JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s strange, a celebration or even sad to follow an athlete’s career. In the 40 years I’ve been in sports journalism, I’ve experienced just about all of that.
From watching Emmitt Smith and Chipper Jones in high school and seeing their careers take them to the Hall of Fame to knowing Brett Myers as a kid, seeing his pitching career take him to the majors as a World Series champion, and now a career as a singer.
Even the biggest sports celebrities’ start somewhere, so knowing Tim Tebow, as a high school sophomore is how I remember him best. By the way many people, including his dad, did think baseball was where he’d make his professional mark.
There’s always a lot of hype about the “best they’ve ever seen” when kids are young players. Marques Dupree, Marquette Smith and Robert Pollard are names that popped up when they were very young. Only two athletes in my career have exceeded the hype: LeBron James and Tiger Woods.
While I’ve seen LeBron play often on TV and occasionally in person while covering the Orlando Magic, I’d say the expectations of what he’d be coming out of high school underestimated not just the player he is but also the determination and will he has as a person.
Starting with his appearance at the LA Open in 1992, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was a name that every sports journalist who covered golf knew. “Tiger” was a unique enough name; the story of how he got it was enough to make any profile pretty colorful. And his dad was omnipresent, telling anybody who would listen how his son was not only going to be the best golfer ever, but, well, here’s his quote: "Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity. … He is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations." That’s what Earl Woods was saying about his son the golfing prodigy.
In 1994 Tiger played in the US Amateur at the TPC Stadium course as a skinny kid with a big hat and a bigger game. “These one-on-one interviews,” was his answer when I asked the 18 year old if there was anything he didn’t like about how his life was going. I thought I’d get an answer about travel, or weather or something like that. I laughed it off to youthful exuberance, cockiness necessary to be great or whatever. But Woods was serious, and as his career blossomed, he stopped doing any “one on one” interviews outside of the networks and now only makes news on his own website.
There was an incident where Tiger told an off-color joke to a magazine reporter in New York who broke the “off the record” code, printed it, and Tiger felt betrayed. He clammed up after that.
I’ve been critical of Woods’ demeanor throughout his career, I’ve written how he was rude and blew reporters off, was unnecessarily short and curt. Sometimes even mean-spirited. My brother was working for the PGA Tour at the time when Woods was a rookie and a young player and saw Tiger’s public persona develop first-hand. Tiger’s nickname early in his career was “Urkel” after the sitcom character that had few social skills and was generally nerdy. My brother confirmed my thought about Tiger. I didn’t think much of him as a guy. He approached being the most famous person on the planet, something few people know about. But his actions didn’t come close to Ali, Palmer or others in that same situation.
But his play was something completely different.
When he left Stanford, like a lot of professional observers, I thought Tiger would fit into the game at the highest level but would find the competition pretty stiff. That was until I went to Orlando to watch him play at Disney. Wow was I impressed. When somebody hits a golf ball it’s supposed to be at a certain height, at a certain speed at a certain time when you watch it. Tiger’s was higher, faster and better than everybody’s the first time he teed it up. And it only got better.
He was a great athlete who chose golf and reshaped his body to fit the modern game. Instead of a skinny kid, Tiger looked like the middleweight champion and then the light heavyweight champion of the world. He hit it harder, straighter and farther than anybody. And he putted the lights out.
Changing his body and the violence of his swing took its toll and he eventually broke down. His off course issue was well documented and publicized. And his bout with prescription drugs seemed to be the bottom.
I ran into him in early 2017 at a retirement party at his club in Jupiter. I was asked to kind of “save” him from being pestered by everybody there. We spent some time together and for the first time I felt sorry for the guy. He was as awkward as I’d ever seen him. Could barely hold a conversation. Small talk was a chore. Ok, maybe it was me, but I really felt bad for him.
Fast-forward about six months; Tiger’s gone through a rehab after being pulled over for DUI. His body is healing and his golf game is returning. I ran into him at the same club as I was hitting some putts on the practice green.
“Hey Sam, you know Tiger,” my host said as I walked to put away my putter with Woods pulling up in his cart. “Of course,” I said as we shook hands.”
“Jacksonville, right?” Tiger said as he sat back in his cart. I smiled and said, “Yep” anticipating a quick exit as usual.
Instead, the three of us sat there for about 15 minutes talking about everything guys talk about, sharing laughs and jabs, just like it’s supposed to happenened to him? He’s like a different person.”
And that’s the same person we’ve seen in his return to the limelight. He’s agreeable in interviews. He listens to the questions. He tells jokes and smiles. Remember Tiger saying the “second is the first loser” early in his career? Last week walking up 18, Woods smiled and was appreciative of the crowd’s response, despite hitting it OB on 16, bogeying 17 and knowing he wasn’t going to win. That’s a complete turnaround from his former self.
So whatever you attribute it to, being humbled, being a parent, being injured, whatever, I’m hoping Tiger keeps using that same personality. It’s normal, and natural. It’s actually warm.
There’s a steely determination necessary to win in sports at the highest level. Tiger has shown over and over that he has that. I suppose keeping it there, inside the ropes, will take an adjustment. But it’ll be worth it.