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The Last Days of the Essential Tiger Woods

Ten years before Tiger teased us with the possibility of a return to form at the 2018 U.S. Open, he gifted us with a legacy-solidifying playoff victory at Torrey Pines. At the time, it felt like a signature album. In hindsight, was it his final great act?

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I. Come Together

The last great putt before the fall of Tiger Woods was a tetchy 12-footer on the rutted 18th green of a public golf course in La Jolla, and as a man named Jay Rains watched Tiger take stock of it, he measured up a pair of seemingly contradictory thoughts.

The first was that there was no way any human being should make this putt.

And the second was that there was no way Tiger Woods would miss this putt.

Rains was a corporate attorney and president of a San Diego charitable organization when, around the turn of the century, he began a quixotic mission to bring the 2008 U.S. Open to Torrey Pines — a publicly owned 36-hole facility with greens sculpted from Poa annua grass, the kind that tends to poke its little spurs out of the ground by late afternoon, wreaking havoc on putting lines like a series of speed bumps on a freeway. Rains spent years soliciting private donations and overseeing an extensive renovation in an attempt to convince the United States Golf Association that this place (which had long held a PGA Tour event) could sustain the rigors of what’s traditionally been considered the most grueling of the four major tournaments. And as a rules official at the tournament, Rains was one of hundreds of people ringing the 18th green of Torrey’s South Course that Sunday afternoon, all of them close enough to Tiger Woods that they — like Rains, and like the millions watching on television — could sense what was about to happen.

Perhaps what’s most astounding in retrospect is not that Tiger resided in that zone of inevitability; it’s that he’d resided in this superhuman zone, with few letdowns, for the better part of a decade. When he was at his best, you could feel the rush of energy, even when you couldn’t catch a glimpse of him beyond a wall of spectators. That’s essentially how Garrett Chaussard, another golfer who played at Torrey Pines that week, describes it to me, too: “He gave us the sense that he was invincible,” Chaussard says. That’s how I remember it from watching Woods in person when he blew through Pebble Beach at the 2000 U.S. Open. And that’s how it was at Torrey Pines 10 years ago this week, as Woods chased his 14th major championship on a surgically pieced-together knee that was essentially crumbling under its own weight, and as he lined up a putt at 18 that would force a playoff with longtime PGA Tour journeyman Rocco Mediate.

This was the zenith of Tiger, who would later call his 19-hole playoff victory over Mediate, given the physical and emotional circumstances, the greatest major championship of his career; this was the moment, one insider told authors Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict, “when guys were so petrified of Tiger. Nobody had the nuts to get ahead of him that week.”

And as Rains describes how he watched that Nike golf ball bound along the green and catch the back edge of the 18th hole …

… there is silence on the other end of the phone line, and I presume that maybe I’ve lost the connection or that maybe Rains got sidetracked by one of the endless distractions inherent to modern life. But then I realize that Rains is still there.

And I realize the reason he’s gone silent is because he’s choking back tears.

Some of this is because of the pride he feels in his community, in the way San Diego showed up for this tournament, in the way, after Tiger made that putt, one of the largest single-round crowds in golf history (“We stopped counting at 25,000,” Rains says) willed both Woods and Mediate through that Monday round. Some of this is because of everything that Woods-Mediate matchup represented, the Übermensch versus the Everyman, which in itself feels like as strong a representation of the possibilities of sports as we’ve experienced this century.

But some of this is because Rains recognizes what we all do, which is that after that 18-hole playoff was complete, and after Tiger limped away from the green with a trophy in his hand and then descended into a cycle of injury and scandal while perpetually stuck on those 14 major titles, we lost something essential. What we lost, Rains tells me, is the notion that one man could transcend golf in the same way that the Beatles transcended music before they reached their inevitable endpoint.

