Tiger Woods was not raised to be a team player. His parents armed him long ago with a driver and putter and sent him on a search and destroy mission, making him the ultimate individual in the ultimate individual sport.
Woods didn’t make friends in the locker room, chat with opponents, or make eye contact with fans. He was on endless business trips. He would dominate one tournament, pack his bags, then dominate the next. Nothing was more fun than smashing the land by five, other than smashing the land by 10.
His miserable Ryder Cup record in team matches? Hey, for most of his career, Woods has been as self-absorbed a superstar as it gets, and man, that’s a mouthful. He was determined to break as many records as possible, and he didn’t care much about who got hurt in the process.
So in his final hours as a major championship hopeful, as Woods attempts to defy the odds and his broken 46-year-old body and win the British Open at St. Andrews, the fact that he has become the great defender on the PGA Tour could come as a shock to those watching the game. But in the name of protecting his colleagues and having the infrastructure in place for his 82 career wins, including 15 majors, Woods did indeed pull off a series of low blows aimed at LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman and the names players who traded in an old-fashioned competition for guaranteed blood money offers.
“I think what they’ve done is they’ve turned their backs on what got them into this position,” Woods said the other day, before pointing out that large sums silver can put out the fire inside.
“What’s the motivation to go out there and win it in the dirt?” Woods asked.
The late and great Ben Hogan once said of the pursuit of perfection in an incredibly flawed game: “The secret is in the dirt.” Three years ago, when he accepted the Golf Writers Association of America award honoring Hogan for overcoming a physical disability or serious illness, Woods first showed signs of adopting a a larger image than the one that showed him lifting a trophy skyward.
He spoke that April night about the long-term spinal fusion surgery that alleviated his debilitating back problems and barely saved his career.
“I was able to start walking again,” he said. “I was able to participate in life. I was able to be with my children again, go to their matches and go to their practices, take them to school again.
Woods actually thanked golf writers for their positive articles about his comeback (he nearly won two majors in 2018). “I can’t thank you enough,” he told the stunned audience, before thanking all the “very special people” in the room for promoting the game.
Four days later, Woods had the planet stopped to watch him win the Masters. He then hugged his son, Charlie, the way his father, Earl, had hugged him after his first Masters victory in 1997. In the parking lot later, while wearing a Saquon Barkley t-shirt under his white jumpsuit, Woods’ caddy and diehard Giants fan Joe LaCava had this to say about his man:
“He’s people who clap their hands, he talks to people, he signs autographs. He’s a lot nicer to the fans, which I think is great. He’s great with kids, he talks to guys more as a group… and everyone is there for him. How many guys did you see sitting there waiting for him on the 18th?”
Many players and former champions were there to welcome him. They saw Woods not just as an all-time great, but as a changed man with a more mature worldview. Woods had made serious unforced mistakes against his own legacy through the sex scandal and the DUI arrest, and eventually the mounting injuries forced him to confess to other pros that he was done. Humbled by his failures and flaws and grounded in fatherhood, Woods became closer to galleries and more accessible to his peers.
The young Tiger forged touring friendships with those who weren’t serious threats to his reign, including aging people like Mark O’Meara and John Cook. The former Tiger is comfortable taking on the role of big brother to some of the best players in the world, including Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, who will outplay and outplay him far more often than not.
Like Jack Nicklaus, Woods never wanted to be seen as a ceremonial golfer. Yet, by all accounts in Scotland, he cherished every ceremonial minute of the 150th Open celebration in the true home of the game. Ever since his car crash in 2021 nearly cost him his right leg, Woods has really wanted in be part of St. Andrews, where he won two of his three Open titles.
When he plays Thursday morning at 9:59 a.m. EDT, with US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick and Max Homa, Woods will surely believe he has a shot at winning again. If he somehow prevails on Sunday, he will go down as one of the deepest upsets in sports history.
But the biggest upset is that Tiger Woods, who probably could have made nearly $1 billion guaranteed from LIV Golf, has become one hell of a team player. No one on the PGA Tour saw this coming during its search and destroy heyday.