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on tiger woods

Drew's Cool Golf Revue
on tiger woods
By Drew Millard • Issue #6 • View online
and britney spears and dewey cox and all the times i’ve crashed my car, but mainly tiger

I have totaled two cars in my life. The first one was a few weeks after I’d graduated high school, driving back from Bonnaroo with about 40 minutes to go. I’d given a friend a ride back from the festival and dropped her off in Asheville. It had just started raining and, with eight hours behind me and suddenly alone, I didn’t think to look over and notice the rush-hour traffic I was about to merge into, and I certainly didn’t realize I needed to slow down because of it all, especially when there was a guy in a pickup sitting still at the end of the on-ramp and no matter how hard I slammed the brakes I was about to run into him. 
The front end of my Honda CR-V basically fell off when it hit his trailer hitch, pushing him forward a couple dozen feet but leaving his truck otherwise undamaged. I remember screaming and feeling like I was watching the scene from above, first on the inside the cabin and then from the outside, watching as the front of my car dragged across the ground and knowing that I was about to cause a traffic jam while not really focusing on the airbag that had just smacked me in my chest. It was rough and scratchy and it smelled powdery, like the inside of a balloon; I’d expected something softer, but I’m sure the airbag people make them that way for a reason.
The second one was my junior year of college, yet again in rainy rush-hour traffic. The record label I was interning for in Raleigh had sent me to drop some mail off at the post office, and after not really understanding what my GPS wanted me to do, I eventually got it dropped off. On my way back, the GPS told me to turn left through a four-lane highway split in most places by a median, one of those roads just outside of cities where there aren’t a ton of stoplights and people end up doing like 80 and hoping that nobody’s doing what I was doing right then, because if they are, they will hit them squarely in the left rear wheel and send them spinning a couple times before bailing out on the whole-ass other side of the road. 
I was going slowly because it was hazy and I couldn’t see any cars, and by the time I saw one coming straight at me I hit the gas and either prevented it from hitting the part of the car that was right next to my body, or inadvertently ended up causing the wreck because I wasn’t actually in their way. But after I got hit, I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh goddamn it, not again,” and then getting out (another airbag) and noticing my back left wheel had folded up inside the car like a turtle leg. 
There was a homemade bong in the backseat; the woman who hit me (all things considered, she was pretty chill) helped me stash it before we called the cops to report the accident. I called the record label to let them know what happened; nobody picked up and nobody returned my message. I stopped going into work and never heard from them again.
I was lucky. I didn’t need medical attention either time beyond a trip to the chiropractor. The pair of crashes made me realize that I needed to get some eyeglasses for when I drove, and their cumulative effect on my car insurance rates encouraged me to move to New York after I graduated college, so I wouldn’t need a car for a few years. I still occasionally experience a flash of anxiety, bordering upon freezing up, while driving on a crowded road in the rain, but this only happens maybe once every six months, and I’ve learned that when it happens I can just slow down for a while and let all the other cars pass me. 
When I saw the news that Tiger Woods had flipped his car while driving down a dangerously curvy hill and was undergoing a slew of surgeries on his legs, I felt my chest involuntarily tighten in sympathy. My wrecks, if I haven’t already made it clear enough, were nowhere in the neighborhood of Tiger’s, but even still, I could imagine the feeling of careening out of control, the moment of “Oh, shit” that occurs between being able to prevent the crash and the crash actually happening. How the shock makes time pass according to an entirely different standard of measurement: You’re hyper-aware of every moment, while somehow watching it all with a sense of passive remove. 
The first time I crashed a car, my brain hooked back up with my body as I was running on the side of the road towards the other guy’s truck to make sure he was okay. The news said that Tiger was calm enough to talk to the first responders as he was sitting there with his ankle broken so badly that the bone had pierced the skin. Whether he was calm because of the shock of it all, or because he’s spent a lifetime learning how to tamp down his nerves when the pressure’s at its highest, I don’t think we’ll ever know. Not that it really matters all that much.
