If Tiger Woods' Career Ends Here, His All Too Human Struggles Shouldn't Overshadow His Extraordinary Life

Tiger Woods had the weight of the sporting world placed on his shoulders at an inordinately young age—and the golf superstar mostly exceeded expectations.

By Natalie Finn Feb 27, 2021 4:00 PMTags
Watch: Tiger Woods' Car Accident: Everything We Know

Even if he wasn't literally born with a golf club in his hands, Tiger Woods came close.

Hoping to turn his son onto the game at a very tender age, Earl Woods did give 3-month-old Tiger a tiny club to play with, and by the time he was 2 he was in a putting contest with Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show.  

By the age of 14 Tiger had won five Junior World Championships and could drive the ball more than 300 yards. His short game was better than most on the PGA Tour already, Earl assured in a 1990 interview, already envisioning his son's trailblazing place in the sporting world as "the first Black golfer to"—insert every milestone here.

So Tiger spent his childhood as the future of golf until, around the age of 19 when he left Stanford to turn pro, he basically was golf.

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Tiger Woods Through the Years

And he fulfilled everybody's hopes and dreams for as long as he could, his extraordinary skills carrying him to 14 major championships in 12 years, until he just couldn't keep up the façade that he was anything other than human any longer.

Injuries started to take their toll, his U.S. Open win in June 2008 practically occurring on one leg as the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee finally withered to nothing, four years after he told his coach Hank Haney he had about 20 percent of an ACL left. He wouldn't compete again until February 2009, but he added six trophies to his case that year before Thanksgiving, when personal disaster struck.

Tiger smashing his Escalade into a fire hydrant and then a tree just outside his Florida mansion. His philandering ways exposed in spectacular fashion. The bell tolling for his marriage to Elin Nordegren, the mother of his two children. The world, as the recent HBO documentary Tiger recalled, pressing its nose against the glass to gawk.

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The Biggest Tiger Bombshells

Due in no small part to his unparalleled rise to the top of his sport, his failures and screw-ups—the evidence that he's just a guy, not a god—registered more painfully than it did with most other sports stars, beloved but flamboyant or cocky guys who talked trash or boasted about their strengths, or who never bothered to keep their love of a good time under wraps.

Like his golf game, Tiger's mistakes registered as epic, too, errors in judgment that resulted in a far harsher spotlight on him than on the countless other athletes who've had reason to apologize or try to make up a past wrongdoing.

But Tiger clawed his way back, his decade-long resurgence complete once he added the 2019 Masters title to his championship resume, a victory all the more life-affirming because his son, Charlie, now 11, and daughter, Sam, 13, were there to see it, the first time he'd won a major title since they were too little to know what was happening.

While a full-circle culmination in one sense, winning at Augusta, where Tigermania really began when he was 21, there was also the hope that it was the start of a new, hungry chapter for Tiger, one he could attack pain-free for the first time in ages.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

But his bad back never fully stopped plaguing him, and he recently underwent his fifth surgery, which is why he wasn't playing in last weekend's Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., though he was there as the annual tournament's host. He said he hoped to feel well enough to compete in the Masters, which tees off April 5.

"I spent over a dozen years trying to get Tiger to give me a high 5 at Riviera and today he handed me a trophy hahaha what a world! #golf," tournament winner and L.A. native Max Homa tweeted Feb. 21.

Two days later, minutes after leaving his hotel in Rancho Palos Verdes at around 7 a.m., Tiger was in a single-car rollover crash, his 2021 Genesis GV80 veering into the center divider on Hawthorne Boulevard, shattering the sign that read "Welcome to Rolling Hills Estates," hitting the curb and then launching into a tree before rolling for about 30 yards away from the road. Emergency responders needed tools to pry him out of the wreckage through the windshield and within hours he was in emergency surgery at Harbor UCLA Medical Center in Torrance to repair a broken ankle and multiple lower leg fractures on his right side.

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Tiger Woods Injured in Car Crash: Everything We Know

News outlets led with scenes of the wreckage and every little update all day (some of Twitter grumbled that congressional hearings were getting the shaft in favor of crash coverage).

