“I said ‘Tiger, I promise you you’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life.’ And he hasn’t. And he never will.”
It was June 16, 2008. Father’s Day. Those words were spoken softly by Earl Woods in a Nike commercial that aired during his son’s attempted run at the 2008 U.S. Open championship.
Earl Woods had passed away in May 2006. Tiger struggled the month after his death, missing the cut at the U.S. Open.
But he returned to the tour to win six straight tournaments, including a pair of majors, to finish out the year. He almost added another at the 2007 U.S. Open, finishing one shot behind Angel Cabrera but still notching another major victory that season.
The mental toughness Earl Woods had attempted to illuminate in his young son had become one of the most defining qualities of an unprecedented career in the making.
Now in 2008, Woods was on the 18th tee box trailing Rocco Mediate by a stroke. After putting his tee shot into a fairway bunker and his second shot into the rough, he played a beautiful wedge to within 12 feet of the pin. Having battled severe knee issues that required three surgeries and would ultimately put an end to the rest of his 2008 campaign, Tiger displayed that mental toughness prophesied by his father. He drained the putt, letting out a two-fisted scream as it careened into the cup from the right edge. It was just Tiger being Tiger. His invincibility was inspirational in its banality.
It would be a day later that Woods finally won his 14th major, needing one additional playoff hole after his 18-hole head-to-head battle with Mediate had them still level.
That was the last time Tiger Woods won a major championship. He’d just become a father, himself. Though he was going through the knee struggles, everything was as ostensibly perfect as it could ever be for Woods.
A lifetime seems to have gone by since. This was all before the Thanksgiving fiasco involving an SUV, a fire hydrant and maybe some cough medicine. Before the parade of women emerged from the Blackberry. Before the awkward press conference where a grown man had to apologize to his mother in front of a worldwide audience.
Since that time, Tiger hasn’t felt the thrill of another major championship. The 18 held by Jack Nicklaus that we all once felt would be inevitably shattered now seems like an unreachable destination. And seven Father’s Days later, Tiger isn’t even on the course this afternoon.
After missing the cut at 16-over par, there is reasonable discussion about how Tiger could very well be done. How he’ll never compete for another major. And maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll wind up with the most disappointing 14-major career ever imagined.
But the words of Earl Woods are still echoing in the back of my head.
We’ve been down this road with Tiger before, only to be stunned by his resilience. He experienced a humbling phase after that life-altering evening more than five years ago. He played just 12 events in 2010 with only a pair of top-10 finishes to show for it. He followed that with only nine events in 2011 and earned less than a million dollars total for the first time since 1996.
But in 2012, he was beginning to resemble Tiger Woods again. He played 19 events, finished top 10 nine times and took home three victories. In 2013 — only two years ago! — he earned Player of the Year with five wins in 16 events. Somehow we’re forgetting all about that fact. None were majors, but they were some pretty prestigious titles, including The Players Championship.
He retools. He works out the kinks. He does it with such commitment that it can be painful to watch. But it’s that commitment that has always eventually gotten him back on top. While many fathers and sons watch today’s final round of the U.S. Open without that iconic red shirt strolling up the fairway, it feels to me like still the exception rather than the new rule.
I can’t say for sure that he’ll do it again, but the only evidence we have to this point is that he will. Doubting Tiger Woods hasn’t been a historically wise thing to do.
“My Thoughts Exactly” appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays in The Garden Island. Email David Simon your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow David on Twitter @SimonTGI