As a culture, we’ve always treated our celebrities horribly, but we reserve a special kind of cruelty for those who are perfect at exactly one thing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because like everyone else, I watched the Britney Spears documentary. And like everyone else, I came away from it with a greater understanding of how pop culture drove Britney Spears to the brink, almost as a punishment — not simply for being super talented, but for embodying this one specific American archetype that generated love from some people and hate from others and lots of things in between, but rarely indifference. 
We try to fit these human beings into narrative arcs, preferably ones that allow us to watch as they evolve from talented teenagers, to young adults who are improbably perfect at their thing, to slightly older adults who start acting like they’re on top of the world until they meet their demons and become suitably chastened in the public eye, after which they may choose to obtain redemption through mounting one last comeback, earning our love back by achieving yet again at a high level, but now using wisdom and perspective as their guide in the place of the unstoppable talent of their youth. Once that happens, the cycle is complete and the celebrity is free. (Spears, who has spent the past few years in a protracted legal battle over her court-mandated conservatorship and has not released music in several years, is an example of a celebrity for whom the stakes of this Hero’s Journey are as consequential as freedom in the most literal sense.)
This arc is also the plot of 50 percent of all biopics — I could list them all, or I could just tell you to watch Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which does a better job of laying it all out there than I ever could. Michael Jordan went through this cycle by playing minor-league baseball for a while, then winning a billion championships. And one could also argue that this narrative of early achievement, followed by struggle, then a late-career shot at redemption through yet more achievement informed the case made by some members of the media for a Joe Biden presidency. The essentializing that has to be done to real people’s lives in order for this to happen doesn’t make me feel bad for Michael Jordan or Joe Biden, but it does make me feel bad in general.
Tiger Woods is, by almost any metric, the greatest and most important golfer of all time. Jack Nicklaus is up there, but Tiger was and continues to be a cultural phenomenon like no other golfer before him. Jack won more majors against arguably tougher fields using inarguably worse equipment, but that doesn’t change the fact that Tiger Woods revolutionized the game on basically every level. To watch footage from Tiger’s early career, particularly his blowout victory at the 1997 Masters Tournament, is to witness a new world being born, coming into being so fully that it all but eradicates the old in the process. 
And because there was no going back once Tiger became Tiger, once he started winning he kept doing it, even as courses rearranged themselves in an attempt to withstand him and he became distracted by having to be a celebrity and having to endorse Buicks and Nike and stuff like that. From 1997 to 2008, he won almost a third of every major he played in and finished in the top ten two-thirds of the time. 
These are just numbers, and as such they can’t possibly tell the full story of Tiger Woods, Cultural Phenomenon, but they do establish the underlying dominance that constituted the “victory/achievement” stage of his career. He was Bowie in Berlin, Kanye in Hawaii, Helen DeWitt when she wrote The Last Samurai, and anyone and everyone else who’s ever caught lightning in a bottle. Except Tiger managed to keep it there for a decade. Another way of putting it: In 2001, the year Tiger won his fourth major championship in a row, Nike bought a golf equipment company so it could start putting out its own golf clubs. In 2016, a year when Tiger didn’t play in a single PGA event, Nike shut its golf division down. Correlation does not imply causality, but in this case, I myself am implying that correlation = causality.
In 2009, bad things started happening in Tiger Woods’s life, many of them of his own doing. They weren’t unspeakably bad things per se (at least as far as we know), but they were bad things that everyday people do — marital infidelities and sexting and prescription drug abuse, mainly — taken to the unchecked extremes afforded by celebrity and wealth, and blown up into scandals for those very same reasons (the strand of subtle racism that still runs through sports media probably didn’t help, either). The details are a little unpleasant, but not that important beyond that there were lots of these stories. And for one reason or another, they ended up correlating with a run of injuries, swing coach changes, and a distinct lack of major championship victories, resulting in approximately 162,000 search results when you google “tiger woods” + “fall from grace.”