It’s all kind of difficult to get your head around in retrospect — the putt and the playoff, the end that we didn’t really know was an end until months later, when one of Woods’s neighbors saw him lying on the street on Thanksgiving Day in the wake of a tabloid report about his extramarital affairs. That neighbor phoned 911 and launched a scandal that Tiger had long been courting thanks to his own callousness, a scandal that would forever alter the paradigm. And a decade later, as Tiger teases us with the tantalizing possibility of one comeback after another — after years spent dropping in and out of professional golf and retreating deeper into himself and becoming embroiled in more bizarre controversies involving skull bandanas, celebrity girlfriends, and missing teeth — none of us are ever really sure whether we’ll ever get it back.

Ten years later, that Tiger — the Tiger who, for one last time at Torrey Pines, seemed to hover above nearly every human limitation, the Tiger who came across to the public as an impenetrable machine — is now a distant memory. Tiger has since been laid bare, most recently by the remarkable Keteyian-Benedict biography, which exposes every one of his frayed nerves and hang-ups. If he ever wins another major championship, it will mean something entirely different than it did at Torrey Pines: Instead of a triumph for a man New York Times columnist David Brooks referred to, back then, as “the personification of mental fortitude,” it will stand as yet another example of the prominence of second acts in American life.

But as Jay Rains considered Tiger on the 18th green at Torrey Pines in 2008, measuring up a putt he believes to be “one of the greatest achievements in sports history,” given the man and given the circumstances surrounding it, what he saw in that moment felt to him like the apex of human accomplishment, something that made him feel the way he did when he listened to Revolver or Rubber Soul — something that none of us, not even Tiger himself, realized would soon be gone.

“When he was Tiger, we were watching the Beatles,” Rains says. “And if you had the opportunity to go back and sit in Abbey Road Studios and listen to the Beatles record an album, would you not want to do that? Very rarely do you get a window into genius, and up until that time, we were all getting a chance to see this.”

II. Magical Mystery Tour

Everything feels like a harbinger in retrospect: In December 2007, Larry Dorman, the lead golf writer for The New York Times, sat down in Southern California for a rare one-on-one interview with Woods for a piece that would be headlined, “As Woods Enters Prime, Time Is On His Side.” It was a relentlessly optimistic piece that quoted Jack Nicklaus saying that Tiger would break his record of 18 major victories with ease, if he were to stay healthy and if he remained “focused and motivated to do so,” and at the time, Dorman saw almost no reason why Tiger, on the verge of turning 32, would lose focus or not stay healthy at that point. This was several months before even the hint of any knee issues surfaced, and Tiger gave off the appearance of being the fittest golfer in the history of the sport: How could you frame both Tiger’s career and his life as anything but optimistic at that moment?

The odds on Tiger winning every tournament he played were so short at that point, Dorman tells me — “Chalk, chalk, chalk,” he says — that if you were to set up a betting pool for a major, it simply wasn’t fair to include Tiger, because whoever drew him had an unfair advantage. And sure, Tiger was still his same guarded and careful self, even with veteran writers like Dorman, but the sense among them was that Tiger — married, with his first child — wasn’t actually guarding much of anything except for a few dirty jokes that may have trailed in his wake in the lead-up to his first major victory, at the 1997 Masters. When Dorman heard that Tiger had knee surgery after the 2008 Masters, he presumed that it was nothing more than a routine procedure; he’d heard absolutely nothing about the ACL in Tiger’s left knee being completely torn, as was later revealed, or about the stress fractures that had formed below that knee. “It was viewed as being a nuisance kind of injury,” Dorman says.

With hindsight, it’s clear that the cone of silence that Tiger had cultivated over the past decade had reached its apex at Torrey Pines. Even some of the best and most aggressive sportswriters in the business were completely fooled, both by what was happening to Tiger’s body — including the stress he’d put it through by training with Navy SEALs — as well as his state of mind, increasingly preoccupied by the serial infidelities that were on the verge of shattering both his marriage and his carefully cultivated public image. “I felt like a goddamn moron,” says Len Shapiro, then the golf writer for The Washington Post. “But we didn’t know. Nobody knew. I called up half a dozen golf writers after everything came out, and none of us had a clue.”

