By David Zakhodin
On a spectacular Southern California June afternoon eight years ago, a man on a mission stood in the shadows of the clubhouse behind the eighteenth green at Torrey Pines Golf Club in San Diego. Clad in all black and standing with unsteady legs as he watched the final group putt, journeyman Rocco Mediate awaited his first U.S. Open crown, a career defining reward for four days of remarkable golf at a score of 1-under-par. With Englishman Lee Westwood not being able to birdie the final hole, only one man in red stood between Rocco and golf glory. Unfortunately for Rocco, that man was the very definition of glory in the sport of golf for the last eleven years. As Tiger sank the fifteen-foot birdie putt that would forever cement itself in history, NBC’s Dan Hicks famously inquired, “Expect anything different?!” In short, no. Tiger epitomized a level of greatness and dominance in golf that had only been reached by a unique few. If anything, his reign over the sport was the most documented success story in the history of sport. When Tiger returned to Torrey Pines the next day for an eighteen-hole playoff against the hot Rocco Mediate, there was no contest. A fourteenth Major title was captured; a remarkable comeback achieved in the face of injury and immense pressure. Nothing was going to stop Tiger Woods, the man destined to break Jack Nicklaus’ record and become the greatest to ever swing a club. Until everything began to stop him…
Tiger’s victory at the 2008 U.S. Open was yet another hallmark moment confirming his status as golf’s supreme. Often touted as just a front-runner, Tiger silenced his critics by coming from behind on the last hole to win a tournament he had no business winning. He struggled with his game in all four rounds and would not have even been in contention had it not been for an improbable eagle on eighteen the previous day. But when the chips were stacked against him, he found a way to win, another characteristic of a generation defining athlete. Not only was Tiger the king of golf, but he was arguably the most popular and accomplished athlete of the 21st century. Being 32 years old at the time, it seemed to us that Tiger had all the time in the world to win nineteen Majors and surpass The Golden Bear. Eight years later, Tiger still sits at fourteen Majors and now can’t hit a 100-yard tee shot at a charity event without putting the ball in the drink. Right now you may be thinking that this is going to be another piece questioning whether or not Tiger can win again and demonstrate any resemblance of his old level. Well, just as Rocco Mediate was wrong when he thought he had the U.S. Open, you are misguided in your assumption. My guess as to what lies ahead for Tiger is as good as yours considering he is now publishing a book and rehabbing from a series of surgeries. What I can tell you is what happened to cause Tiger’s collapse, how it happened, and why it happened.
For all of the legends we have witnessed step foot on the tennis court and on the golf course, very few if any have experienced the sort of tumultuous fall that Tiger suffered through. We’ve seen the greats of both sports be conquered by common causes such as Father Time, injury, illness, lack of interest, or controversy. But because Tiger was so revered and respected by fans, experts, and fellow players, his disappearance from golf’s elite was glass-shattering. The club that his wife swung at the car window, the mistresses, the knee injuries: all of them contributed to the shameful fall of a king.
As I searched to find a comparison for the purpose of evaluating how Tiger fell the way he did, only one name came to mind. And if you thought Andre Agassi, you were wrong. Some have likened Tiger’s troubles to those of Andre Agassi in the mid to late 90’s when he struggled to motivate himself and fell to a career low ranking of 141. Yes, this is similar to Tiger’s current sitting at 569 in the Official World Golf Ranking, but that is where the parallels end. For Andre it was much easier to set aside the troubles of his personal life because he always felt that he had something to prove. Whether it was fulfilling his dad’s dream of becoming the best in the world, winning at Roland Garros, or defeating his greatest rival in Pete Sampras, Andre played with a chip on his shoulder that Tiger never had. Sure, Tiger was motivated by criticisms from other players and rivals such as Phil Mickelson, but he was always unequivocally the best by a mile. Moreover, Andre Agassi was a star who had reached immortality and dominance only for brief spurts of his long career whereas Tiger’s reign was seemingly endless.
To identify the man whose legacy resembles that of Tiger, we reach a little further back into tennis history and pull up the resume of a champion who was well on his way to breaking Roy Emerson’s Grand Slam record. A consecutive winner on the sport’s most contrasting surfaces, Bjorn Borg was the Tiger Woods of tennis in the mid to late 70’s. Whether it was winning five consecutive Wimbledon titles for the first time ever (a mark that Federer has tied) or a total of six French Open titles (only surpassed by Nadal), Borg was the master. The original King of Clay would rattle off wins at Roland Garros by outplaying his opponents from the baseline until they tired, and two weeks later he would serve and volley his way to victory at the All England Club. McEnroe and Connors tried to match his consistency, but when it mattered most, Borg came through and elevated himself to an unmatched level of toughness.
As unstoppable as Bjorn Borg may have been at the French Open and Wimbledon, he had demons that laid the groundwork for his unexpected exit from the world’s elite in 1981. Always absent from the Australian Open (a slam played mostly in nighttime) and underperforming at the U.S. Open, Borg had a well documented vision problem that prevented him from being at his best under the lights. Whether or not his eyes were the ultimate reason for his departure from the sport remains unclear, but Borg would disappear from tennis following his loss to John McEnroe in the 1981 U.S. Open final and open a conversation that has yielded many unanswered questions.
