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Tiger, Retold

Genius followed by conquest; disgrace followed by humiliation. The narrative arc of Tiger Woods’s decline follows a familiar trajectory. But we need a better way to tell his story.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I am younger than Tiger Woods by almost exactly two months. He was born at the end of December, in 1975; I was born at the end of February, on leap day, in 1976. We’re both members of the strange, unglamorous non-generation of the mid-to-late 1970s, too old to be millennials but too young to sit comfortably within Generation X. Half a decade, in the normal way of thinking about age cohorts, is too short a span to qualify for a catchy nickname, or for an era-defining set of overwrought think pieces. It’s too short a span to qualify as a distinct cohort at all, which is why people born in these years tend to be lumped in, inconsistently, as either young Xers or the most antique millennials known to science. Still, when I think about “my generation,” it’s this narrow sliver of humanity with which I most identify. I don’t think much about generations at all, to be honest, which may be one of the few privileges of not really having one—no cultural power, no endless pandering to your tastes by the market, but at least you’re not constantly having to define yourself against Wall Street Journal op-eds accusing you of killing the avocado economy. Still, there’s a sort of small, lonely resonance in the thought of people whose path through history closely tracks yours—and that, too, is probably a feeling that becomes quieter and more personal when the group that awakens it is so small and undefined.

Tiger Woods is the most important male athlete my non-generation produced, and because he broke through early in a sport one can play for a relatively long time, people my age have now spent more than half their time on Earth with Tiger as a sort of floating reference point for wherever they are in their lives. I watched the 1997 Masters, Tiger’s first major win and one of the most merciless annihilations of a field I’d ever seen in sports, from my dorm room. When it became clear that something astonishing was happening, I ran down to the dining hall and dragged people up to watch with me. None of us cared about golf, but this was history. I watched the 2000 U.S. Open, when Tiger made a fearsome Pebble Beach look simultaneously like a nice little mini-golf course and like the flaming ruins of Troy, from the apartment near Washington, D.C., where I lived during my first magazine job. I had a 19-inch TV and a beanbag chair—apart from the bed, my only piece of furniture—and on the Sunday of the final round, that was where I sat, eating a DiGiorno pizza and watching him treat physics like a kind of inside joke.

It was like that all down the line. I don’t mean that anything Tiger did related directly to anything that I was doing, or that people my age were doing—as generational markers go, the Navy SEAL kill house isn’t exactly Woodstock—but there were broad similarities. He got married around the same time many people I knew got married, had kids around the same time many people I knew had kids; he lost a parent, he blew up his relationship, he confronted middle age, all in moments when those things were starting to become familiar parts of our lives. As remote and extreme as many of his highs and lows were, they were always a little more accessible than, say, whatever Michael Jordan was up to, because I was going through my version of them, or knew someone who was.

I sometimes think that the main characteristic of my non-generation is a certain feeling of futility, a tendency toward withdrawal that results from our always having been slightly out of step with the important cultural experiences of the moment. We were a little early; we were a little late. They weren’t talking to us, or about us. We didn’t develop the vanity of some larger generations; we also didn’t develop the belief in our power to make things change.

Small distinctions of generational identity don’t really mean much, I think, at least among adjacent generations—it’s different if we’re talking about someone born in 1720—but they can nudge personality a few centimeters in a given direction. Ours nudged many of us, I think, toward an inkling that we wouldn’t be consulted, that we wouldn’t get our hands on the programming of things. I don’t mean we all felt this way strongly; I don’t mean we all felt this way at all. I’m talking only about an inflection. But a quirk of 2 centimeters can be meaningful when it’s widespread, and to the extent that millions of people in wildly divergent circumstances can have anything in common, I sometimes think that we are a little less comfortable with ambition, a little more wary of big pronouncements, a little less sure of being understood, than we might otherwise have been.

The accepted narrative of Tiger Woods’s rise and fall is the very familiar story of a brilliant man brought down by his own demons and then partially redeemed. We know this story from a million different iterations. It’s the arc of every biopic; it’s the backbone of every Behind the Music episode that people in my non-generation used to half-watch while looking at our laptops, back in the cave era before you could half-watch Netflix while looking at your phone. The genius begins at point A, relatively low: Tiger Woods, a toddler obsessed with golf, is trained by his obsessive, controlling, complex but loving ex–Green Beret father, Earl. Through a combination of near-magical talent and the support of a few vital loved ones, the genius rises to point B, an unimaginable height: Tiger wins three straight U.S. Amateur titles, takes the PGA Tour by storm, and becomes one of the most famous people on earth while storming the gates of Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. But the pressures of fame bring out the flaws hidden in the genius’s psyche, and the very traits that helped the genius rise now fuel his plummet to point C, disgrace and humiliation: Tiger’s numerous extramarital affairs turn into a tabloid superstorm, his marriage falls apart, and his game deserts him, leading to a long tumble down the rankings and a stain of scandal that threatens to blot out the rest of his career. Only when the genius recommits to what really matters can he hoist himself back up to the heights of point D, somewhere maybe not quite as high as B, but a long, long way above C: Tiger devotes himself to kids, refuses to give up on his golf, regains the trust of his fans, and eventually battles back and wins another Masters.

