Shaking hands with Steve Scott standing on the green of the 38th hole of the final match in the 1996 U.S. Amateur, Tiger Woods ascended into greatness with his third-straight U.S. Amateur victory. In a feature for the September 2nd issue of Sports Illustrated that year, Jaime Diaz captured a quote from Tiger referencing his second-round 66 in the 1996 Open Championship. Looking back now, there’s a freedom one can only hope Tiger will find again. “Something really clicked that day, like I had found a whole new style of play,” Woods said. “I finally understood the meaning of playing within myself. Ever since, the game has seemed a lot easier.”
That’s quite a bold statement for someone who, beginning five years earlier, held the top national amateur title in the country from the time he was 15 until he turned pro at the age of 20. Three consecutive USGA Junior titles followed by three consecutive USGA Amateurs. He was in the conversation among Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus as the greatest amateur player to ever live. It seems golf only got easier for the young superstar. We all know his record between 1996 and 2013. No need to lay it out. But something happened along the way.
On Memorial Day of this year, news broke that Tiger had been arrested on suspicion of Driving Under the Influence. A mugshot appeared not a half hour after his release from police custody in Jupiter, Florida. What followed was a statement on his website claiming full responsibility for his actions.
“There was no alcohol involved,” Woods wrote. “I didn’t realize the mix of medications had affected me so strongly.”
It would be easy to speculate as to why Tiger was found on the side of the road. He did have back surgery recently (his fourth back surgery), on top of multiple other surgeries and procedures over the years; he’s practically the bionic man at this point. But speculation about his habits doesn’t provide any context into the Tiger we are seeing now. For context, we need understand who Tiger is as a figure. And for that, we need to go back a little further.
In 1957, the Boston Celtics made a deal with the St. Louis Hawks to acquire the second-round draft pick, and ultimately, the man who would change the dynamic of basketball forever.
William (Bill) Felton Russell was a 6-foot 10-inch towering figure, and in a league full of slow white guys, he dominated down low and simply outpaced everyone else on the court. For his career, Russell averaged over 15 points per game, over 22 rebounds per game, and 4.3 assists. Russell also won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics over the course of 13 seasons, two of which were as a Player/Coach (‘68 and ‘69). The numbers are astonishing and are the part of the story we still talk about today, but it’s not the most important part. Bill Russell was the first black superstar in the NBA.
In a story for Rhino Press, David Valerio writes this about Russell: “He was also 6-feet 10-inches, an athletic monster who blocked and dunked on players, actions previously unknown in the NBA. No one dunked. No one blocked. It was unheard of. Yet the arrival of Bill Russell signaled the start of a new era in league history; it signaled the arrival of black players into the NBA. Bill Russell was not the first black NBA player — such well-known names as Chuck Cooper, Harold Hunter, and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton broke the race barrier first. But none of you know their names, because they weren’t superstars like Bill Russell was; they couldn’t lead teams to championships in addition to being named the league’s Most Valuable Player. Bill Russell was a star who helped change the face of the NBA forever, for Russell was not only the premier black NBA player, but he was also a black man who fought against racism in both its perceived and actual forms.”
Bill Russell wasn’t the first black athlete in his sport. But he was the first to ascend into superstardom. Sound familiar?
Tiger wasn’t the first black player to grace the PGA Tour; he was preceded by the likes of Calvin Peete (12 wins on the PGA Tour including the Harry Vardon and Byron Nelson Awards in 1984), Jim Thorpe (three wins on PGA Tour, 13 on the Champions Tour), Charlie Sifford (the first black player on the PGA Tour and won twice), and Lee Elder (the first black man to play in The Masters in 1975). What made Tiger different from his contemporaries is almost identical to what was different about Bill Russell. They finished paving a road others had started and seemed to do it on sheer willpower and work ethic.
Yes, for as long as we can remember, it was assumed that Tiger would be gunning for Nicklaus’ record, but it’s one thing for people to assume it’s going to happen and it actually happening. In Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, he tells the story of how he perceived what made Larry Bird so great to Celtics fans. “In the big scheme of things,” Simmons writes, “Number 33 [Bird] was an extremely tall and well-coordinated guy who did his job exceptionally well. That’s it. You can’t call him a superhero because he wasn’t saving lives or making the world a better place. At the same time, he possessed heroic qualities because everyone in New England bought into his invincibility.
“He came through too many times for us. After a while, we started expecting him to come through, and when he still came through, that’s when we were hooked for good.”
What Simmons describes in his book about Larry Bird is the same thing we came to expect from Tiger essentially as soon as he slid on his first green jacket. Tiger was an invincible athlete who was also truly breaking the racial barrier in an elitist sport. Standing on the shoulders of Charlie Sifford, Calvin Peete, Jim Thorpe, and Lee Elder, Tiger climbed higher than any professional golfer ever had, much like Bill Russell. It didn’t matter the situation; Tiger always hit to shot that kept him in it, or he always sank the putt to extend a match or take the lead. What also came with that invincibility was isolation. Simmons goes on to write about Russell, “Maybe the city [Boston] would have accepted an African-American sports hero in the fifties and sixties — eventually it accepted many of them — but never someone as complex and stubborn as Russell.” Again, where Russell and Tiger are the same, people never really connected with Tiger as a persona, they were just in awe of his sheer dominance.
