Shortly after Tiger Woods teed off on the final day of the PGA Championship last weekend at the Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., sports analysts began complaining that crowds were still glued to the famous golfer, even though Woods had already blown his chance at winning his first major championship in more than five years; he would go on to finish a dismal 40th in the tournament.
There were plenty of other players who were attempting to make history. Henrik Stenson and Jonas Blixt were both vying to become the first Swede to win a major title. Jason Dufner had broken a course record at Oak Hill a day earlier, and went on to win his first PGA Championship at 10 under, 14 strokes better than Woods.
But, for all the compelling storylines playing out at Oak Hill, no narrative in golf—perhaps in all professional sports—is as compelling as that of Tiger Woods. He is the star athlete who transformed the game from the exclusive clubhouse of old white men into something for the Xbox generation—a child prodigy turned record-breaking superstar who married the cheerleader (or, in Woods’s case, the model-nanny) and seemed destined to rewrite history as the greatest golfer of all time.
Then there is the more recent Tiger Woods narrative: the sports hero turned villain. Consumed by the enormity of his own fame, he squandered it all—wife, kids, millions in endorsements, the love and respect of fans everywhere—on porn stars and cocktail waitresses.
But these days, a new postscript is emerging, one Woods, his fans and corporate sponsors are all too happy to embrace. Having publicly apologized and repented for his sins, Woods is crafting a new image as a changed man, both as a father and a golfer. He’s got a new swing coach and a new caddie. He’s back atop the PGA rankings for the first time in three years, having won five PGA tournaments this year. He’s got a new girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn, the stunning Olympic alpine ski champion. He was deemed sufficiently scandal-free to golf with U.S. President Barack Obama in February.
Most crucial to the Tiger Woods redemption story to date, however, has been his decision to carry his four-year-old son, Charlie Axel Woods, onto the course earlier this month after he won the Bridgestone Invitational by a commanding seven-shot lead. Charlie was just nine months old when Woods slammed his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant and a tree outside his mega-mansion in Windermere, Fla., in November 2009, prompting the unravelling of his marriage to Elin Nordegren. Charlie has never seen Woods win a major and has grown up with a father considered a fallen idol in the eyes of the public.
“When he won, the first thing he did was hug his son. It’s a big difference. I’ve never seen that out of him,” says Christian Nieves, who made the pilgrimage to Oak Hill from the Bronx. He sports several tattoos, along with a Tiger-like red Nike shirt. “As a father, I know how I am and I can see how he is. He’s a role model for me.”
It’s a recurring theme among the legion of Tiger devotees and golf enthusiasts who crowd around him during his practice round and the four days of the tournament at Oak Hill. Woods, they say, has paid the price for his indiscretions. Gone is the intense, obsessive drive to win, what some call the “magic” in his game and others call the relentless self-focus that drove him to destruction. What has emerged is a more humble player, one who is nicer to the press and more apt to interact with fans. All that’s holding him back now, fans say, is a media still fixated on the storyline of Woods as the fallen hero.
“You pay for your mistakes and he’s paid many times for his,” says Deborah Malcolm, who waited three hours at the first hole to see Woods tee off on Saturday, while holding a stuffed toy tiger. “He deserves a break now.” Malcolm’s son, Ryan, won the first season of Canadian Idol and she says that has given her insight into the pressures that instant fame can exert on a person. “What the fans do to try to get close to a rock star-type figure is horrible,” she says. “With [Ryan], it was a little thing compared to Tiger. So I don’t blame Tiger 100 per cent for what happened to him.”
Sarah Swisher, a 76-year-old grandmother and avid golfer from Cortland, N.Y., says she was “totally disgusted, shocked” at the tales of Woods’s rampant infidelity. But she has since made her peace. “I’ve forgiven him for his lapse in good judgment,” she says. “As time passes, things don’t seem as bad after a while, I guess.”
Sharon Farchione-Ross, a therapist from Rochester, says she has studied Woods’s demeanour and found him a changed man. “I can sense his humility and his genuineness,” she says. “I actually like him better since the scandal. It’s a lesson for all of us. If you look around here, nobody can judge anybody. It may have caused some people to take a look at their own relationships.”
