He was finished. He was disgraced, hobbled, and eaten alive by the ravages of both fame and time. His story was over; it was simply a matter how clumsily it would end and how long it would take for that end to finally arrive.
And then, Sunday. Sunday was one of those rare—bordering on nonexistent—moments when a prominent artist regains his or her form long after you could reasonably expect them to do so. It was a gift, really. To see Tiger Woods not only win his fifth Masters at age 43, but to see him do it by coming from behind in the final round of a major for the first (!!!) time, and to see him do it as a man who had been humanized, more or less against his will—by divorce, by injury, by addiction, by public vilification, and by dozens of other factors that were never in his nor his old man’s career blueprint—was a gift to anyone who craves to see an artist recapture something thought lost. Not just lost in terms of accomplishment, but lost in terms of emotion and memory.
Athletes are measuring sticks. You measure their ability against yours and you measure their ability to handle pressure against your own, naturally. But you also measure their lives against your own. Their history is your history. They’re personal markers, just as certain movies and songs and pictures evoke moments from your youth that have grown warmer and fonder and perhaps more unattainable over time. I was rooting for Tiger yesterday, but to be more accurate: I was selfishly rooting to relive my own past. I was still in college and away on a semester abroad when Tiger Woods won his first Masters, back in 1997. I read all about his win in a hard copy of USA Today I got from a newsstand in England, because reading news online wasn’t a thing most people did back then. He was already the biggest name in golf even before he won that first title, and he has remained the biggest name in the sport—perhaps all of sports—as he’s toiled for the past 11 years and change to assume his throne once more.
Yesterday, he finally did it. I never thought I’d live to see the day. In fact, I almost didn’t. Tiger Woods didn’t think he’d live to see the day. But fuck all that noise. He did it. He bulled his way around Augusta as everyone else around him fell prey to its bald greens and to its tranquil-yet-insatiable water hazard on 12, where third-round leader Francesco Molinari did his best impression of your dad and put his ball in the drink. And he didn’t just roll it into the water. No man, he plopped that shit in the dead center of the hazard, like the flagstick was located there. Then, for good measure, he nearly put it in the water again.
At one point in this tournament, Molinari went 49 straight holes without bogeying. It didn’t matter. I wanna say that THE MYSTIQUE OF TIGER somehow willed Molinari’s ball—along with shots by Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau at 12—into the drink, but that’s probably just because I spent a decade in my past hearing, and believing, how Woods’ mystique caused other golfers to fall apart. I remember him going wire-to-wire at St. Andrews in 2005. I remember him being the only dude to survive under par at Bethpage in 2002 (the major circuit returns there this summer for the PGA Championship, matter of fact). I remember sitting at the office—at a job I was later laid off from— on a Monday afternoon in 2008 and watching a herky-jerky stream of him somehow out-slugging Rocco Mediate in a 18-round U.S. Open playoff, all on one goddamn leg. I remember it all.
So yesterday, Woods gave casual fans a chance to relive moments that had a worldwide sports impact, but also felt oddly personal and specific. Where were you when… etc. He’s a flawed man, but those flaws only added a new, sepia-tinged sheen to the triumph. That life could have its way even with Tiger Woods, of all people, is a clear sign that A) The world is not to be fucked with, and B) Jim Nantz didn’t have to manufacture any cornpone sentimentality (though Lord knows he gave it his all) to make this moment feel the way it felt. You could see the toll these years have exacted on Woods as he grinded his way across the course, tight as a coil, never smiling (as noted by ESPN’s Andy North) and determined to focus solely on now and not on all the potential consequences of now: from the glorious to the nightmarish.
You could see it when he finally drained the winning gimme putt (for a bogey on 18, another beautifully nasty hole on the course: an endless par-4 that is really an honorary par-4.5). When a golfer wins a major, you often see the relief in their eyes right before you see the exultation. So it was here, as Tiger watched the putt go in, lingered on it for just a split second to make sure it wouldn’t somehow pop back out, gave a modest version of his ceremonial fist pump, and THEN reveled in the moment. After 11 years, he could finally exhale. He took off his hat to reveal a fallow hairline, doled out bear hugs to his loved ones, and very much looked like his own father, whom he similarly embraced when he first won at Augusta all those years ago, when he was a single man unconcerned and undaunted by what the future held.
Only Tiger Woods could have conjured this feeling. He achieved impossible greatness, lost it, and then somehow got it back. That was the gift: to watch in disbelief and awe as a strategically unemotional man ginned up so much nostalgic emotion in others and, through victory, resurrected seemingly dormant parts of the soul. I watch sports so that I can see possibilities—even the starriest ones ones—unlocked. I will never ever get tired of chasing that particular high. And oh man, was this high ever high. That was fucking unreal. Tiger Woods said so himself. He could hardly believe it. Many others couldn’t, either. That’s why they play. Sometimes you have to do it to believe it.