Tiger Woods' body will always be broken, but his body was never his greatest gift
Big Cat is winning majors again but not like he used to
Throughout last week's Masters, much of the chatter both publicly and privately was about Brooks Koepka's body. We all dissected the brawniest dude in golf like he was a science experiment, and everyone had an opinion about what his 1,800-calorie diet meant for his major championship chances. There were jokes (mostly bad ones) and takes (also mostly bad ones) but as the week wore on, I couldn't help wondering if Koepka's body was not the one we should have been discussing.
When Tiger Woods showed up to the 1997 Masters he showed up with, as some have called it, the perfect body for this sport. His waist was a 1-iron, his shoulders were far enough apart that you knew it didn't matter that his waist was a 1-iron. His arms were long and loose, and the hands that would go on to hold history 15 times (and counting) were crafted to do things with a golf club nobody has ever seen before. Looking at photos of Tiger from that era reminds me of this great passage from Michael Lewis' bestseller, Moneyball.
The baseball scouts loved [Billy Beane]. As one of them admitted, "I never looked at a single statistic of Billy's. It couldn't have crossed my mind.... He had it all." According to another, "The boy had a body you could dream on. Ramrod-straight and lean but not so lean you couldn't imagine him filling out. And that face!"
A body you could dream on. That was Tiger in 1997, but he had the numbers that mattered, too. And when the body you could dream wore a single-colored coat in his first major as a pro, the dream became a very heavy reality for everyone else in professional golf. Of course there have been plenty of bodies you could dream on, but the scary part of what unfolded for the Tom Lehmans and Nick Prices of the world at that time is that Tiger's body would go on to be the least important part of his three-headed equation. He had a body you could dream on, yes, but an unequivocal mind and an unquenchable spirit that provided the platform upon which that body could craft one of the great careers in sports history.
As a 21-year-old kid at that Masters, Tiger folded that perfect body into the imperfect body of an aging dad who would in a few years have his own body taken to Manhattan, Kansas, where it will remain. The kid's body burst into a thousand tears, no doubt the release of 10,000 hours of work and effort that pointed to one moment in time at Augusta National. The older man cried a little, too. And that was maybe the last we saw of the kid except for that one time glimpse in 2006 at Liverpool when he chose to let us see.
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As is the case for all of us, though, that 1997 body evolved. It changed, and it became the subject of much consternation and of many newspaper headlines. Tiger shredded his body as an attempt to feed his soul. His singular hunger for major championships and all of the records became the flog to which he subjected his arms and his legs and his back and those hands. His body bears the scars of a man who, because of an immense desire to satisfy something or someone or maybe even himself, dragged the body that you could dream on beyond the limits of what bodies are supposed to be capable of. And it all became a nightmare.
Tiger's body has always fascinated me. When I read Hank Haney's book The Big Miss, it was not the stories of isolation or Navy SEAL routines that gripped me. It was the way Tiger torqued all the muscle and tissue and sinew he was both blessed with at birth and built up over time and hit shot after shot after shot that never missed the imaginary target he had floating 50 or 20 or even 10 yards above the ground from 100 and 200 and 300 yards away.
He did other things with his body, too, and they are well-documented. The things he did with his body were maybe as destructive as the things he did to it. The calendar on my computer tells me Tiger has been alive for nearly 16,000 days, but if you cut him in half and examined him like a tree, the rings inside Tiger Woods' body would tell you he has lived a lot longer than that.
Our bodies at some point reach their athletic apex and then they start crumbling, and they crumble until there is nothing left. Woods long ago reached the point where his body was as good as it was ever going to be. Countless surgeries on his various parts, all of which have worked in harmony to produce one of the great 15-year stretches in this sport and maybe the best swing in golf history, have left him grasping for a future not rife with major titles but only without pain.
"I always felt like I could do pretty much anything physically, but for a while there, I just couldn't even walk," Woods said on Sunday. "Now I'm able to play golf again, and do it at an elite level again, which is something that I'm just very blessed to be able to have that opportunity again."
Before Tiger was Tiger, and before he had cataloged the library of shots and putts and angles and contours that he drew from on Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, his body carried his mind and his soul. When his mind and his soul caught up to that body he strung together 10 of the greatest years of creative endeavor of any human ever. But then his body broke, and it seemed to break his mind and his soul, too. Or Y.E. Yang broke his soul, and then the body followed. All that matters is that it all seemed to happen at once.
And so for the next 10 years, his body was little more than whatever the X-ray or MRI a doctor flung against the wall said it was. He was horizontal more than he was vertical. His body had crumpled, and it had taken our dreams (and his dreams) with it. That's part of what was so improbable about his fifth Masters win. Not that the body was once again good enough but that its decomposition never completely crushed everything else that made him great. Twenty-two years ago it was a body that destroyed a course and taught a mind and a spirit what it meant to be iconic. And this time around it was a mind and a spirit that carried a still-broken body across a finish line that looked like the end of a marathon.
In many ways it was, I guess.
When Tiger demolished Augusta to the point that they had to rebuild one of the greatest courses there has ever been, he did it with his body. He was overwhelming. A hurricane that ripped through all the sandbags and blockades that place could possibly post. This time, though, he did it with his mind. Tiger was 58th in the field in driving distance last week, shorter than two amateurs, Stewart Cink, Trevor Immelman and Vijay Singh. Don't get me wrong, his skill was plenty good enough. But go watch the second nine from Saturday, and then go watch the second nine from Sunday. His mind carried his body, and he outwitted them all.
And when it was all over and we stared in disbelief as the broken, beaten and ridiculed body of an aging man wrapped around the body of a kid in the same spot where the man last showed himself to be a kid himself, time may have rumbled to a stop.
We can do whatever we want with and to our bodies. Tiger Woods has hit every marker on the spectrum, but in the end a body you could dream on became the simple mechanism for a mind and a soul that have somehow been revived. Tiger will never again be what he once was because that body is gone and it's never coming back. But he can at least be a facsimile of the legend he used to be. The one with the mind and the spirit and the body. This version won't be nearly as superhuman as that one was, but it will certainly make us realize that the greatest gifts Tiger was ever given we could never see to begin with.
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