ROCHESTER, N.Y. – I once asked Tiger Woods to name the worst thing about being Tiger Woods.
This was years ago, when he was in the midst of shattering records, when he was winning major championships just by showing up. It was before Thanksgiving night in 2009 and all of the ensuing scar tissue.
This was when Tiger was on top of the world, universally beloved for his golf game. There was hardly a television commercial break that didn’t include him pitching product while showing off his pearly whites for the camera.
From an outsider’s perspective, there wasn’t much to dislike about being Tiger Woods. There weren’t many who wouldn’t have traded places with him, if not for all those zeroes in the bank account, then at least for the ability to hit a cut 6-iron from 215 yards into a tucked hole location.
And so I asked him: “What’s the worst thing about being Tiger Woods?”
He didn’t hesitate. Didn’t even blink.
“Anonymity,” he said. “Something I think I lost when I left college.”
Memories of this response came flooding back Sunday afternoon at Firestone Country Club. After dismantling the field to win in a seven-stroke walkover, Tiger gave the requisite wave to the fans, offered up a few comments for a live interview and bounced off the 18th green in the direction of the scoring trailer.
He had only reached the practice putting green when he heard a voice. He turned around and what he saw prompted a smile that was kilowatts beyond anything he’d offered after any birdie on the course.
As his 4-year-old son, Charlie, ran toward him, Tiger elicited a look of sheer joy that we’ve never seen from him in public before.
Even before tarnishing his image, he was always fiercely private with his personal life. Tiger lived in a cocoon more comparable to a privileged celebrity than anyone else in the golf world. He valued his personal life so much that he even named his yacht “Privacy.”
In the time since, he has worked to put up even greater barriers between himself and the outside world, keeping a safe distance from those who gawk at him, whisper about him and judge him.
And that’s why Sunday’s celebration was so startling.
He didn’t meet up with his son in the back room of the clubhouse. He didn’t have a car pull around and whisk the two of them away for a private celebration.
Instead, right in front of the cameras and microphones and all of those people against whom he put up those barriers, Tiger reached down and picked up Charlie, pulling him in for an embrace.
It was a boundless moment of normalcy for a man who has struggled to let people see that side of him. It was a moment of comfortable candor for a man who has so often been uncomfortable sharing his private life in public.
It didn’t stop there, either.
In his news conference after the victory, Tiger spoke about what this one meant (“Something I’m very proud of is how many tournaments I’ve been able to win consistently”) and how he’d prepare for the upcoming PGA Championship (“I’m just going to take it easy for probably the next day or so”). Gracious if not perfunctory responses to some of the day’s biggest queries.
Then he was asked about what it meant to have Charlie there with him.
“This was the first win he’s ever been at,” he said. “That’s what makes it special for both of us. He’s never seen me win a golf tournament.”
If you listened closely, you could almost hear Tiger getting a little choked up. A man who has forever lowered the shade against the window to his soul opened it up just enough to show us how much this meant to him.
Like any proud father, he continued talking about Charlie, offering lengthy anecdotes that he’s always previously seemed reticent to share.
He talked about how Charlie and his older sister Sam often ask if he’s leading a tournament. About how they know the difference between a par and a birdie. About how cute it is when Charlie makes a putt at home, then pumps his fist, just like his dad. About just how good it felt to be hugged like that after the win.
These may be standard stories for any golfer not named Tiger Woods, but the comparisons ring hollow. None of his peers have struggled to show this personal side in a public setting. None of them have put up such momentous barriers between themselves and the outside world.
None of them have ever claimed that the worst thing about their lives was a lack of anonymity.
That’s what I thought about as Charlie rushed ahead to give him a hug. It’s what I couldn’t stop thinking about as the two of them walked together toward the scoring trailer, the little boy never letting go of that embrace around his father’s neck.