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Dismiss Tiger at your own risk

His legacy secure, Woods is teeing it up at the place where it all began, believing (he says!) he can still win.
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Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

February 16, 2023

We don’t see much of Tiger, not in person, not on TV, not on his Twitter feed. Not anywhere. If modern golf had a Greta Garbo, it would be Tiger Woods. Mickey Wright was golf’s ultimate Garbo, and Ben Hogan a close second. Arnold Palmer was to golf what Michael Caine was (and is) to movie-making. He was everywhere. Yes, there’s a Hollywood theme here, with the Tour at Riviera this week.

There has been some natural-world oddness this winter in Cypress, Calif., where Tiger’s boyhood house still stands, empty for years but in perfect condition. A lone snowy owl, an arctic raptor far from home, has been hanging out on rooftops and sightseeing high over the residential streets in the small city south of Los Angeles.

It fits. Tiger playing at a traditional, 72-hole PGA Tour stop is about as rare. Long before the Genesis Invitational was a so-called elevated event, it was the Tour stop known forever as L.A., first played at Riviera in 1929, the year Arnold Palmer was born.

You get two rounds on the fabled George Thomas course for signing up and two more if you make the cut. Been that way forever, and you hope (at least this reporter does) it will continue that way.

A full field, or close to it. A cut after 36 holes. A war of attrition on the way to Sunday night.

Cue the voice for THIS is . . . CNN and repeat at after me:

THIS . . . is the PGA Tour.

That is, the professional golf league that Woods grew up on and where his legacy will live forever. Maybe there’s a number for which even Tiger would have jumped ship. But let’s pretend there’s not.

The first Tour event Tiger ever played was the L.A. Open, when he was 16. He has won pretty much everywhere, but never at Riviera. Eighty-two Tour wins. And counting. End that previous sentence with a question mark at your own risk.

As Jack Nicklaus says, Never underestimate Tiger Woods. Tiger likes to say something equally true, that Father Time is undefeated. In these situations, you must resort to the adage that the tie goes to the runner. The runner here, believe it or not, is Big Jack. It’s worth noting here that Tiger says what he always has said, he’s in the field this week because he believes he can win.

Nicklaus has 20 majors, with his two U.S. Amateurs. Woods has 18, with his three Ams. If Woods wins two more majors, that’s 20 each. Tiger’s wins have been over deeper and far more international fields. But Nicklaus had to beat Arnold, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Billy Casper, Tom Weiskopf, Hubert Green, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros, Larry Nelson, Raymond Floyd, Lanny Wadkins and a vanload of other men who did not scare easily or really at all.

Maybe you’re going to see Woods in person for the first time, this week at Riviera. If so, lucky you. You won’t forget it.

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My first in-person experience with Woods came on the final day of the 1995 U.S. Amateur at Newport Country Club, in Rhode Island. Tiger wore a Stanford baseball cap. His iron shots were announced by little dirt-and-sand explosions. Newport looked like a seaside British links at the end of a dry summer. You never saw a swing with better rhythm or more explosive speed at impact than Tiger’s.

Billy Harmon was Newport’s head pro then. His brother Butch, the oldest of the four Harmon brothers, was Tiger’s swing coach. Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, walked the course and snoozed in a reclining chair he set up outside the press tent between the morning and afternoon rounds. Tiger’s caddie, a military psychologist named Jay Brunza, carried a stuffed Ping carry bag. Tiger was smooth-skinned, callow, loaded with purpose. He was 19.

Now he’s 47.

How did that happen?

The usual way. Gradually, then suddenly, as Hemingway once wrote about a man going bankrupt.

I’ve been to Riviera a half-dozen or more times over the years, but I’m not there this year. I took a careful look at the Getty Images photo that came out of Tiger’s Tuesday press conference.

With Tiger, you’re always looking for clues. All that greatness, true greatness, but so few revelations.

That’s his prerogative.

Two years ago, the course of Woods’s life changed in a single-vehicle crash not far from Riviera. When he returned to public life nine months later, a reporter asked Woods what he could remember about “the accident.”

“All those answers have been answered in the investigation,” Woods said. “So you can read about all that there in the police report.”

