by Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr. —
In 1997, the year he won his first professional golf tournament, Tiger Woods also won his first Masters Championship and he did it in a fashion so dominant that many have long considered it his greatest victory. He set a scoring record of 270 (18 under par), which has stood for the past 22 years (tied by Jordan Spieth in 2015). The margin of victory, 12 strokes, is a record, as is winning at the youngest age, 21.
By raw comparison, Tiger’s win Sunday in the 2019 Masters Championship is not only his greatest victory but the greatest comeback victory in professional sports.
Golf is an individual sport and there are no teammates to help you when you fall short. In golf, you play alone and more than the yardage of the course. One has to play the 18 inches between one’s ears (golf requires one to think).
To truly appreciate Tiger’s greatness, one must know his journey. An observation by Dr. Martin L. King Jr. helps put that journey into context. King said, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Tiger must be measured by the obstacles he has had to overcome in the past 11 years. He has endured injuries to his knee that would have ended the career of an ordinary golfer. He went under the “knife” for back surgery four times. Then he went through the horrific embarrassment of a domestic dispute becoming public.
There was the struggle with pain medication and being falsely arrested for driving under the influence. The public opinion polls turned vicious and mean-spirited. He endured the erosion of his popularity and the increase of naysayers in the worlds of sports and corporate sponsors.
In spite of it all, Tiger Woods is back on top.
African-American golfers took great pride when Tiger began to win as a pro and to set records at the Masters Golf Tournament, which stood as the last bastion of segregation in professional sports. African Americans were not invited and corporate sponsors seemingly did not care.
When pressure was applied, the rules to play in the Masters changed and players having won a professional golf tournament the previous year were invited. In 1974, Lee Elder won his first professional golf tournament and was invited to play in the 1975 Masters. Elder was present in 1997 and he, too, thought Tiger’s victory was the greatest.
In 1997, Tiger was just starting out as a professional golfer. He was young, strong and filled with confidence. The legendary Jack Nicklaus predicted that year that Tiger would become one of the greatest to ever play the game. In 1997, Tiger had his father, Earl Woods, to keep him focused. In 1997, corporate sponsors were lined up to place Tiger Woods on the brand of products and services.
As 2019 unfolded, it was still being debated as to whether Tiger could win another major golf tournament. In a real metaphorical sense, Tiger was on an endangered list. Golfing analysts readily talked about how great he once was in years gone by and cast serious doubts as to whether he could return to greatness.
Phil Mickleson, a fellow Master’s Tournament champion, took a different view: “Tiger doesn’t need golf, golf needs Tiger.”
When Tiger teed off for the final round of the 2019 Masters, he trailed the leader by two strokes. When he reached the 18th hole, he had a two-stroke cushion. This meant he had two putts to win his fifth green jacket, two putts to win his 15th major golf tournament, two putts to win his 81st professional golf tournament and two putts to win $2,000,070.
More importantly, he had two strokes to regain the “Throne of Greatness” in professional golf.
In 1997, Earl Woods was there to greet his son and celebrate the momentous Master’s Tournament victory. In 2019, little Charlie Woods was there to meet Tiger, his daddy, and celebrate his father’s greatest victory. It was difficult to find a person with dry eyes in the gallery.