Skip to main content

The Comeback: Tiger's journey through personal shame

Getty Images

It has always been difficult writing about a particular aspect of Tiger Woods’ comeback. But I’ve done it often over the last decade, because I never lost the sense that of all of Woods’ challenges, it was the one that mattered most.

I’m referring to the extreme shame and humiliation he suffered after his serial indiscretions became so painfully public in late 2009. The beginning of Tiger’s ordeal was marked by 20 straight days of being on the cover of the New York Post, and after that, it surely got worse before it ever got better.

It’s the part of Woods’ life that for many has been too uncomfortable to address. Too private and unseemly to talk about – the kind of thing best dismissed as none of our business. And all the more since Tiger won the Tour Championship and then the Masters. Why spoil such a perfect story? So much time has passed, and Tiger has become so much nicer. Basically, the world’s collective call has been, “Please, let’s move on.”

And after all, it’s impossible to truly know how Woods was affected. Even when his public comments have been raw, they’ve been sparing. At his blue-curtain apology in February 2010, which was watched live by an estimated 30 million people, he said, “It’s hard to admit that I need help, but I do.” At his return to competition two months later at the Masters, while speaking at his news conference about how entitlement had caused him to lose connection to the Buddhist principles of his mother, he chillingly said, “I just lost that, and unfortunately lost my life in the process.” And in a 2015 Life Magazine interview on the occasion of his 40th birthday, Woods said his biggest regret was not having had “a more open, honest relationship with my ex-wife. Our frustration would have come out if we had talked about it and been open and honest with each other.”

Mostly though, Woods, even in his lowest moments, has stayed disciplined in making injuries or swing changes the focal points of his difficulties. It’s been an impressive demonstration of a champion’s will, but I’ve always taken his avoidance of even acknowledging the obvious psychological trauma he went through as evidence of how deeply it lived inside him.

In important ways, its specter lived inside us as well. Why else was the release of emotion by the throngs that greeted Woods’ victories at East Lake and Augusta so moving? For 10 years, one of the most gifted athletes in history had kept the kind of internal wound that could have and probably should have completely broken him from breaking him. Without knowing the particulars, intuition told us that Woods had channeled every bit of his competitive greatness to conquer himself.

It was clear in those moments that Woods had been forgiven. But more profoundly, his performance and gratitude were the best evidence that he had forgiven himself.

All this is just my opinion, of course. To all charges of dime-store psychology – guilty. Until Woods opens up, if he ever does, we will never know the true nature of his psychological struggle. But as uncomfortable and unknowable as that subject might be, I am comfortable asserting that it was the very heart of his comeback.

I can take some comfort in not being alone in that view. Every current or former professional golfer with an ounce of reflection has wondered and often worried about what Tiger’s ordeal did to him mentally. And usually it was the most accomplished athletes – across sports – who had the most acute appreciation of what Tiger had, and how it was profoundly threatened by what he went through.

Several mentioned how vital to success it was for a performer to feel that winning or a good result is earned or deserved, and that shame and self-loathing can undermine that feeling. It’s the theme that Michael Jordan was touching on when he told Wright Thompson of ESPN The Magazine in 2016 that Woods was still haunted by the damage done.

“That bothers him more than anything," Jordan said. "It looms. It's in his mind. It's a ship he can't right, and he's never going to. What can you do? The thing is about T-Dub, he cannot erase. That's what he really wants. He wants to erase the things that happened."

After Woods’ 2013 season, in which he won five tournaments and returned to No. 1 in the world, Gary Player shared this insight for an article in Golf Digest:

“When he came back from his difficulties, Tiger had eyes on him like he never had before. It's an important feeling for a golfer to believe people admire you. He had the opposite, and that's very hard to deal with.”

I found former two-time heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman the most empathetic to Woods’ plight. He spoke candidly of how his psyche was shattered in 1974 when heavy underdog Muhammad Ali made the then-undefeated Foreman look foolish with rope-a-dope tactics, before knocking him out in the eighth round.

“I was humiliated, ashamed, embarrassed – all of the above," a then 67-year-old Foreman told me for Golf Digest in 2016. “Recovering psychologically from a defeat like I had is a very hard thing to go through. I lost a part of myself, and it took me a long time to get it back."

In his next fight, Foreman was knocked down twice by Ron Lyle before coming back to win with a desperate knock out. “When I was on the canvas against Lyle, I thought, Oh, it's happening all over again. I'm nothing," Foreman said. Three years later, Foreman would leave boxing and not fight again for 10 years. In that time, he healed his mind and ultimately became heavyweight champion again at age 45 in a comeback as astounding as Woods’. 

"Tiger has to figure out some of the same things I did,” Foreman said in ‘16. “He's had some shame and humiliation. But I think he's gotten up, or will get up from that. He can still be great, because that's still inside him.”

