Not sure what your initial reaction was to the news Monday that Tiger Woods had been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, but mine came in the form of a question:
Man, what if this would’ve happened 10 years ago?
Woods was on top of the world then, barely 30 and still on a furious climb toward major championship No. 14. He’d already spent more weeks ranked No. 1 in the world than any golfer before him and was nearing the $1 billion mark in career earnings — the first athlete from any sport to sniff such rarefied air.
Beyond all that, Woods, with his trademark fist pump and megawatt smile, still was squeaky-clean in the image department. He wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as he’d been as the 21-year-old who blew the roof off the golf establishment with an unforgettable romp at the 1997 Masters, but he was the gold standard as a competitor, as an icon and as an enduring cultural phenomenon.
The other sports celebrities of Woods’ vintage — Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Derek Jeter — all looked up at a uniquely inspirational figure who’d single-handedly rewritten the realities of golf. Millions were engaging with the sport as participants, and millions more as TV viewers, solely because of Tigermania.
If his arrest would’ve happened 10 years ago? Whoa — it would’ve been a massive story.
Of course, when Woods eventually did go off the rails in 2009 — with a sex scandal that was only beginning to unfold — it was the only sports story anybody wanted to talk about. For a while thereafter, Tiger was toxic. His marriage was over. His relationships with longtime coach Hank Haney and caddie Steve Williams followed it down the tubes.
A stirring resurgence in 2013, when Woods won five tournaments and had a top-five finish at the Masters, seemed for a while to put him back in the hunt for Sam Snead’s record 82 PGA Tour victories (Woods has 79) and even Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major titles (Woods is stuck on 14). But a mishmash of knee, elbow and back problems have all but drowned out that success. Woods, who has had four surgeries on his back alone since 2014 — the most recent in April — is a broken man physically.
Mentally and emotionally, he might be in pieces, too. Let’s hope not. It would be nice to think that, at only 41, Woods — the golfer and the man — isn’t irredeemable.
“I haven’t felt this good in years,” he wrote on his website just last week. “As for returning to competitive golf, the long-term prognosis is positive. . . . All I can do is take it day by day. There’s no hurry. But, I want to say unequivocally, I want to play professional golf again.”
Does the man in that Jupiter, Florida, booking photo look like someone with a real future in the game? If you saw Woods’ mug shot — everyone must’ve by now — it had to knock you back on your heels. Somehow, Woods went from being the glorious embodiment of youthful promise to being 41 going on 60. The picture says 1,000 words, all of them sad and depressing.
One thing this isn’t is funny. I thought of a lighthearted line or two, like how Woods should’ve reached for his driver (or at least ordered an Uber) rather than get behind the wheel at 3 a.m.
But, yeah, not funny. Not at all. In fact, I didn’t see a single wisecrack or meme in the aftermath of Woods’ arrest — and there were countless of them, this being 2017 in America — that even made me begin to smile.
This isn’t just about the fall of a giant. It isn’t just about all Woods has been through since turning pro at 20. It’s also about a 2-year-old putting against Bob Hope on ‘‘The Mike Douglas Show’’ and being featured on TV and in print regularly after that. It’s about a boy who grew up always playing against — and, yes, beating — older kids, even in the biggest amateur competitions.
It’s about a guy who has never not been defined by golf, and whether he can function outside of that context.
Woods’ latest turn for the worse isn’t a massive story. It isn’t even a surprise, is it? But the story isn’t over. It might get worse. Maybe it’ll get better. I’d like to think that’s still possible.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.