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But is there any way to overstate the sigh of relief when authorities confirmed that his injuries weren't life-threatening, the world already having lost one heartbreakingly young sports legend barely 13 months ago in the most tragic of circumstances?

Phil Mickelson, speaking at a tournament in Tucson, Ariz., told reporters Thursday that he and his fellow players "understand and appreciate what he has meant to the game of golf and for us and the PGA Tour. We all are hoping and praying for a full and speedy recovery, but we're also thankful, because that looked awful, and we're thankful he's still with us."

That sigh was only rivaled by the one that came when the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department shared that Tiger didn't show any signs of impairment at the crash scene, and no criminal charges were expected. Even if he was speeding (Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he was likely driving at a "relatively greater speed than normal"), that would only be a vehicle infraction.

The day after the crash, County Supervisor Janice Hahn called for a review of that stretch of road, where 13 accidents have occurred since January 2020 (though drivers were found to be at fault in 11 of those cases, per sheriff's department records).

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A History of Holiday Scandals

Because as Tiger fans and so many others have unfortunately learned, there was reasonable cause to wonder if there had been an error in judgment on Tiger's part. He was coming off a procedure to remove a pressurized disk fragment that was pinching his nerve—and the last time he had back surgery, successful as it ultimately was, his recovery got complicated.

In April 2017, he underwent spinal fusion surgery to relieve chronic nerve pain in his back and leg. In a hopeful update posted to his website May 24, he said that he felt better than he had in years. "Right now, my sole focus is rehab and doing what the doctors tell me," the post read. "I am concentrating on short-term goals."

Five days later, police in Jupiter, Fla., found him shortly before 3 a.m. asleep in the front seat of his Mercedes-Benz, which was stopped along the side of the road about 15 miles away from his house. The vehicle had signs of damage on the driver's side, and both tires on that side were flat. He was arrested on suspicion of DUI, booked and released.

There was no alcohol in his system, but toxicology tests found four prescription medications, including the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the painkiller hydrocodone, and traces of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Tiger pleaded guilty to reckless driving and agreed to enter a diversion program, and was released from his probation in September 2018, a month ahead of schedule.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images for The Match

Of course folks wondered if that was the death knell for his illustrious career, if perhaps he simply couldn't bounce back mentally, even if he was physically healing. He answered by winning the Tour Championship in 2018 and then that triumphant Masters, followed by the 2019 Zozo Championship in Japan that October.

This past year, of course, was highly irregular due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Masters not even held until November. But Tiger played a key role in taking sports fans' minds off of a sad spring, pairing with retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning to topple Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady in a May 24 charity match that raised $10 million for coronavirus relief efforts. And in December he teamed up with son Charlie at the PNC Championship, a two-day pro-fam exhibition where Tiger said his own game was the last thing on his mind.

"Just making sure Charlie has the time of his life, and he's doing that," he told reporters.

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So count the reasons why it would be such a damn shame if this freak accident marks the end of Tiger's historic career.

"I'm feeling fine, a little bit stiff," he told CBS Sports' Jim Nantz Feb. 21 at the Genesis Invitational, saying he was "still in the gym, still doing mundane stuff that you have to do for rehab, the little things before I can start gravitating towards something a little more."

Asked if he'd be able to play in the Masters in April, he said with a laugh, "God, I hope so. I've got to get there first. A lot of it is based on my surgeons and doctors and therapist and making sure I do it correctly. This is the only back I've got, I don't have much more wiggle room left."

The 45-year-old is tied with Sam Snead for most-ever PGA Tour wins with 82, but his 15 major titles are still three shy of Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18.

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Athletes and Their Sports Star Kids

Asked in 2017 on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio—post-fourth back surgery, post-arrest, and when he still only had 14 majors—if he thought he could catch Nicklaus, Tiger replied with a simple "of course."

He was playing in the Bahamas, telling reporters, "I feel fantastic. I didn't realize how bad my back was. Now that I'm feeling the way I'm feeling, it's hard to believe I was living the way I was living."

