Some day soon, maybe even at Muirfield this summer, Tiger Woods is going to win another major. He looks happier, less inclined to exude the old sense of furious entitlement. He has been dating Lindsey Vonn, the Olympic gold-medal downhill skier—a fellow champion, not just a human trophy. He has begun to use words not previously found in the Woods lexicon, such as balance and perspective.
Three years after his meltdown, the way he is perceived is shifting subtly: you can see the respect flowing back. Soon he will be in a position to cement the change. By coming out with the right words at the right time, he can complete a remarkable rehabilitation. So alongside his caddy, coach, trainer, nutritionist and physio, he should make one further appointment: a spin doctor. He may not watch "Borgen", but he needs a Kasper Juul.
Armed with the right speech, holding a major trophy once more, Tiger could finally win our affection after all these years of grudging admiration. This is what he should say:
“It’s 16 years since I first won something like this. Thank you for bearing with me. I feel that boy has finally grown up.
After the mess I made of my life, I made a public apology for private mistakes. I should also have made private apologies for public sins. My failures off the course are well known. I also failed as a sportsman in a more straightforward way. I won a lot of tournaments playing without joy, with surly disrespect for opponents, fans and media. I thought winning was all that mattered, that it was my birthright. I should apologise to the people who taught me golf for behaving like a spoilt child. And also to you, the people who watched and supported me.
I won my first major as a 21-year-old kid playing a mostly white sport. People wanted me to be good for golf, to be good for sport. That was a strong following wind. I failed those people. I’d been failing them for years, long before I fell from grace. I interpreted success way too narrowly. I was so obsessed with breaking Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors that I forgot why we play sport in the first place. I used up too many smiles in photo shoots and endorsements. I should have saved them for where it matters: around the sport I love, or just in normal life.
I was a golfer first, a human being second. I wanted the golfer to be almost inhuman, without flaws or weaknesses. That golfer will never exist. I can see now that the man does not derive from the player. The player derives from the man.
Some sportsmen keep sight of that. Years ago, I used to swap texts with Roger Federer. We’d compete with each other because we were so far ahead in our own sports. But there was one way he was always far ahead of me. Win or lose, people cheer Roger onto every court in the world. I reckon that’s because he’s always been the same, somehow still a normal guy as well as an incredible player. I reckon fighting back to number one in 2012 meant more to him than being so dominant in 2006. In those harder times, he kept sight of the fact there are different ways of being a winner.
I used to think being normal was a failing. When you’re at the top of a professional sport, it’s easy to think you’re special and use that to get out of everyday decency. I learned the hard way, by watching people’s faces, seeing them enjoy my decline more than my successes. Something is clear to me now that I never realised before. It matters how you act, not just how you score. You’ve got to be yourself, yet somehow yourself with your best foot forward.
The boy who won at Augusta in 1997 took a long while growing up. It’s no excuse, but having success young leads to a kind of arrested development. You’re stuck as a man-boy, so grown-up in some ways, still adolescent in others. You start to believe your own hype. Destined, super-human, nerveless, world-changing, epoch-defining. They’re the silliest phrases in the English language. I was good at golf. That was about it.
When I wasn’t so good at golf any more, I initially blamed you guys. I think all the cursing and club-throwing came from some delusion of control, as though I had the right to command the wind, to dictate the bounce of the ball. I should have realised it was all a lot simpler. I was just a good golfer having a bad patch. Nobody owed me anything.
When I lost my game, I felt so unlucky, that I’d been unfairly treated. I had it the wrong way around. I had had more good luck—more support, coaching and encouragement—than anyone in history. Funny how, the day I realised that, my luck changed again.
I know a lot of pundits have said that I got my swing back because I’ve met an amazing woman. This has never been the place to talk about private life, but I will just say two things about Lindsey. First, however hard a putt might be, it’s nothing like sliding down a mountain at 100mph. So don’t talk to me about gutsy seven-foot putts. Second, when you’re at the top of your sport, you’ve got a responsibility to serve the whole game, to represent its best interests, and not just cream off the goodies. No one asks you if you want to be a spokesman, still less a statesman. But it comes with the top job. You have to deal with it.
So I hope today is the first of a new kind of victory. I hope there can be second acts in American lives. At 37, I’ve never felt better about Act II. It’s going to be different, whether the putts sink or not. I owe you that much and a lot more.”
The British Open Muirfield, Scotland, July 18th