Woods won three majors following his father's passing, but he's never seemed to regain the inner peace since that day and Thanksgiving in 2009. Call it blindly rooting for redemption. Call it wanting another weekend of truly captivating sport in a way that only Tiger can bring, especially at Augusta. But I sense a calmness in Woods this week that has me thinking that he can contend. He's officially passed the torch to Rory McIlroy in a heart-wrenching commercial for their sponsor that just came out. Interesting timing, no? He's embraced friends, he's been warm to the media and he just looks ready to get on with things. History is against him when you think of the numbers but golf is a game where the strangest things can happen and Augusta is a place where it's always en vogue to throw things out the window.

Ask Ben Crenshaw. Ask Nicklaus.

Tiger has the length to compete, but does he have the nerves? Are his chipping issues solved by basic changes to the bounce angles on his wedges as he claims? Technically, he's convinced that his form is sound. Does he have the physical strength to last four rounds against the millennials like Rory who all grew up watching him on television set the ridiculous standard that he himself may think is out of reach? It's a legitimate question, but one thing seems certain judging by the reaction from the media, he seems to have found some inner calm and peace that few have ever seen from him (Brennan, USA Today, 4/7).

"He mentioned his late father and the 1997 Masters, his first major victory. Tiger stepped off the 18th green that Sunday into the arms of his father, who had been very ill earlier in the year.  "To now have come full circle and to have a chance to have my kids out there and be able to share that with them, it's special," he said. "Charlie has seen me win a golf tournament before. Sam, actually she was there at the U.S. Open in 2008, but doesn't remember it. It's nice to be able to share these things with my family and it just means the world to me. They are excited, I'm excited and can't wait to go out there."

We know golf is a mental game and Augusta National of all places can create a cathedral-like time warp where players can make amends to the golf gods. It's downright sacrosanct that way. We will obviously find out where Woods is mentally when he sticks the tee in the ground tomorrow morning, yet one thing seems certain. Tiger seems comfortable in his own skin and at peace this week and for all of us who love the sports world, let's hope that this manifestation translates into being in the hunt heading into Amen Corner on Sunday afternoon.

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