None of us really knew.
The fans and the haters; the believers and the skeptics. United in the underlying truth of our defence and attacks on someone who transcended the sport he changed forever – can the man rediscover the athlete? Can the athlete, that athlete, exist again, now he is only a man?
None of us really knew. Including him.
Whether sport forgives I don’t know… but what sport does is remember. And yet for golf fans, for so long, remembering has felt so hard. We all saw the greatness back then. We were inspired by it, transfixed by it, enthralled by it. And that was regardless of whether you liked him or not. Because his greatness was unquestionable; unshakeable. The greatest ever? Debatable, depending on who you asked. Debatable, despite the dominance. Debatable, despite the inspiration of a generation. Debatable always, until he overhauled Jack’s formidable, magic eighteen. But an answer that would inevitably come, as Claret Jugs and Green Jackets were swept into the cloak of mental invincibility as year after year ticked past.
The inevitably is perhaps where we all fell down. Including him. Somehow, we normalised the greatness. Maybe he did too. The fist pumps and the roars were a staple, but they were him, they were Sundays, they were majors… they were all just routine. We spent a decade witnessing something in real time that only history would protect with the legacy it deserved. And none of us were ready for it to be history. None of us were ready for the legacy to be sealed. Worse still, none of us were ready for the legacy to be tainted by the man himself. Could it even be a legacy once its very foundations had been ripped out of the ground? What were we allowed to believe?
And so the questions changed.
How could an athlete built with no weaknesses, be a man of such weakness?
How could a personal life so delicately, dangerously stashed away for so long, thrust into the world’s unforgiving spotlight, co-exist with an impenetrable armoury of athletic and psychological ability?
Could he ever play again?
Could he ever contend again?
Should he walk away before our golden memories were frayed at the edges, colours blurred into painful shades of grey splashed over an uncontrollable fragility permeating his game? Giving the ones who wanted an excuse for the brilliance gleeful in their condemnation?
Was he doing anything but leaving us wondering if we imagined it all? Glorified it all?
Human flaws are one thing. Morally acceptable or not is another debate. But this debate was about an aura; one that was the intertwining of a man and an athlete, definable only by its indestructibility. When that was stripped away, was any of it real at all? That’s what we’ve been craving all along. A sign that it was real. A chance to remember.
Craving a chance to be proved to that greatness doesn’t have to be built on a lie. Greatness doesn’t have to be built on being one or the other; it doesn’t have to be built on unbreachable barriers or exposed vulnerabilities. Greatness can be all-conquering and it can be humbling.
Greatness can be built by a man, and not just a machine.
Greatness can stay.
Greatness can grow.
Most importantly… the greatness we saw; the greatness we knew. It was real.
Sport defines and it reveals, whether it is at the highest level with the world watching, or the lowest with only our conscience keeping score. Our flaws make us, they break us, and if we are willing, they make us again. Tiger was willing. His greatness defined him, broke him, and made him again. It doesn’t have to be a comeback story, but maybe we love it more because it is. This though is bigger than a comeback story; it is a story of greatness that needed a different ending. None of us wanted to write the ending ourselves, even though many of us tried. The ending was only ever in one person’s hands… we just needed him to pick up the pen and keep writing.
And that, he has.