Torrey Pines meant something to Tiger. It was the closest thing he had to a home course in California, and he’d set his sights on Torrey for years, ever since Rains and his partner Rich Gillette had convinced the USGA to bring the Open there six years earlier. Winning a major at Torrey held symbolic importance for Tiger because it felt like a throwback to his youth, playing on this expansively long public course in Southern California where he had competed as a junior; it reminded him of the good times he’d had with his father, who had died in 2006, and it fit the father-and-son narrative about Tiger winning in front of his first child a couple of days short of her first birthday. After the playoff, Woods told a story to the media about when he turned 10 and his father said to him, “You’re a big boy, you can play a real golf course. Where do you want to play?”

“Torrey Pines,” Tiger said.

There are so many what-ifs related to Tiger that it’s hard to even know which one to prioritize, but here’s another one: What if the U.S. Open had been played at another course, one without such sentimental meaning to Tiger? What if he’d taken some time, had his ACL reconstructed after the Masters, and allowed his body to heal properly, instead of rushing back two months after having what was essentially stopgap surgery to clean up some of the damaged cartilage around that knee? What if he’d listened to the people around him who challenged the long-term wisdom of this decision, from his swing coach to his doctor? What if Tiger heeded his caddie, Steve Williams, when he questioned the idea of playing at Torrey Pines on that knee — instead of telling him, “Fuck you”?

Tiger was going to play Torrey Pines because he wanted to play Torrey Pines, and he was going to will himself through those 72 holes and that playoff because, in his mind, that’s what athletes did — “as long as he could compete and win,” Keteyian and Benedict wrote, “Tiger determined that he wasn’t injured” — and because that was how his father had raised him. According to Keteyian and Benedict, Tiger (at least partially out of concern for the PGA Tour’s new drug-testing policies) refused to take anything stronger than Advil or Motrin that week; in the midst of some remarkable shot-making over the course of those four rounds, Tiger would occasionally collapse to the ground wincing, or use his driver as a cane.

“I saw how much pain Tiger was in,” says Jim Vernon, who, as president of the United States Golf Association, followed him for several rounds as a rules official that week. “After the end of his first round, I honestly wasn’t sure if he was coming back the next day.”

Maybe, for a kid who’d grown up idolizing Michael Jordan, he saw this as the equivalent of his flu game. Perhaps the risk itself — the idea that he might be sacrificing long-term happiness for short-term satisfaction — is what actually motivated him to win this tournament. But even if Tiger had known that this tournament would be the dividing line of his career — the moment when the experience of the Übermensch and the experience of the Everyman began to converge — would he have done anything differently, given who he is?

“I knew I could walk,” Tiger told the media after the playoff. “It was just going to be a little bit on the slow side. Everyone plays with knick-knack injuries here, there, whatever it is, and Roc’s done it pretty much his entire career.”

III. The Long and Winding Road

I obviously wanted to speak to Rocco Mediate for this story, because the way Mediate went toe-to-toe with Woods during that playoff at Torrey Pines was utterly miraculous — imagine Fred Flintstone going toe-to-toe with Don Draper — yet it also stands as the moment when Woods could no longer mentally strong-arm his opponents. When Mediate fell three shots behind Woods after 10 holes of the playoff, he clawed his way back; the fact that he eventually lost on the 19th hole they played that day did not mitigate Mediate’s performance, which Rains (who does not seem to lack for cultural metaphors) compared to Rocky Balboa going the distance with Apollo Creed during their first fight. But at some point over the course of the ensuing decade, Mediate (who has never been anything but wildly positive about that moment, and about his interactions with Tiger) grew tired of speaking about this tournament, and I was told he would not be doing any interviews about this anniversary.

And so I did the next best thing: I looked over the standings of that tournament and worked my way from the bottom up. The U.S. Open is the most democratic of all the majors, in that qualifying tournaments are open to anyone with a low-enough handicap, which is how Michael Quagliano and Garrett Chaussard came to find themselves in the field. Quagliano was 21 years old when he qualified for the Open in 2008, an upstate New York kid who played golf at Duke but had sat out the previous season with a back injury. Chaussard was 24, a Bay Area kid who played at the University of Illinois. Quagliano was the first of a generation of golfers who grew up with Tiger, and who made it cool for his generation to play an otherwise stodgy game; he had a poster of Tiger Woods pumping his fist on the wall of the room where he used to lift weights. Chaussard first picked up a club at age 3 while watching his father hit golf balls into a net in the family’s garage in San Mateo, which, of course, parallels the seminal piece of early Tiger Woods mythology.

