I was 13 years old when I'd decided that I was on the side of Tiger Woods, and that I would stand against any opposition that might come his way. Woods was 21 and in his second year on the PGA Tour. He had just won the 1997 Masters, making him the youngest golfer to do so. And, as the winner of the Masters, he got to choose the menu for the Masters Champions Dinner the following year.
In anticipation of the dinner, a reporter asked Fuzzy Zoeller, a tour veteran well past his prime—he won the Masters in 1979—what he'd thought of Woods. "That little boy is driving well and he's putting well. He's doing everything it takes to win," Zoeller said. "So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Or collard greens, or whatever the hell they serve." I found myself hoping that Woods actually would show up to the dinner with a large plate of chicken, fried by some black woman from Georgia. A pot of collard greens, and more of whatever the hell we—black people—serve. Because Woods was being identified as only black in that moment, I felt closest to him and dreamed of a potential rebellion on his behalf.
A controversy is born of many moving parts, and for this particular controversy, it was most likely a combination of the "little boy," and the "chicken" and the "they," but by the time it had hit a full sprint, there was a line drawn in the sand. Woods—already a racial lightning rod—was now seeing the negative impacts of being a trailblazer in his field. This is how Woods became even more of a hero than he already was to the black kids I knew. Despite the fact that Woods himself embraced not only his blackness but also all of his identities—his mother is of Thai, Chinese and Dutch lineage, and his father was black, Native American and Chinese—it was only black that people saw.
As Woods began to flourish, his skin continued to register as a single thing. This made sense to me, despite my being unsettled with the simplicity of it all. I was black and was seen as black first upon entering enough rooms. To see one of the greatest athletes in the world deal with this, in a sport where the presence of people who looked like him was unfamiliar, was heartbreaking and thrilling in equal measure. That, in and of itself, is a funny thing: to be of many different threads, but to only be seen for a single thread, by both racists and supporters. Woods was singular—he was a black golfer first.
When Woods makes his return to the Masters this weekend, many will tune in—each with his or her own motivation. Woods’ return is more about history than anything else, which people gravitate toward. The history of his greatest triumphs—he will tee off on Thursday with what some may consider his best days behind him—and the history of him as an athlete and person, seeing his identity made into a spectacle by his peers. While my personal hope is that he finds some measure of success on the green, what I am rooting for most is his presence in the midst of all that he's done and endured at Augusta before. He is an athlete more than two decades into a professional sports career, and still as engaging as he was from day one, for different reasons. Golf allows for these kinds of narratives: A golfer can have a long and winding career, in which he ages into a different person than he was upon his entrance to the sport. For Woods, so much of his most exciting storylines are tied to immense public highs and lows, but his first, greatest high was at the Masters, which makes his return to it now exceptionally captivating.
Woods hit his prime in an era in which the concept of the Black Sports Hero was both widening and changing hands. His back-to-back Masters wins in 2001 and 2002—perhaps his greatest run—occurred after the era of Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bull. Woods was marketable, equally apolitical and, at times, just as dominant as Jordan. He was heroic, but he also rubbed enough people the wrong way with his large gestures of celebration and his vocal self-cheering—pumping his fist and yelling after sinking a putt, or talking to hype himself up during walks along the green. Woods was the perfect storm of sports iconography. He had the swagger, the success, the culture-driven narratives, and in the center of all of those things, he had haters.
Woods racked up four green jackets; the last came 13 years ago, in 2005. Many will home in on this fact and note how much the world has shifted since then—presidencies, technology, etc. But even more enticing is how Woods personally has evolved. On the green, his seeming decline has been well-documented: After initially slumping in 2003 and 2004 and not winning a major, Woods got back on track in 2006 by rebounding from the death of his father with six consecutive tour wins. In April 2008, he had knee surgery, which didn't stop him from winning the 2008 U.S. Open. But the injury has had a lasting impact on his career trajectory. Woods flailed until 2013 and then returned to his familiar dominance if only fleetingly before once again experiencing a lull due to injury, which stifled his capacity to play until early this year.
But off of the green, Woods has been equally—if not more—compelling. He married the Swedish model Elin Nordegren, with whom he had two children. This made Woods more marketable, in part, because he was visible as a family man, and that family—his blonde wife and their two frequently smiling children—projected a traditional idea of beauty. But with that image came additional scrutiny. In November of 2009, when the National Enquirer published a story about Woods having an extramarital affair with a New York City nightclub manager, his image began to unravel. Then, two days later, Woods collided with a fire hydrant, tree and bushes near his home while driving away from it at 2:30 a.m. He was treated for facial lacerations, and the public speculated about the cause of the accident. Woods added fuel to the flame by releasing a statement in which he called his affair a "private matter." Not long after, in December, voicemail messages were released that pinned Woods to the alleged woman with whom he had been having the affair. He and Elin divorced the following August.
Scandal is only as large as the stature of the person embroiled in it. For Woods—golf's greatest and one of its most polarizing athletes—there was a lot to lose. He had so richly manicured the edges of his personal life for presentation to the public. To see him fall from grace with immediacy, over the course of just two months, was sort of oddly delicious, even to those of us who had grown accustomed to rooting for him. Even through his injuries and struggles, he'd seemed resilient and resolved in his personal life—as steady as he'd always been, until he wasn't. He was made human first in the game he loved, by time and injuries, and then he was made human to the rest of the world through the revelations of his infidelity.
When the shining heroism of an athlete is stripped away, a human is revealed underneath. This is refreshing and complicated. Many of us use sports as a way to watch people do the impossible, the thing we are not capable of. The enjoyment of this requires a type of distance from the human element of sport, until the humans themselves can no longer be ignored. It's why some people have given up watching football. Life outside of, and independent from, the game potentially reveals someone more complicated than the game can allow them to be. Woods is a great example of this. The humanization of him was shocking, only because of how hard he'd worked to build up an image. He was more than just an athlete, first because of his brand, and then because of his public missteps.
Nothing tempts the sports viewer in me (and many of us) like a redemption narrative, even if it is invented, or if the person at the center of it isn't begging for redemption. Woods isn't exactly asking to be redeemed; he’s simply returning again and again to the thing he knows how to do well, even if everything around him is a struggle. Still, it is easy to pin the idea of redemption on anyone who has had a measure of public or professional struggle, especially if we've seen them be great before. Woods, now 42, is returning to the site of his greatest career triumphs, less than a year after his DUI mugshot circulated the internet. He has made a mid-late career out of return and reinvention, which is one thing that makes him so appealing.
Who will Woods be able to shape himself into now, at this stage, when the stakes are at their highest? When an athlete shows you that he is capable of magnificent things and also capable of disastrous things, he expands his legacy. Woods is now a spectacle of two sides. Some will watch him at the Masters and wait for him to fail spectacularly, and others—like me—will watch in the hope that he pulls out another miracle, despite the injuries and his imperfect personal life. I root for Woods as I did in '97, despite the fact that he is no longer a young phenom. If you're great at something for long enough, you will eventually become the underdog. And that, perhaps, is when you can find yourself most beloved. When you are a little more human, a little closer to Earth.