So where do the parallels arise between the rise and fall of Tiger Woods and Bjorn Borg? Their primes were roughly 30 years apart, but they played individual sports that required similar skills. The similarities begin with both champions reaching the pinnacle of their sport at an extremely young age. Borg was eighteen when he won his first French Open, and Tiger was a young 21 in the sport of golf when he won The Masters by a record twelve strokes (which has since been tied by Jordan Spieth). Once the world knew about their talent, Tiger and Borg carried with them an aura of invincibility. Their calm and poise under pressure coupled with a level of versatility golf and tennis had yet to see made opponents expect greatness from them. Every time Tiger showed up to a Major, the conversation was always, “are you taking Tiger or the field?” With Borg, there was no opponent who wanted to walk onto the court and have to play a guy who never missed the ball. Just like Borg’s funky looking backhand was the sharpest tool in an arsenal that enabled him to manipulate his adversary around the court, Tiger’s putter sank the hopes of many golfers like Rocco Mediate who thought they had him beaten on the course. The bottom line is that at their peaks, no one was beating two players who were well on their way to breaking Grand Slam records that would cement them as the greatest of all time.
Unfortunately for Tiger and Borg, destiny was not on their side. Their troubles began and ended with collective misfortunes at the last Major tournament of their respective seasons. Bjorn Borg’s demons were exposed at the U.S. Open where he had come so close to winning multiple times. When it looked like he would finally get over the hump in 1981 final against his rival John McEnroe, Borg couldn’t execute. Several months prior to that matchup, Borg had failed to win Wimbledon for the first time in six years (losing to McEnroe in the process). The seeds of doubt had been planted in his mind for the first time since he had elevated himself to the top of the tennis world. And a loss to McEnroe at the U.S. Open set the table for Borg infamously vanishing from the tennis map the way Peter Pettigrew vanished from the Marauder’s Map. Not only was no one anticipating him to flat out quit, but no one knew that an Ironman like Borg was so mentally fragile that he couldn’t take a career altering punch and recover from it.
On Tiger’s end, the collapse following the 2009 PGA Championship is much more publicized and dramatic than the downfall of Borg. Following a shocking upset on the final day of the tournament in which no-name Y.E. Yang snatched victory from Tiger’s hands, Tiger Woods’ career would never be the same. Several months later took place the confounding incident with Tiger’s wife and the golf club followed by Tiger being accused of and admitting to adultery. The next time we saw him was at a depressing press conference in which he looked like he had aged multiple years. Golf was nowhere near the forefront of his thoughts, yet its absence from his life failed to repair his marriage. Pivoting away from Tiger for a second, it is also very ironic that Borg divorced his wife soon after abandoning the pro circuit and would remarry twice more. Both men have been involved with multiple women since then (famously Lindsey Vonn in the case of Tiger), but their careers were never restored to the success they had pre marriage.
You may be wondering what conflicting marital situations have anything to do with the respective downfalls of Tiger and Borg. Evidence shows that athletes with stable personal lives are more likely to maintain a high level of performance throughout the span of a career. Look no further than the greatest champions in the men’s tennis. Roger Federer is happily married to his former manager and has four kids. Novak Djokovic married his high school sweetheart and has always been committed to his Serbian roots above the hoopla of being the world’s greatest. Rafael Nadal is the same; he still lives in his family home on the island of Mallorca and has had a long term relationship with girlfriend Maria Francisca. The one blemish in his record nine out of ten Roland Garros victories was in 2009, not so coincidentally at the same time as the divorce of his parents.
Hence, stability in life off the court or course is paramount to maintaining the mental edge that enables champions such as Borg and Tiger to continue being dominant. For Borg, we never really knew much about his personal life. His closest rivals labeled him as reserved and quite, and frankly no one knew anything about Swedish tennis players when Borg came onto the scene. On Tiger’s end, we all knew how much his dad influenced his ascension to golf’s throne. Following Earl’s death in 2006, many golf writers argued that Tiger wasn’t the same in the years he no longer had his mentor and his best friend.
Perhaps the most painful part of the debacle that the two legends experienced was their attempted comebacks. Borg, dismissing advances in the technology of tennis racquets and strings, returned to competition in 1991 where he played several tournaments and went on a truly humbling losing streak at the not-so ripe age of 35 (at least in that era of tennis). On the other hand, Tiger returned from his leave of absence and actually won The Players’ Championship in 2011, his best four days of golf since that 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. However, having faltered in the final round of The Masters and Open Championship in 2013 where he was in position to contend following 54 holes, Tiger failed to build the confidence necessary to regain his old form despite a strong start to the 2013 season. Couple the inability to replicate small spurts of consistency with the need for knee and back surgeries, and you won’t find Tiger contending on today’s PGA Tour. It is without a doubt that he was the king of a sport that needed saving when he emerged on the scene. Just like Borg injected a new style of play into Grand Slam tennis, Tiger was the rock that always stood strong and brought passion and skill to every hole he played. But when the foundation upon which this rock was built crumbled, there was nothing to stop Tiger from falling off his throne and into the abyss. There was no precedent for his disappearance from the sport’s elite, but with Bjorn Borg, we found a story with a background that showed how even the mighty can fall.
Today, golf has changed as a result of Tiger Woods. For better or worse, his absence has created a void that is being filled with young stars who are eager to become the next multi Major champions. Sure, it’s unlikely that they will challenge Tiger’s fourteen, but they will have been inspired by what he did from 1997 to 2008. If you’re waiting for my take on whether or not Tiger can become his old self again, you won’t get one. The odds are stacked against him, and time and health are definitely not on his side. But as Alfred told Bruce Wayne, “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Tiger didn’t deserve the demoralizing events (some of which were out of his control) that caused his fall. I hope the king can find his way back up.