This is more or less the narrative of Tiger’s career that’s offered up by the new HBO film Tiger, a by-the-numbers sports documentary that offers a few riveting moments (Tiger’s high-school girlfriend reading the breakup letter he wrote her at his parents’ insistence) and many, many tenuous ones (the usual parade of “family friends” and sources who don’t know Tiger well holding forth on the key to his soul). Tiger hits points A, B, C, and D in exactly the way you’d expect if you’ve ever seen this kind of B-roll bio-doc before. Kiddie Tiger in grainy footage practicing putting with his dad. Tiger fist-pumping at Augusta and Pebble Beach. Tiger on Conan. Deranged fans thronging Tiger for his autograph. Rachel Uchitel, the first woman to be named in a story about Tiger’s affairs (by the National Enquirer, which stalked her), talking about how the scandal derailed her life. Tiger at rock bottom. You come away thinking, well, Tiger may never make another album as good as Rumours, but it’s great to see the band on the same stage again.

This time, though, what I kept thinking as I watched Tiger was this story makes no sense. I mean, to fit the familiar narrative, the moral-downfall aspect of Tiger’s fall has to be tied to the career-downfall aspect. That’s the whole essence of the genre: indifference to conventional boundaries enables the artist to make great art; the same indifference then leads to excesses that destroy his ability to make art at all. But the decline of Tiger’s golf had nothing to do with his sex life. He just hurt his knee and his back a lot. Charlie Parker could not play the saxophone all that well while strung out on heroin, but Tiger could and did play astonishing golf while lying to people he loved and leading a double life. That’s not to say one should lie to people one loves (don’t do that); the point is that the shape of the story that we’ve squeezed Tiger inside has more to do with what we’re used to, and what we apparently like to watch, than what’s unambiguously true.

Of course, it may be that the propensity to injury and the high-stakes philandering were driven by some common inner compulsion, that they share a root cause. That seems to be the function of the Tiger-training-with-the-SEALs chapter in the HBO doc: Lost after the death of his father and struggling with the pressures of fame, Tiger retreats into a militarized fantasy world where his body takes a lot of extra punishment, thus contributing to his run of injuries, and at the same time he has a string of anesthetizing sexual encounters that torpedo his personal life. Career downfall, moral downfall; done. It’s a charismatic version of the story—Wright Thompson’s 2016 piece about Tiger and the SEALs is one of the most riveting sports narratives I’ve ever read—but the easy connect-the-dots way in which it’s trotted out in lesser works like Tiger makes it hard to trust. It still feels like it’s speaking to a desire in the audience as much as telling us anything about Tiger. He had injury problems before the SEALs, after all; and his obsessively retooled whipcrack of a swing took a toll on his body.

It’s not difficult, in other words, to imagine a world in which Tiger’s body fell apart, but his reputation didn’t. It’s a little more difficult, but still not very, to imagine a world in which the tabloids wrecked his reputation, but he kept playing face-meltingly great golf and won 19 majors. That both things went wrong makes the story feel familiar, but I wonder if the familiarity reflects a lack of curiosity on our part. What I keep thinking about the non-generation to which Tiger and I both belong is that most of our rebellions were negative; the sense of having just missed the moment made it easier to refuse whatever was happening than to say what should happen instead. We had “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” not “if I had a hammer.” We thought corporate ambition was corrupt, but in a way that made us want to move to Seattle (which was already less cool than it used to be), not in a way that made us want to overthrow capitalism. We framed critique in terms of good taste and irony, not values. We were a comments section of a generation, and not clear on the future at all.

And we had this story. Again and again, we had it. Kurt Cobain died when Tiger and I were in our mid-teens. Biggie and Tupac died. River Phoenix died, even though he’d been in an Indiana Jones movie. To be great was to make a pact with the devil, rise spectacularly, and destroy yourself. Movies said so (romance was always most intense when it was transcendent and doomed; when we finally found Sid and Nancy at the cool video store, we took all the wrong lessons from it). Music said so. Even Pee-wee Herman’s career arc seemed to reinforce the message that [a talking head looks gravely into a camera; the chyron reads “former deputy editor of Whiz Bang Pop!] America loves to see people rise to the top, and then see them brought back to the bottom.

Well; every generation in human history has loved that to some degree. But the form of the narrative—the one that says that making a mark on history is evidence of a tragic inner flaw, and that you will be struck down if you dare to do it—may have greater power for anyone who feels slightly out of phase in time. The lives of great athletes (Ali’s activism, Jordan’s commercialism) are inevitably retold in ways that echo the preferred narratives of their eras, and in that sense I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tiger’s biography has been polished into its current shape. He’s still a reference point. This is still the story we demand; I hope, for his sake and ours, we can eventually find a better one.