Tiger-mania: An unlikely comeback inspiring a new generation

Tiger prepares to hit his third shot, after his second shot landed in the gallery.

By Katie Garwood | gargoyle@flagler.edu

When Tiger Woods’ approach shot landed just a few feet away from me, I couldn’t believe my luck.

I was lucky I didn’t get clocked in the head, but even luckier to catch a glimpse of arguably the greatest player of all time, up close, right in front of my eyes. As he approached his ball, he asked those of us huddled around, “is everyone OK?”

“Not at all,” I thought to myself, standing steps away, completely awestruck.

About a week earlier, I heard that Tiger would be competing in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, an annual PGA Tour stop in Orlando. He had a strong finish in the Valspar Championship the week leading up to the tournament, and there was no way I could pass up an opportunity to see one of the greats playing like he had in his prime. Many doubted his ability to play his best again–myself included.

I was too young to have known Tiger at his peak. I didn’t become interested in golf until around 2013, and by that point, he’d been through his scandal and played on and off until winning again, coincidentally at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, in 2012. The next year was a strong one for him with five wins and player of the year honors, but it was quickly followed by chronic back problems.

Since then, he’s struggled both on and off the course with various injuries and surgeries, as well as a DUI last year. It’s been difficult to watch him play as he works through swing changes, chipping yips — those mental blocks that can keep even the best golfers from hitting the ball — and unsuccessful back surgeries, leaving him wincing in pain on the course as he fought to break par.

Post-scandal, people my age knew Tiger Woods as a troubled athlete and as a punchline – “… a lion wouldn’t cheat on his wife, but a Tiger Wood …” – often overlooking the fact he was one of the greatest athletes of all time.

With his myriad back surgeries and swing changes, I figured there was no way I’d ever see him playing at his best. Maybe I would witness greatness in other players, maybe at the same caliber as Tiger, but I’d never see that in him in my lifetime. I thought I missed it–which is why I knew I had to go see him play in person before it was too late.

I never quite understood “Tiger-mania.” I’d seen highlight reels on TV, pumping his fist in the air after sinking winning putts, and heard the deafening roars from the crowd that followed.

But nothing can compare to seeing the effect that Tiger has on golf in person. The Friday I saw him, he played an even-par round and wasn’t too close to the lead. Without a scoreboard, the size and sound of the crowd would have suggested otherwise.

“I haven’t seen a crowd like this here in 20 years,” one man in the gallery said.

With the exception of the shot that landed just feet away from me, seeing Tiger throughout the day was a struggle. It was tough to even catch a glimpse of his head passing by, and even harder to see him hit a shot. I’d been to PGA Tour tournaments before–larger ones, too–but never saw crowds like this.

“He is the needle,” I heard another spectator remark as Tiger strode down the 18th fairway to raucous cheers.

I had never heard Tiger’s influence on the game described that way before, but I couldn’t think of a better way to put it. And now, I understood everything.

Tiger hadn’t even come close to playing his best that day, and it wasn’t a Sunday of a big tournament. It was a Friday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and Tiger was seven shots off the lead. But the electricity in the air was palpable, simply because he was there. And for good reason: he’s arguably the best player of all time and for a few years, virtually everyone thought his reign had ended for good. For him to show glimpses of his old game seems like a miracle. With all he’s been through, people can’t help but root for him.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Tiger play, but I haven’t seen him win. A win at this stage in his career would inspire a new generation of fans, just the way he inspired the masses of people at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and everywhere else he plays.

This week at The Masters, we’ll get to see if Tiger’s best is possible again. If it is, and he wins, it would be a comeback story for the ages. And not only that, it would be an opportunity for golf fans like myself, and especially younger fans, to witness what seemed impossible–a legend of the game dominating in a new age. Maybe most importantly, inspiring a new generation.

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