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Tiger admitted after winning the 2019 Masters that he didn't really know, though, if he would ever hoist a major trophy again. "I had serious doubts after what transpired a couple years ago," he said during the winner's press conference. "I could barely walk. I couldn't sit. Couldn't lay down. I really couldn't do much of anything. Luckily I had the procedure on my back, which gave me a chance at having a normal life. But then all of a sudden, I realized I could actually swing a golf club again.

"I felt if I could somehow piece this together that I still had the hands to do it. The body's not the same as it was a long time ago, but I still have good hands. So that certainly has helped, and I pieced it together, and next thing you know, if you look at it, my first 14 wins in majors were always—I had the lead in every one of them, or tied for the lead. To have the opportunity to come back like this, you know, it is probably one of the biggest wins I've ever had for sure because of it."

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Moreover, he seems to be having a lot more fun now, whether he's hanging out with his kid on the course or coaching Jada Pinkett Smith, Dwyane Wade and David Spade for an episode of the Discovery+ series Tiger Woods: My Game, as he was on Feb. 22. (Tiger signed a four-year, $35 million "strategic partnership" deal with Discovery in 2018.)

He was on his way to Rolling Hills Country Club to film with NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees and Justin Herbert when he crashed the next morning.

Naturally a slew of well-wishes poured in online, from Jada, who'd just seen him and offered a reminder not to take one minute for granted, to former President Barack Obama, who tweeted, "Sending my prayers to @TigerWoods and his family tonight—here's to a speedy recovery for the GOAT of golf. If we've learned anything over the years, it's to never count Tiger out."

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Tiger Woods' Family Photos

If he's physically able to compete, that's a safe bet, but doctors have acknowledged that his injuries are serious. According to a statement posted to Tiger's social media accounts, during surgery Tuesday, orthopedic trauma specialists inserted a rod into his lower right leg to stabilize his tibia and fibula bones and a number of screws and pins were used to repair his right foot and ankle.

"He is currently awake, responsive and recovering in his hospital room," the statement continued, thanking all the medical staff, first responders, sheriff's department and fire department for their help, and the fans for their support. 

Tiger was moved two days later to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for follow-up procedures, after which, according to a statement from his team released Feb. 26, he was "recovering and in good spirits."

Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

"He doesn't want his career to end like this," a source close to Tiger told People after the accident. "So if there's any way at all that he can continue playing golf, he will."

Considering all the times he could have packed it in, still with one of the most inspiring, groundbreaking and successful runs in all of sports, not just his own, and having weathered a personal s--t-storm that could've taken anyone's head out of the game for good, he's at least reached a point where no one can—or should, at least—question his legacy. 

From the young athlete expected to be a role model for children everywhere, balance the hopes and dreams of whichever group wanted to claim him as its own and break every record in the book, to the foundering champion who wanted a family but who had inherited his father's unfaithful ways, to the devoted dad who almost couldn't keep playing and for whom every day on the course is now gravy, Tiger's been in the rough but ultimately regained sight of the green. 

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"I was very fortunate to be given another chance to do something that I love to do. But more importantly, I've been able to participate in my kids' lives in a way that I couldn't for a number of years," Tiger told reporters after his 2019 Masters win.

"I tried to do that for a number of years and I just couldn't do it, but now I'm starting to do it and starting to be able to play with them and do things in their sports. That's something I always missed. I always felt like I could do pretty much anything physically, but for a while there, I just couldn't even walk. Now I'm able to play golf again, and do it at an elite level again, which is something that I'm just very blessed to be able to have that opportunity again."

Asked if he had a message for people who were struggling, personally or physically, he replied, "Well, you never give up. That's a given. You always fight. Just giving up's never in the equation.

"Granted, pushing and being competitive has got me into this position, but it's also what got me out of it. And so I've always had a pretty good work ethic throughout my career and throughout my life, and I just had to change the work ethic a bit and work on some different things, focused on that and just keep fighting. That's just part of the deal. We wake up every morning, and there's always challenges in front of us, and keep fighting and keep getting through."