During the 2000s and early 2010s, the media viewed high-achieving celebrities as strictly moral figures. If they were good at what they did, it was because they were good people. If their bad actions had entered the public eye and they were suddenly failing at the thing that was their job, then their failures took on the quality of divine retribution. Of course, plenty of celebrities act monstrously in private while continuing to win and/or producing high-quality work in public, while genuinely decent famous people get in professional slumps for reasons that have nothing to do with their private behavior, because that’s how the real world works. Regardless, Tiger apologized publicly, and eventually enough time passed without public Tiger-related drama that his string of injuries and lack of victories stopped seeming like a punishment for his personal shortcomings, and his determination to keep playing despite those injuries and lack of victories began to be seen as a sign that he had reached the “appropriately chastened” stage of his arc. 
Then, Tiger got good. Again. He came in second at the 2018 PGA Championship, and the next April, he won the Masters — thanks not to the unmatchable talent he possessed in his youth, but, well, the wisdom and perspective that comes with age and experience. I had written a piece criticizing Tiger a couple months prior to the 2019 win, and even though I was kind of annoyed with him for reasons that made sense at the time but seem silly in retrospect, I teared up as I watched his final round and everyone watching realized he was going to win. Watching Tiger Woods win the Masters over and over again was a big part of my — and every other millennial golf fan’s — golf-watching childhood. Narratives are bullshit, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be real, too. 
So, back to the car crash. It was a bad one. The pictures are terrifying. The injuries to his lower right leg are serious, but not life-threatening. Even still, he is lucky to be alive at all. The question of whether Woods will ever play golf competitively again is on the surface a valid one, but ultimately, it’s pretty pointless. Ever since Woods started experiencing serious back problems, which have required multiple surgeries, his future as a competitive golfer has always been up in the air. 
Woods knows this. In the days before the crash, he said on live TV that he wasn’t sure whether he was going to play the Masters in April because he’s “got only one back.” Now in his mid-40s, Woods picks his battles, only playing in select tournaments and not hesitating to pull out of whatever event, whenever, if short-term competition might risk his long-term future. In the events he does play in, it’s rare that he pushes the gas pedal all the way down like he once did, favoring a soft fade off the tee rather than bombing it a billion yards every chance he gets. 
Once his injuries from the car accident heal, Woods will probably take months or even a year to fully recover, after which I assume he’ll keep doing some variation of what he’s already been doing — picking and choosing his spots, forcing nothing. If there ever came a time where he, for whatever reason, felt that he needed to ride in a golf cart during competition, I have no doubt that the PGA would amend its rules so that he could do that. They’ll figure it out. He’s Tiger Woods. 
This is a pretty boring conclusion from a narrative perspective, which is probably why there are a lot of articles out there right now asking whether or not Tiger will play again, whether he was asleep at the wheel when he crashed, whether there was anything special about the Genesis SUV he was driving that saved his life or if this is just the way all cars are now. There have been timelines of his personal life, timelines of his injuries, articles containing paragraphs containing information about his 2017 DUI charge for falling asleep on the side of the road with pain pills in his system.
The problem with all of this is not that it’s unfair to Tiger Woods (although to be clear, it definitely is). It’s just that with rare exception, everything coming out about him right now is low-quality information, its value contingent less upon its provenance or even relevance to the current situation than how likely it is to get someone to read more articles about Tiger Woods. I’ve definitely fallen for it over the past week, at least once a day, which is how I learned that USA Today interviewed a car-crash expert about what might have caused the accident, that Woods’s ex-wife has a new mansion, and that the accident has catapulted the relatively unknown car brand Genesis “in the spotlight.” (We have the ever-vigilant New York Post to thank for those last two.) 
All of this non-information keeps the Tiger discourse churning, and churn it will as updates beget second-day stories which beget opinion pieces which beget media criticism like what I’m writing right now. At some point, something either really great or medium-level terrible will happen with enough magnitude that the Tiger story is forcibly jettisoned from the news cycle, or maybe enough time will pass that the clicks stop coming and news outlets move on to other things. Then, in 12 months or so, someone will catch Tiger Woods playing a practice round with Rory McIlroy or whoever in Florida, and it will all start happening again.
This has been Drew’s Cool Golf Revue. Please forward this to your dad who plays golf, your dad’s friends who play golf with your dad, and if you/your dad/your dad’s friends really liked this, please sign up for a paid subscription.
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