It’s Sunday at Celtic Manor. Europe’s lead at the 2010 Ryder Cup is slender. Tiger Woods has just holed out for eagle from the 12th fairway.
“That’s exactly what you’d expect from the world number one,” the commentator cries. “In the team competition, in the foursomes and fourballs, he looked completely out of sorts. Give him his own ball, let him play on his own, and he’s much better.”
Tiger was always a lone wolf: raised as an outsider and sent on a singular mission.
His parents, Earl and Tida, taught him to build walls around himself. They told him he was different, special, chosen, a genius.
As many accounts of his life point out, his lack of empathy or personal connection with others can be traced back to this.
His complicated life as the most famous sportsman of our time, one who fell further than any before, forced him to block people out. His previous swing coach Hank Haney referred to it as ‘the treatment’.
“His qualities, foremost among them an extraordinary ability to focus and stay calm under pressure, also included selfishness, obsessiveness, stubbornness, coldness, ruthlessness, pettiness, and cheapness,” Haney wrote in his tell-all book ‘The Big Miss’.
Woods, destined for greatness from a frighteningly young age, never allowed anyone into his complex world, not even his teacher. Golf was paramount, not making friends. Just as he could find ‘the zone’ on a golf course, real life was rarely very different from the Masters.
It’s perhaps what allowed him to stage one of sport’s greatest ever comebacks.
In September 2017, Woods admitted he may never play competitive golf again. Ranked outside the top 1000, without a swing and in constant pain – what would happen a year later was simply impossible at the time.
On Sunday, Woods met a young man called Tiger. It felt just like it used to. Dressed in red, he turned the season-ending Tour Championship into an exhibition to secure win no. 80 on the PGA Tour.
There was the magic, the majesty, the mania. As he marched his army of fans up the 18th fairway, it was like something out of a film. The thousands, who watch golf just because of him, had their hero back when it seemed he was gone forever.
But this win, his first in five torturous years, was not like the other 79. While the golf was vintage Tiger, the smiles and the tears were not.
Woods’ life to this point, in particular his Ryder Cup record, reflects a single-minded character. In many ways, he had to be selfish – entering a sport dominated by white men, and then coming back when everyone said he couldn’t.
But what happens when that emotional distance, that ‘treatment’, separates you and your team-mate?
It is one of sport’s greatest conundrums. Woods, the best golfer of all time, has lost 16 points in the team events at the Ryder Cup over the years.
His singles record at the biennial event, on the other hand, is exceptional. He is unbeaten since 1999, with four wins, two halves and one solitary defeat to Costantino Rocca on his 1997 debut.
He’s won the WGC Match Play three times, more than anyone in history, and holds the record for most consecutive matches won and the biggest winning margin at the tournament. So he’s pretty good with the format, when he’s on his own.
One possible explanation for his terrible record in the foursomes and fourballs could be the quality of his playing partners, but that reeks of over-simplicity.
Woods lost both his matches when paired up with world number two Phil Mickelson in 2004. Plus, Europe’s strongest Ryder Cup competitor in recent years, Ian Poulter, has never won a major.
Poulter has three PGA Tour wins to Tiger’s 80 but proves a better Ryder Cup player. How does that work?
Let me forward a theory. The Ryder Cup is not about being the best golfer: it’s about personality. The things that make Tiger one of the greatest individual athletes of all time, and perhaps the reasons why he has pulled off such an implausible comeback, also serve to catastrophically destroy any sense of team ethic.
Poulter revels in shared glory. An enthusiastic footballer in his early days, he understands the Ryder Cup’s demands better than most.
Speaking about his famous, crazy, deranged celebration, which we have seen so often down the years, he once said: “It’s an inspiring moment to be able to hole a putt and share that passion with everybody else.
“That may be the footballer that I wanted to be back in the day. Part of the team.”
Tiger’s personality always drove him towards individual glory but his performances in the Ryder Cup team events have been characteristic of someone who psychologically cannot adjust to the role of team-mate.
Until now, perhaps?
It feels like he’s changed. The outpouring of public emotion, the openness with the media, the rapport with other Tour members.
“The people who are close to me saw the struggles and what I was going through,” he admitted on Sunday.
“Some of the players that I’m pretty close to have really helped throughout this process. Their support and some of the things they said coming off that last green meant a lot to me.”
His comeback is as much a personal one as a sporting one. Maybe the 2018 Ryder Cup will bring out the best in this new Tiger.
But whether his personality has truly changed is difficult to tell. After all, Woods is repairing a damaged reputation with a highly skilled PR team.
Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian recently interviewed over 250 people who have been around Woods and concluded that, while he is happier and humbler now, all the Tiger traits still linger: the coldness, ‘the treatment’.
This comeback required obscene amounts of psychological resilience. His mental toughness and fierce competitiveness have not disappeared; they’ve grown.
But, as we’ve seen over the last eight months, the brilliance is yet to fade either. And maybe that’s all that matters.
Golf is better with Tiger at the top – no one else in sport inspires those scenes from East Lake on Sunday. The 2019 Masters is already the most highly-anticipated golf tournament for a generation, never mind the Ryder Cup on Friday.
The paradox of his genius and Ryder Cup limitations will be put under the spotlight once again as golfing fever reaches a climax this week.
And while we may never truly know what lies behind the peculiar talent, the team events at Le Golf National could provide some telling insight as to whether this comeback extends beyond golf.