Champion golfer Tiger Woods has had a golf club in his hand since he was a toddler, always under the watchful eye of his Army Ranger dad. He suffered a great loss when his dad died in 2006 and what followed were multiple surgeries and personal setbacks. But never before has his career - or life - been tested as it was on February 23, 2021.
Woods was en route to shoot promotional videos with Golf Digest magazine when his car crashed in a severe rollover accident. He suffered compound fractures in his leg, and “on the table” was a possible leg amputation.” He also was bedridden for three months, wheelchair-bound, then hobbled with crutches. Yet, just before Thanksgiving, a viral video circulated showing him once again hitting golf balls.
"I'm lucky to be alive and still have the limb," Woods said at his first press conference since the horrific accident, promoting his annual charity golf tournament on November 30.
"I am very grateful that someone upstairs was taking of me," he added
Woods has had several comebacks before, and in his words, “climbed Mt. Everest” to achieve greatness time and time again. But the man who pushed his body to extremes, training with the Navy SEALS, was now comfortable putting the breaks on his career.
“I can still participate in the game of golf. I can still, if my leg gets OK, I can still click off a tournament here or there. But as far as climbing the mountain again and getting all the way to the top, I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation of me,” he told Golf Digest.
Fifteen years ago, at the height of his career, Woods took his first major break to mourn the death of his father. Earl’s passing capped a lifelong journey for one of sports’ most storied father-son relationships and prompted an unscheduled break in Tiger’s 2006 golf season. The timing for his return was especially poignant, as Tiger returned to competition on Father’s Day weekend at New York’s Winged Foot Golf Club for the U.S. Open.
"My Dad was my best friend and greatest role model. He was an amazing dad, coach, mentor, soldier, husband and friend," Tiger said about his dad.
But for Tiger, the son of an Army Ranger who always looked back with pride on his two tours of duty in Vietnam, every day was Father’s Day and a test of his legendary grace under pressure. Except for a periodic – and uncharacteristically human – profanity shouted on a missed shot, Tiger’s icy cool demeanor has become legendary in the sport. It seems he always delivers when the chips are down.
"I really had no desire to get back to the game of golf," Woods said of that initial layoff from the game. "I think one of the hardest things for me, in all honesty, was to get back to the game, because a lot of my memories, great memories that I have with my dad, are at the golf course."
"It was hard at times going out there late in the evening like I always do to practice," Tiger said, "and I remember starting back -- anytime you take time off and start back, you always work on your fundamentals: grip, posture, stance, alignment. Well, that’s what I learned from Dad."
A Job to Do
Earl Dennison Woods was born March 5, 1932, in Manhattan, Kansas. He attended Kansas State University on a baseball scholarship at a time when schools never held such privileges for minorities. He earned a degree in sociology in 1953, joined the army in 1954 and served 20 years, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Green Berets. Earl’s military background was a great foundation for teaching Tiger the elements of mental toughness.
"Most people cannot or will not discuss their combat experiences," Earl Woods once told Golf Digest. "It’s too traumatic and painful for them. I saw all the things you see in war -- dead bodies, brains all over the place, friends dying -- and I can talk about it. I had a mind-set that this was war, and that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I had a job to do. I didn’t overanalyze it. I loved myself too much to let it take something away from me."
A Loving Father
But nonetheless, Tiger’s human. At a press conference ahead of the 2006 U.S. Open, Tiger revealed his most heartfelt side, when identifying his father’s greatest gift to him.
"Love," Woods said. "That’s basically it. The love that we shared for one another and the respect that we had for one another was something that’s pretty special."
So on the eve of that first comeback, not only to regain the dominance that he’d held over the game for 10 years, but also to reaffirm everything that his father’s meant to him, Tiger Woods was confident. "You’re going to go through periods where it’s just tough," he said. "It tests every bit of you. But if you’ve got a heart, you’re going to be alright."
Things were more than “alright” for Tiger after that 2006 weekend. He has become a living legend, garnering massive press attention, even to announce earlier this week that he won’t be playing much ever again. He is the all-time leader in PGA Tour wins with 82, second to Jack Nicklaus with major tournament victories with 15, U.S. Amateur champion, PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, and World Golf Hall of Famer. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
A golf historian, Tiger’s also found role models along the way, such as Lee Elder, the first Black to win the Masters. Elder passed away last month at the age of 87.
"Lee Elder meant a lot to me because he was the first. He was the one that I looked up to. And because of what he did, I was able to play here, which was my dream," TIger said after winning his first major tournament, the Masters, in 1997.
Climbing The Mountain Once More
Flash forward fifteen years, and Tiger Woods has borne more than his share of injuries in sports. Ten surgeries -- five on his knee and five on his back -- and then the February 2021 car accident. He also endured a personal scandal and the subsequent loss of sponsors. Yet, in 2019, 11 years after he won his last major, in one of the greatest moments in sports, he won the Masters, a climb up Mt. Everest yet again.
It reminded him of his 1997 victory, when he famously exited the 18th green to hug his dad with tears of joy.
"I'm still just getting chills thinking about it," Tiger told ESPN about the 2019 victory. "Then I walked off the back of the green, to see [his son] Charlie there, just opened up to our arms, it meant a lot to me and still does. It just reminded me so much of me and my dad [Earl in 1997], and to come full circle like that, it still gives me ... you know, a little teary."