It isn’t obvious that the crowds gathered a hundred deep around Woods are engaged in that level of introspection. It’s more like pandemonium. They arrive in droves, sporting red shirts, although tournament organizers have requested spectators not wear red because it is distracting to the other players. From a distance, they resemble a British military parade marching behind their commander from hole to hole. They shout “Go Tiger!” and “Get in the hole!” at every stroke, even those he bogeys, which he does often. Fathers lift their young sons onto their shoulders so they can catch a glimpse of the golf superstar.
Woods’s five-month relationship with Lindsey Vonn, the winningest female downhill ski racer in the U.S., who’s won 59 World Cup races to date, has only added to the redemption story. Her appearance at a local Rochester ski shop a day earlier to sign autographs received nearly as much local media coverage as Woods’s did. When Vonn casually strolls through the crowd on Saturday on her way to see Woods at the 17th hole, she is trailed by a gaggle of bug-eyed male admirers. “The relationship with Lindsey Vonn has helped a lot,” says fan Kyle Lewis. “It shows he’s moved on.”
But, for all the fan enthusiasm for the “new” Tiger, there is considerable money for the player, his sponsors and the game itself that is riding on the prospect of a comeback story. “I think what’s going on is they’re kind of hitting all the right stereotypes of what a good person is, in terms of selling the family route,” says Arthur Caplan of the New York University Program on Sports and Society. “The advertisers and the media have a stake in his redemption.”
With his return to the top of golf rankings this year, Woods once again became the highest-paid professional athlete, raking in an estimated $78 million in prize winnings, endorsements and appearance fees, according to Forbes. That is still far off the estimated $110 million he earned pre-scandal in 2008. Although he retained major sponsors such as Nike, Rolex and video game company EA Sports, he lost heavyweights such as General Motors, Accenture and AT&T and has struggled to gain new endorsements. It took him nearly two years to find a new sponsor for his bag—normally some of the most coveted real estate in pro golf—and when he did, it was the obscure sports nutrition brand Fuse Science. He has reportedly spent as much as $4 million supporting his World Challenge tournament in Thousand Oaks, Calif.—which raises money for underprivileged children through his Tiger Woods Foundation—after the tournament struggled to find a title sponsor. His golf-course-design business has also suffered from the double whammy of a sex scandal and a global recession.
Nor is Woods the only one banking on a recovery. Sports market research firm Repucom estimated that Nike garnered nearly $20 million in television exposure last year from having Woods decked out head-to-toe in its gear. The company has seen revenues of its golf division, which it built around Woods, rise 21 per cent in the past three months to $726 million. It has been keen to play into the evolving Woods narrative. Its 2010 post-scandal ads featured the voice of Earl Woods seeming to admonish his son from beyond the grave. Nike’s latest ads champion Woods’s return to the top of the leaderboard with the slogan, “Winning takes care of everything.”
When Woods hoisted his young son into his arms to celebrate a televised win earlier this month, his face buried in the shoulder of Woods’s trademark red Nike shirt, golf commentators noted that Charlie was also decked out in red Nike gear, just weeks after his father had signed a new five-year deal with the global sports brand.
“When I saw that, I thought, ‘Charlie just earned his dad millions of dollars in returning endorsements,’ ” says John Ziegler. A Los Angeles talk-show host and former self-proclaimed “pastor of the First Church of Tiger Woods,” Ziegler shut down his popular fan site dedicated to Woods, in disgust at his antics off the course. He’s now more prone to heckling, rather than cheering, Woods at tournaments. But even he admits he was charmed by the father-son moment. “I have a lot of anger still toward Tiger,” he says. “But it becomes more and more difficult to continue to punish a guy when he’s clearly suffered and he’s clearly trying and his son clearly adores him.”
The only piece still missing from the Woods redemption story is a win at a major tournament. Key to the Woods narrative is his long-held dream of surpassing Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors, six of them Masters. Woods won his last major, the U.S. Open, in 2008. He won his last Masters in 2005. Nicklaus took home his 15th major at 38 and is one of just three players to win three or more majors after the age of 40. Woods, who turns 38 in December, is stuck at 14 majors and four Masters. It’s an incredible accomplishment by most standards. But this is Tiger Woods. Despite all the talk of a kinder, gentler family man and a more considerate golfer, fans are still expecting to see him break records. To that end, they are searching for signs of the “old” Woods, that intensely driven, win-at-all-costs golf mega-star. “It’s just a matter of time, is all it is,” says Nieves, the Woods fan from the Bronx. “He’s just got to get back in the groove. But he will. He’s the best player in the world.”