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Newsmakers 2021

How Tiger Woods' shocking car accident helped redefine his golf legacy

December 17, 2021

The transformation of Tiger Woods—real and perceived—began long before he lost control of an SUV on Feb. 23, 2021. The Woods of old—the singularly minded cyborg with an appetite for embarrassing his opponents—had already been replaced by Tiger 2.0, certainly in the minds of fellow tour pros if not the public at large. An earth-shattering scandal, a career-threatening injury and fatherhood are turning points for change in any man; Woods’ maturation just happened to play out in the public eye.

It came about too because for a while there, starting around the latter half of 2016, before the Hail Mary back fusion, the frightening notion of life after Tiger was becoming a reality. It was a scary thought, for us—the collective golf world—and for him. Then … well, you know what happened. A successful surgery, a rebuilt swing, close calls in Scotland and St. Louis, a Tour Championship, a green jacket.

It wasn’t just that Woods returned to the mountain top. It’s that he climbed it with a smile on his face. If the Woods of old had scoff at the idea of helping an opponent, post-fusion Woods was an open book for younger players. Want to know how I hit this shot? Sure! The king of the non-answer had developed a patience and openness with the media. The man with a famous indifference toward team events leaned all the way into a captaincy. Tiger could laugh at himself on the golf course, smile after bad rounds and, perhaps most shockingly, enjoy Phil Mickelson’s company. All those afternoons spent horizontal in Jupiter, too stiff and sore to step outside, made him appreciate golf—and his life—in a new light. Tiger Woods finally seemed to enjoy being Tiger Woods. “All this is gravy,” as he put it.

After Woods holed the winning putt that afternoon in Augusta, after he hugged Charlie tight, his pathway to the cabins was lined by adoring fans and players, all delivering the same message: We love you. Indeed, America loves a comeback. Throw in profound character development like Tiger’s and you’ve got yourself a fan favorite.

Largely because of all this, all that had gone on in Woods’ latest comeback, the accident that shook the world nearly 10 months ago felt so acutely upsetting. Just as Woods had seemed to turn a corner personally, after he’d found stable footing and fought his way into the hearts of even his staunchest critics, his roller-coaster life took another sharp dive. There was relief that Woods survived but resignation that he’d likely never play again. A crushed leg, at 45, with his injury history? There was no guarantee he’d want to return even if physically possible.

Perhaps he wouldn’t have if he were still a lone wolf. But Woods was immediately enveloped by a circle of love. Other players wore red and black in tournaments as a tribute. His younger buddies came by the house—Rickie Fowler watched the Masters with him, Patrick Cantlay played gin, Justin Thomas just to hang. Woods actively participated in the Ryder Cup process while never setting foot at Whistling Straits, sending an all-time motivational text message that the boys still talk about to this day. Fittingly, among the first images that emerged of Woods back on his feet were of his back. He wasn’t the focus, for he was watching his son hit golf balls at a junior golf event. Being Dad.

It now seems likely that Woods, set to return to golf in an exhibition event alongside his son this weekend, will compete again on the PGA Tour. It won’t be often, but it’ll happen. Still, competition will no longer be the focal point of his life. “It’s an unfortunate reality,” Woods told Golf Digest, “but it’s my reality, and I understand it, and I accept it.” It’s a shift that happens to all athletes. Even the all-timers. It’s usually gradual in nature, but nothing in Woods’ life has been gradual.

Just like five years ago, 2021 provided another glimpse, ready or not, into what life for post-tour, Elder Statesman Tiger will look like. He will spend time with his kids, dive into his foundation, host events and smile for photos. He’ll remain eager to participate in golf in some capacity. And he’ll be showered with adoration, for time has a curious way of allowing us to remember the great and forgive the bad. History smiles upon icons—especially when they’re smiling back.