During the final round of the WGC-Workday Championship on Sunday, there seemed to be a plethora of Tiger Woodses (?) playing across the Florida grounds. The tournament doubled as a Tiger Woods cosplay convention. Several players wore that classic “championship red” golf shirt and black pant combination (sometimes topped with a black Nike hat). In actuality, it was a heartwarming “get-well-soon” moment from the golf world to Woods, who was involved in a serious car accident on Feb. 23 in Los Angeles that has left him with several injuries and his return to the sport in question.
Woods is no stranger to overcoming potentially career-ending injuries and circumstances, but for this particular obstacle, the stakes are high even for him. Woods was already rehabbing his fifth back surgery since 2014 when his SUV crashed into a center divider, rolling over several times into a curb and then a tree before settling several hundred feet from the road. When emergency officials arrived, Woods was responsive, but the wreck was so severe that his extraction required a pry bar and an axe. After being transported to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, it was announced he had suffered multiple open fractures and muscle trauma to his right leg. Surgeons placed a rod into the tibia of his right leg, in addition to stabilizing injuries in his foot and ankle with pins and screws. He will continue his recovery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, known for specializing in the rehabilitation of professional athletes.
Immediately after word broke about Woods’ accident, an outpouring of support came from fellow golf rivals and superstar athletes from all corners. Jack Nicklaus, Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn (his ex-girlfriend) and Magic Johnson, just to name a few, all offered prayers of support for a full recovery. The seriousness of the crash, and the reality that Woods was lucky to come out of it alive, no doubt recalled the tragedy of Kobe Bryant’s death just over a year ago. The fact we could have lost another all-time great so prematurely and heartbreakingly, when his impact and influence was just beginning to be felt by a younger generation of athletes, causes a shiver down the spine that is hard to shake.
This painful setback for Woods comes as his hopes to compete at the Masters this April after a disappointing 2020 looked like they just might come to fruition. What’s more, Woods seemed to be truly enjoying golf again. In December he competed with his 11-year-old son Charlie at the PNC Championship. Fans immediately took to Woods’s mini-me––Charlie was near identical in his stance, swings and fist pumps. The pair finished seventh among 20 teams, but the prize of it all was Woods’ bursting happiness and pride at his son’s play, a smile and cheer the golf world had dearly missed. Due to restrictions at his club because of COVID-19, Woods was no longer allowed to play alongside his usual golf partners, so he brought on Charlie as his partner. Like so many of us during the pandemic, a rare positive facet was the chance to spend time with family, and this extended to the Woodses.
These past few years for Woods have also marked a change in his personality, especially in terms of his approach to younger competitors who grew up watching him. For the first half of his career, Woods was known for being a loner. He was perceived as unapproachable, ultra-competitive, cold, only opening up to a small group of friends. But with his persistent injuries, growing age and doubts about the longevity of his golf career, the 45-year-old Woods has lowered some of his walls, allowing the younger players like Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler to pick his brain, accepting his role as an elder who was happy just to be there competing at all. Former pro player and golf analyst Paul Azinger recently explained that when he competed against Woods in the late 1990s to early 2000s, “Tiger was uncomfortable if you were comfortable with him. With the kids now, Tiger is uncomfortable if you are not comfortable with him.” After all the scrutiny, pain and doubt he has experienced in the past decade, Woods has been finding solace again through active mentorship and fatherhood, playing so that his kids and students can watch and learn, and the sport has relished in his happiness.
Tiger Woods will go down in history as the quintessential comeback athlete. Towards the beginning of his pro days, he was one of the most dominant forces golf has ever seen, winning 14 of his 15 major titles by the age of 32. He won the Career Grand Slam three times, tying Jack Nicklaus. Then, of course, came the infamous cheating scandal that damaged his reputation, after which his performance noticeably dropped. His first comeback was in 2013 and 2014, when he rose again to the number one ranking in the world. Subsequently, his persisting injuries began to get the best of him, forcing him to undergo four back surgeries in three years. And finally, he began to appear healthy again in 2018 and won his first major in 11 years at the 2019 Masters. With this recent accident, we truly have to consider whether we will see Woods competing again on a golf course. He doesn’t need another comeback to prove he is a legend. But if the outpouring of emotion from fans and competitors alike says anything, Tiger—you might not need the reminder—but the golf world really needs you to come back.