Again, getting into a discussion of any of these matters is up to Tiger. But you can’t read “about all that” in the police report.

The police report did say that Woods’s accelerator was floored and that he was traveling 84 to 87 mph before his SUV struck a tree, pirouetted and came to a stop. His seat belt and the vehicle’s air bag contributed to saving his life, to say nothing of Los Angeles County emergency responders and its medical community.

Earlier this year, I preordered a Tiger Woods memoir on Amazon.com. (My preference is my local bookstore but you know how it is, during an evening scroll.) At one point, after his win in the 2019 Masters and before the car crash, Woods had revealed a name for the book, Back. He had a ghostwriter lined up, J.R. Moehringer, Andre Agassi’s guy and Prince Harry’s too. A few weeks after I placed the order I got a message from Amazon. The book is not coming out in April, as the site had said, and there is no word on when or if it is coming out. I am entitled to a refund, should I so desire.

I don’t desire.

I want to encourage Tiger in his writing process, as he has done so often for me.

I’ve covered all but one of his 15 professional major victories.

Rory McIlroy has been on campus for one of Tiger’s 15 professional major wins. Now they’re joined at the hip, but you will never be able to talk about Tiger and Rory going at it as Nicklaus did with Palmer and Weiskopf and Miller.

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Tiger’s microphone at Riviera had a black-and-white cube under the mouthpiece, marked with the words Genesis Invitational. Woods is the tournament’s host, his foundation is the main charitable beneficiary and Genesis, a car manufacturer owned by Hyundai, is the tournament sponsor. When Tiger played in his first one, in 1992, Nissan was the sponsor and Fred was the winner.

Two of the two-time winners at Riv: Fred Couples, Adam Scott.

The three three-time winners: Hogan, Arnold, Bubba Watson.

A one-time winner whose victory will have a shelf life of forever: Charlie Sifford.

A one-and-done winner (unless something changes): Joaquín Niemann, last year’s champion.

Niemann’s gone LIV. For now, if you sign a LIV Golf contract, you’re banned from the PGA Tour. He’ll still play the Masters. He was in the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking at the end of last year. One path to the Masters, among many.

The OWGR is a flawed list, but we’ll save that discussion for another day. If you bump into Jon Rahm, ask him what he thinks. He’s an expert on its ridiculousness. So is Andy Ogletree, the winner of the 2019 U.S. Amateur who now plays on the Asian Tour. He’s No. 518 in the world. That’s what the computer says. Human beings tell the computer what to say, by the way. But the list looks scientific and so official. It’s right in the name.

When Tiger was the best player in the world you didn’t need the Official World Golf Ranking to tell you so. And when he slipped to No. 2 on that list, he was still the best. By the way, Tiger replaced Greg Norman, the first time he got ranked No. 1, in 1997.

Niemann grew up in Chile. He wanted to play college golf in the United States, but his English-language test scores were too low. He lives in Jupiter, Fla. He’s a nice young man, not yet 25, energetic, family-minded. He once told me that the first time Woods saw him play, Woods commented on his amazing flexibility: How do you get in those positions? Tiger would know. He was once Gumby.

In that Getty photo, Tiger’s left eye is bloodshot, which is not uncommon for him. He doesn’t sleep well and he’s prone to colds and allergies. You can see some scarring under that left eye, maybe from the car crash. It cannot be easy, being Tiger Woods. That’s what his face says. His life and times, too.

He used the word “product” 10 times in the press conference, and he was referring to his Tour and the LIV “product” too. I’m guessing somebody gave him that word as a talking point, because it doesn’t sound at all like Tiger Woods. Golf was never a product to Tiger Woods. Had it been, he wouldn’t be Tiger Woods. He’d be another guy trying to sell you something. We can smell that move from 3,000 miles away.

Phil sells.

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Great golfer—one of the best ever—but he sells so hard. It’s just in him, that need to win you over.

The world would be a boring place if everybody thought about life, and approached life, the same way. As Boo Weekley used to say, vive la difference. Or was it another player? Mickelson has done some odd things over the years (who among us has not?), but he also has made the world of professional golf more interesting.

