When Tiger Woods jetted out of Pebble Beach 10 years ago, in the wake of his record-setting victory at the U.S. Open, he had just established himself as one of the world’s most dominant athletes, and he was well on his way to becoming one of the most respected and venerated, to say nothing of the wealthiest.
Now he returns to Pebble, having devolved into a pariah, a punch line, and a cautionary tale. His spectacular fall from grace came by way of a tabloid-ready sex scandal, as Woods’ serial philandering with a parade of buxom bimbos was revealed after a mysterious late night car crash on Nov. 27, 2009, cracked open his secret life.
The rise and fall of Tiger Woods has become a national obsession; the 2010 U.S. Open is of particular interest because it will help answer the question as to whether or not Woods can rise again. In piecing together the timeline ofWoods’ career, the 2000 U.S. Open is of particular importance. After a wildly successful amateur career, Woods had established himself as a cross-cultural icon with his 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters, becoming the first man of color to win an Old South tournament that did not welcome its first African-American competitor until 1975. But it wasn’t until two-and-a-half years later that Woods validated this breakthrough with his second major championship victory, at the ’99 PGA.
The win was part of an overpowering late-season run that propelled Woods to number one in the World Ranking, but his aura took a hit at the 2000 Masters when he drowned two balls in the water during the first round and could do no better than a sloppy 4th place.
Two months later, he arrived at Pebble Beach for the U.S. Open, and nothing would ever be the same again.
Woods, at the tender age of 24, didn’t merely win the tournament, he showed an utter disregard for both the supposed difficulty of the Open and the fragile egos of his would-be competitors. Woods’ 15-stroke victory was an all-time record (and the blowout would have been even worse but for Woods’ fluky triple bogey on the third hole of the third round.) Poor Ernie Els, who had the dubious distinction of being the runner-up, spoke for the rest of the beleaguered pros when he sighed, “I don’t know how much more there is to say. I guess we’ll be talking about him for the next 20. When he’s on, we don’t have much of a chance.”
Woods ran the table the rest of that summer, setting scoring records as he won the British Open at the Old Course by eight strokes and then took another PGA Championship. In April 2001, he completed the so-called Tiger Slam, becoming the first player ever to hold the titles of all four major championships.
Woods’ wondrous physical gifts were undeniable, but what made him a Madison Avenue star was everything else that defined him—discipline, dedication,work ethic, sportsmanship, and intensity.
As Woods was well on his way to becoming the first billionaire athlete, he grew ever more remote from the public and their proxies in the pressroom. At tournaments he existed in a bubble, eschewing the locker room or any place he might get trapped by glad-handers or back-slappers.
His 6 a.m. practice rounds were designed to beat the crowds and also reduce the number of players with whom he would have to interact. Fans were not granted so much as eye contact, let alone an autograph. Reporters were given no access—Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg became known as “Dr. No” to the typing class—and left to recycle the same clichés Tiger mindlessly spouted week after week in his formal press conferences.
Woods gave nothing beyond his performance and left it to the PR machinery of his many sponsors to create a more palatable image. And yet no one really objected to Woods’ apparent lack of humanity because it was so mesmerizing to watch him on a golf course.
Tiger’s desire for privacy—that’s what he named his 155-foot yacht, PRIVACY—intensified after his 2004 marriage to the former Elin Nordegren, a Swedish bikini model who is curvier than 17-Mile Drive. Elin was prized not only for her bodacious body but also her discretion; she has never given a interview and remains such a cipher to other players and wives that one member of the PGA Tour’s Scandinavian clique likens her to Greta Garbo.
With the ultimate arm candy, Woods’ life seemed complete. When a daughter and then a son arrived, adorable and meticulously stage managed photographs were posted on tigerwoods.com, completing the picture of a man who had everything.
But, if you can believe the various timelines that have been constructed by the tabloid press—and they’ve been right on with just about everything else—Woods was already stepping out with a variety of cocktail waitresses, wannabe models, strippers and porn actresses.
Was he an adrenaline junkie trying to replicate the excitement of winning? A former golf nerd trying to make up for all the cheerleaders who ignored him in high school? Or just a hound who suddenly possessed the intoxicating mix of fame and money? No one knows what drove Woods, and maybe even he doesn’t, despite the sex addiction therapy he has sought to heal himself (or his image, depending on your bent).
During Woods’ 2010 season debut at the Masters, Nike connected the dots between the sex scandal and Tiger and his late father Earl with a creepy commercial featuring Earl’s voice exhumed from some digital graveyard asking, “Did you learn anything?” Earl was always credited as being his son’s moral compass, the one person who could talk straight to golf ‘s young prince.
But Earl taught his son about everything, including women. He was married with three children when he met a young Thai woman named Kultida Punsawad while stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War. That she spoke little English seemed not to matter, and he promptly divorced his first wife and the two eventually married and settled in Cypress, Calif. Tiger grew up an only child, playing golf with Earl and his buddies at a couple of Southern California military courses.
These were salty old cusses who had fought in wars and, presumably, visited their share of whorehouses. Did their conversations influence the young Tiger? And at what point did he become aware of his father’s wandering eye? It seems likely now that Earl Woods imbued in his son more than just the bedrock fundamentals of the golf swing.
With Earl long gone, it has been left to surrogates to do the scolding. At the Masters, Chairman Billy Payne lashed out in a memorable rant, saying of Tiger, “But as he now says himself, he forgot to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility. It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children. Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change.”
How much Woods has really changed remains the biggest question in sports. He was contrite and conciliatory early in Masters week, calling reporters by name and practically kissing babies along the ropes, but by the end of the tournament he was back to his old prickly, aloof self. His swing was a mess but, incredibly, he willed himself to a tie for 4th, displaying all of his old competitive fire, including some PG-13 self-flagellation that was broadcast into America’s living rooms. Because of his lack of preparation, and all the attendant hype and emotion, the Masters is not a great barometer of Woods’ evolution. By the time he reaches Pebble Beach, he should have eased back into something like a regular tournament schedule, and his very presence may no longer be a media spectacle.
Perhaps the U.S. Open will reveal whether Tiger Woods is a better man and worse golfer than he used to be, or vice versa. Either way, it will be impossible to take your eyes off of him, just as it was 10 years ago.