Foreman has been proven right, but Woods’ road in the sport that provides the most time to think was rocky. Jack Nicklaus, who has always expressed optimism that Woods would successfully come back, at the 2018 Memorial seemed to almost reconsider his position as he reflected on the psychological hurdles Woods had to clear. “I don’t think Tiger’s had a lot of fun the last 10 years,” said the man generally considered the game’s clearest thinker. “I would hate to have been through what he’s been through.”

Certainly, Woods’ back problems took away much of his game and may end up the deciding factor in how long he’ll be able to play. But there is also no doubt that a relatively uninjured Woods came back a different golfer, one more susceptible to competitive pressure, after his public scandal.

It wasn’t just that he went winless in 2010 and 2011, because he won three times in 2012 and five times in 2013 before the onset of severe back pain kept him winless for the following five years. But even in the two years he was winning, what was most telling about the difference in Woods was his performance in major championships.

Whereas his most outstanding trait pre-scandal had been his ability to produce his best golf for the biggest events, and particularly on the weekends of those events, after the scandal, an opposite pattern emerged.

He stopped being golf’s greatest terminator on championship Sundays. Suddenly, the ones he wanted the most and was used to getting, became the hardest to get. A never-before-seen fragility leaked into his game.  All the more because his peers could sense it, and he undoubtedly knew they could.

In 2010, Woods finished a remarkable T-4 at Augusta in his first tournament after emerging from rehab, but a telling moment took place on the 14th hole of the last round, when he pushed a 5-foot birdie putt that would have kept him within reach of leader Phil Mickelson, and then missed the 18-inch comebacker. At the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he finished three strokes behind winner Graeme McDowell after a last-round 75.

At the 2011 Masters, he was tied for the lead with nine to play. But a shaky three-putt from 25 feet on the 12th hole was a killer as he finished four behind.

At the 2012 U.S. Open, Woods was tied for the lead after 36 holes, but shot 75-73 on the weekend. At The Open Championship at Royal Lytham, he shot 3-over-par 73 on Sunday to finish T-3, four back.

In 2013, a seemingly restored Woods rolled into Augusta with three early season victories. He was leading on Friday when he suffered the worst break of his career, his third shot on the 15th hole bouncing off the pin on the fly and into the pond. From there he suffered his infamous penalty for an illegal drop that led to a triple-bogey 8. He would lose by four and finish T-4 again. At The Open Championship at Muirfield, he began the final round two out of the lead, but would shoot 74 to finish T-6.  

As if his best effort in 2013 had only emphasized what he was missing, he went downhill quickly in 2014. The back got worse, requiring his first microdiscectomy. His chipping began to go off the rails. 2015 was worse. At his year-end tournament in the Bahamas, a beaten Woods somberly looked at the state of his career and said, “I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy.”

But then, after another desultory year, a dramatic turn came in 2017. Out of desperation, the man who vowed he was done with surgeries underwent a spinal fusion. Almost instantly, he reported, he was out of pain.

But just as his physical state was transformed, Woods had to again confront shame and humiliation when he was arrested for driving under the influence of pain killers and sleep drugs near his home in Jupiter Island, Florida, with police cameras showing him struggling through a field sobriety test, and nearly asleep as he was questioned after being taken to jail. Once again, Woods had to endure ridicule on social media.

But what looked like the worst news possible was almost surely a blessing. The public embarrassment brought urgency to resolve a problem. Because Woods was still inactive as his back healed, he had time to think and gain perspective. He underwent counseling, and friends and associates acknowledged that he was more engaged and committed to the process than he had been in the aftermath of Thanksgiving 2009. By the time Woods emerged in public – as an assistant captain to Steve Stricker on the Presidents Cup team at Liberty National – the physical and mental aspects were in better harmony than they had been in a dozen years.

Woods embraced his role of serving the U.S. squad and was supportively received by his peers. If anything, his reception from the galleries was even warmer. And if how people thought of him had been a source of worry for Woods, as it had surely been in recent years, it must have been gratifying to be so accepted at a sensitive time.

Shortly after, he was cleared by doctors to resume playing. He arrived at the Hero World Challenge that December rejuvenated. “I’m loving life now,” he said. “I’ve come out the other side and I feel fantastic.”

Talk about gravy. Woods had achieved a hard-earned peace that he could be proud of, all without any golf success. It was then, as 2018 dawned, that I suspect Woods gave himself permission to be great again.

And he has been. Not with the sustained brilliance. But in opportunistic spurts that – though he’d love them to be more frequent – are likely the most satisfying of his life.

Indeed, the real measure of how complete a comeback this year’s Masters was is that – definitely temporarily and possibly for the foreseeable future – it put out the fire inside Tiger Woods. Because it required all he had as a golfer, after life had demanded he overcome much more as a man. And that’s what will always matter most.