They were both overwhelmed by the experience. Quagliano shot 25-over par in his first two rounds and missed the cut. Chaussard shot 20-over and also missed the cut. Their brushes with Tiger were mostly brief and distant. They both hoped the U.S. Open would catapult them to professional careers: Chaussard played briefly on the Canadian Tour, and Quagliano went through Tour qualifying school three times. A decade later, Quagliano is working a corporate job, and Chaussard is a club professional near Chicago. But they both feel like they can relate to Tiger in ways they never did before; when I emailed Quagliano the first time, he was reading Keteyian and Benedict’s biography of Tiger in an airport.

“There’s just something that, regardless of all the flaws or potential issues — you just want to see him at his best again,” Quagliano says.

“I think just mentally if he can get the swagger or confidence he had in himself back — you get beat down like that and it’s really, really difficult,” Chaussard says. “In a way, that’s what I struggled with as a professional.”

That, says John Merrick, who finished tied for sixth at Torrey Pines and is still carving out a career for himself on the Web.com and PGA tours, is what every golfer — and hell, pretty much every human being — grapples with. “It’s easy to get negative in golf,” Merrick tells me. “It becomes a domino effect.”

IV. Carry That Weight

This is the dichotomy of the pre-Torrey Tiger and the post-Torrey Tiger: For a long time, he seemed as if he were utterly immune to that effect, and that immunity allowed him to stand above nearly every journeyman who ever gripped a club. And now, ever since Mediate went shot-for-shot with Tiger, that domino effect of negativity has become the primary lens through which we view him.

Keteyian and Benedict’s biography contains some repulsive stories about Tiger’s behavior, and all things being equal, a case can be made that we shouldn’t still be rooting for him to win tournaments, given how he treated people. But there is no question that the majority of us do still want him to win, and no one I spoke to for this story said otherwise.

“I think he’s connecting better now with the everyday golfer,” Vernon says. “Maybe with the everyday human being.”

Has Tiger actually changed? I have no idea, and I’m not sure anyone else does, either. There is still that cone of silence surrounding him; at this year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, he’ll apparently spend his nights on his yacht, named Privacy, which will be docked in Montauk. But either way, we perceive Tiger differently now because his vulnerabilities are clear to all of us who grew up watching him, because we’ve reached the point where his primary obstacles are golfers who were mostly too young to grow up watching him. Of the top 10 in the world rankings as of June 10, the average age is 28.4. Only four of those 10 — Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, and Justin Rose — had turned pro by the time Tiger won at Torrey Pines. Only Rose, who turned pro in 1998, had reached adolescence by the time of Tiger’s 1997 Masters victory, and the youngest member of that top 10, Jon Rahm, was born two months after Tiger’s iconic come-from-behind win at the 1994 U.S. Amateur. This is what happens when you’re essentially absent from the elite ranks of golf for the better part of a decade.

A couple of weeks before this U.S. Open, Dorman went to watch Tiger play at the Memorial, the tournament Nicklaus established near Columbus, Ohio. And at one point, as we discuss what he saw and talk over the real possibility that Tiger is in a better position to win a major now than he has been at any other time since 2008, Dorman refers to Tiger as an underdog. It sounds so strange to hear that we both catch ourselves, because a decade ago, that seemed like an impossibility.

“I never thought he would make himself an underdog,” Dorman says. “But now he’s trying to make people forget all about that and remember what he was before.”

And maybe it doesn’t matter that it’s far too late to make people forget, and maybe it doesn’t matter that he cannot possibly erase the past decade from his history. Maybe the thing that matters to Tiger, more than making other people forget about all that, is making himself forget.

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