While Bill Russell was winning championships like older brothers win wrestling matches, he was also absorbing shots to his character and his abilities for no reason other than the color of his skin. David Valerio goes on to write in his piece, “While Russell was on tour with an exhibition team prior to the 1961-62 season, Russell and a teammate were denied service in a restaurant when their team was scheduled to play a game in Lexington, Kentucky. Russell and his team then refused to play in the city and flew back home, generating a large amount of controversy.” What followed that incident laid the groundwork for how Russell would be perceived the rest of his career, and to many, still is. Valerio continues, “In response to this, and other issues, Russell became resentful of the media and fans’ attentions, as he believed it all to be sarcastic and hollow. This resentment held over to his reactions with the local Boston fans. As a result of this, and many other events, Russell never particularly warmed to Boston, a city notorious for its racism, even as he continued on to win an exorbitant amount of championships for its team.”
As late as 1997, Fuzzy Zoeller made his infamous quote on Tiger’s achievements thus far: “He’s doing quite well, pretty impressive. That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well. He’s doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it. Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”
That was a mere 20 years ago.
As we look back at Bill Russell’s career, it makes total sense that he isolated himself from the media. Why would he give them the time of day? They weren’t out there playing his game. They weren’t sweating on the practice court alone before anyone else showed up; it was just him. And his will to beat the hell out of everyone else. That’s it. Simmons claims he was complex, and I’m sure there are aspects of him that are, but it seems he just wanted to be left alone to play his game and beat everybody else that tried to join him. Had Dan Jenkins been covering basketball in Russell’s prime, he might have felt the need to write a (fake) interview with him for Sports Illustrated, because something tells me he wouldn’t have sat down with Jenko either. For many reasons, Russell spent essentially the entire 90s living a reclusive life in the Pacific Northwest.
As we sit and ponder over the next few days, and throw around comments about whether Tiger will ever play golf again, we need to also think about what Jack Nicklaus had to say about a man whom he refers to as a friend.
“I feel bad for Tiger. Tiger’s a friend. He’s been great for the game of golf. He needs our help. I wish him well.”
It’s easy to forget that Tiger Woods is not just a brand and not just a legendary golfer. He’s a person, a father, and a man who dominated a tour that until 1961 no black man had ever been allowed to even join. Like Russell, even well into the height of his career, when he was at the top of the mountain, he had to endure comments rooted in racism, even if they may not have been ill-intentioned. Tiger just wanted to play his game better than anyone who’d ever lived. All the other stuff was simply a by-product, and eventually, the by-product got in the way, making it harder to play within himself.
In a 2010 piece from Bleacher Report titled The Psychology Behind Greatness: Tiger Woods Imbalance, Vincent Heck writes, “The Tiger Woods we knew before could do no wrong. Now, to many, he’s an immoral, arrogant cheater who can’t be trusted.” Heck also goes on to cite Thomas G. Seabourne, Ph.D., from The Journal of Sports Psychology: “Learning to cope and deal with counter-productive tendencies that an athlete may experience is important. Their ability to do so will impact on their overall performance and may interfere or facilitate the athlete in striving for an optimal performance.”
The point of Heck’s piece, at the time, was that prior to the Thanksgiving incident of 2009, Tiger had received virtually zero criticism on or off the course. Sure, a little poking here and there about his language when he duck-hooked a tee shot, but it was minimal. He was invincible inside the ropes. After his affairs came to light that all changed on a dime, and it’s been a rocky road ever since. Each injury and withdrawal drew more and more scrutiny, and the number of times his integrity has been called into question is equal only to the number of Fast and Furious movies we’ll have to endure over the next decade.
Some can say that he’s isolated himself, I may even be in this camp on occasion, but when you sit down and think about the surmounting pressure he’s received over the last decade, who can blame him? In a TIME interview with Lorne Rubenstein from 2014, you can see the shift in his mindset after having kids. Lorne asked, “How do you feel about the way the media have covered you?”
“There’s no accountability in what they say,” Tiger responded. “And what they say, it’s like it’s gospel, there’s no source behind it. Nothing like, yeah, I talked to X number of players, I talked to this player, this player, this player. It’s none of that.”
He would go on further in response to Rubenstein’s question about what’s written about him. “You don’t read what’s written about you? Was there a time when you did?” Rubenstein asked.
Tiger’s response, “Not really. And that has served me well. It has served me well. Like my Dad said when I was young, Were any of these guys there? If anybody has any kind of perspective on it, it would be the caddy. He saw the shot, he understood what the circumstances were. Other than that, there’s nobody else. So what’s their take on it? Who cares? They weren’t there. They didn’t see how difficult it was, what’s going on.”
Reading the TIME article, you get the sense Rubenstein’s question wasn’t just about what goes on inside the ropes. And even though Tiger’s response defaults to golf, you know it’s hinting at what goes on outside the ropes.
We don’t know what it’s like to be the most famous athlete in the world for one second, much less for nearly 20 years. We don’t know what it’s like to feel the pressure of representing an entire race in a sport that has a history of blatant prejudice. Bill Russell and Tiger Woods know what that’s like. As do many others in American sports, but I don’t, and you probably don’t either.
It’s impossible to know what is going through Tiger’s head, but thinking back to the 20-year-old Tiger who said, “Something really clicked that day, I felt like I had found a whole new style of play. I finally understood what it meant to play within myself,” here’s to hoping he can do that again. It might seem easy to an outsider, the Tiger we once knew is a larger than life figure, you’d think playing within that framework would come easy. But the Tiger we don’t know is the one he needs to play within, and that battlefield seems to be getting smaller by the day.