By failing to win the 2013 Masters, Tiger Woods has reignited debates on whether he “is back.” Anchoring the legitimacy of the number-one ranked golfer’s season to one tournament seems a bit silly. Especially since he tied for fourth—being done in by, quite possibly, the greatest water shot in Masters history. A more interesting exploration is studying off-the-course constants that have helped Tiger’s dominance, as well as led to his resurgence. In this case: personal relationships. There is a strong correlation between Tiger’s professional success and his non-professional relationships.
For the majority of his career, Tiger’s father Earl was the golfer’s main confidant. The relationship between Tiger and Earl is well chronicled—jingling keys during the backswing, the Mike Douglas show, seeking out Butch Harmon, and the list goes on. During the time of Earl’s backing, Tiger set innumerable amateur records, became the youngest player to win the Masters and rank number-one on the money list, won over 40 tournaments, and captured 10 major championships. Tiger also accomplished one of the great feats in modern sports: holding all four major championships in the same calendar year. Earl Woods was more than a father: he was a mentor and a rock of stability for his son. With his father’s support, Tiger achieved the greatest heights of his career.
In 2003 Tiger married. Elin’s time as Tiger’s emotional bulwark overlaps with Earl, and this period yielded similar successes. During the tenure of his marriage Tiger won 38 tournaments and six majors. From 2003-2009 Tiger had his largest support system. He had a loving wife, his mentor father, and, after Earl’s passing, he conceived two children. This six-year stretch was very prosperous, both personally and professionally.
On Thanksgiving of 2009 everything went to hell. Ambien, fire hydrants, sexting, call girls, velvet rope trysts, alleged sex tapes, sex addiction rehab, and awkward press conferences. Tiger fell from grace. The New York Post put Tiger on its cover a record 20 consecutive times—the previous record was held by the attacks of 9/11. Amid scandal and divorce, and without his father’s grounding advice, Tiger hit his professional nadir. He won only three tournaments between 2010 and 2012—with all the wins coming in 2012. Prior to that stretch, the lowest three-year total of his career was seven victories in1996-1998—his first three years on tour. Tiger Woods’ personal and professional lives bottomed out at the same time.
Now it’s 2013, and at age 37 Tiger is back on top. Through April he has won as many tournaments as the last three years combined. He nearly won the Masters, and is once again playing from the lead. Another familiar trope is that Tiger has a new, public relationship. He and Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn have openly embraced their courting. In settling his personal life Woods has once again ascended to the top of his sport.
Despite his publicist and Nike’s best efforts to convince us otherwise, Tiger Woods is mortal. He is just like us. He may play a sport better than most people in history—except for maybe Jack Nicklaus and Kim Jong Il—but he is affected by the same things we all are. We all need someone in our personal lives to challenges us. It’s the person who humbles us when we get self-righteous. It’s the person who, when we are terrified to face the day, reminds us of our true self worth. We need that emotional and intellectual counterbalance. Greatness is not achieved through a cadre of yes men, it is prompted by extending ourselves beyond what we think is possible. Everyone, regardless of superstardom, requires some form of personal support.
In his father and Elin, Tiger had a solid emotional bedrock. He had people with whom he could confide. Tiger could step away from his professional persona. When his infidelities became public, Tiger’s marriage was ruined and the once adoring public turned venomous. Once he worked through his transgressions, Tiger still had no trusted personal relationship in which to turn. Even the world’s most self-assured person will feel self-doubt when the entire public thinks he is personally and professionally incorrigible. Even Tiger Woods needs somebody to remind him of his greatness and his potential. In Vonn he seems to have found a new anchor, as well as competitive soul mate. He has met a person who was once the apex competitor of her sport. It is exciting to see what heights the man, once untouchable, will reach while being pushed by his new companion. With firm emotional footing the possibilities appear boundless.