You could double Phil’s career accomplishments and he’d still trail Tiger by miles. Tiger didn’t mention Phil at his press conference. But he did mention several greatest-ever athletes. Tom Brady. Arnold Palmer. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

At the press conference, Geoff Shackelford, the writer and course-design expert, asked Tiger about LeBron James and his newly claimed NBA career scoring record. Geoff’s father, Lynn, played on legendary John Wooden UCLA teams alongside Lew Alcindor, who, as Abdul-Jabbar, was for decades the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

It looked, to Tiger and anybody else who followed the Lakers in their Kareem days, like a record that would never be broken.

Then LeBron came along.

“As far as the LeBron record, what he accomplished is absolutely incredible,” Woods said in response. “Just the
durability, the consistency and the longevity.

“I grew up watching Kareem here–never saw him play in Milwaukee—but he was the Cat. That’s what I remember, the Showtime Lakers and watching Cat run down there with goggles and hit the sky hook. I thought that [scoring] record–we never thought it would be surpassed.

“But LeBron, the amount of minutes he’s playing. No one has ever done that at that age. To be able to play all five positions: That’s never been done before at this level, for this long.

“As far as our equivalent to that, I don’t know, maybe you look at maybe me and Sam at 82? It takes a career to get to those numbers. That, I think, is probably the best way to look at it.”

A thoughtful answer from a person who is not a casual sports fan but an athlete who knows what it means to pursue greatness.

By the way, Tiger has played all five positions, as all great golfers do. You have to drive your ball (one), putt your ball (two), chip-and-pitch your ball (three) control your approach-shot distances (four) and think (five). Nicklaus played five positions. Mickey Wright, Lee Trevino and Hale Irwin played five positions. It’s a short list. Putting wasn’t so make-or-break in Hogan’s day. The greens were slower and bumpier. Players made fewer putts. Accuracy, once a big part of driving, is now far less important.

The PGA Tour record book credits Sam Snead with 82 Tour wins. Woods has the same number. In this case, Tiger is the runner. That is, the tie goes to Woods. Snead had some funky wins on his way to 82. Small fields, short events, those sorts of things. As for Tiger and Sam in a foot race, name your distance. I’ll take Tiger at 100 meters but Snead in a 5K.

Abdul-Jabbar scored 38,387 career points. LeBron is north of that now and his total rises with every game.

So to anyone who believes it’s impossible for another golfer to win 18 or 20 career majors, Woods has an answer for you, even if he didn’t say it:

It can be done.

Tiger said something in that press conference I had never heard him say, not this directly. He was talking about how Arnold Palmer played in 50 Masters, something Woods won’t do and has no desire to do. Along the way, he called Arnold “my hero.” That was a first for me, to hear Tiger say that.

It’s astounding, really, that little comment, given how different these two men were.

Arnold loved being around people and needed to be around people. He was the most approachable icon any sport has ever had. Tiger has never shown interest in any of that. (Phil has.) Arnold Palmer enjoyed being Arnold Palmer every day of his life, right until the day he died. He was charming the hospital staff that very day.

But their lives cross paths, in positive ways. Most notably at Augusta, and at Arnold’s Bay Hill tournament, which Tiger has won eight times.

There was an ease, each with the other.

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I wish I knew what Arnold thought of Tiger, deep down. Even though I talked about Tiger with Arnold at length, I cannot say that I know how Arnold felt about him as a person. I know he admired Tiger as a golfer, of course. In the fall of 2012, Arnold told me he thought Tiger had lost his edge. This was not said casually, and it was said from his own deep experience.

But for here, let’s focus on the thing that connects Arnold and Tiger the most, their mutual love of competitive golf. For each person, that was there at the start, it was there in their professional middles, and it will be there at Tiger’s end, just as it was for Arnold. How can it not be?

Yes, golf made Arnold rich, just as golf has made Tiger rich. But golf wasn’t a product, and rich was a happy accident. The Tour wasn’t a product. The Tour was a sports league, like Kareem’s NBA and Brady’s NFL. Golf was a way to show yourself and the world what you can do. Golf remains a way to show the guys you’re trying to beat that you have moves they do not, that you can handle whatever lie and circumstance the golfing gods serve up.

Now how fun is that?

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com