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  • Tiger Woods was playing a practice round at Bellerive on September 11, 2001. SI's Joan Niesen was an eighth grader living a mile from the course when the towers were hit.
By Joan Niesen
August 08, 2018

ST. LOUIS—The man who was once the best golfer in the world told the story on Tuesday, just as he told it earlier this summer, just as broadcasters will certainly tell it this week as he tries to grasp some thread of his former greatness.

It seems arbitrary at first to talk now about Sept. 11. This year won’t mark a milestone anniversary, and St. Louis is a world away from Lower Manhattan. But Tiger Woods is telling his story now, almost exactly 203 months later, because he was here when it happened. That morning, Woods was several holes into an early-morning practice round before the America Express World Golf Championship, playing alongside Mark Calcavecchia. You’ve probably read this already, how he teed off the next day before they officially canceled the event, how he drove 17 hours back to Florida on Thursday and spent the day reevaluating his philanthropic goals.

But before he went home, before he had all those hours to think, he was at the apex of his game, and he was at Bellerive, the site of this year’s PGA Championship. Woods on that day in 2001 was coming off a victory at the NEC Invitational, and that spring, he’d rattled off three tournament wins in a row, culminating in the Masters. He was a year removed from perhaps the best season of his life, when he won three of four majors in 2000 and completed his career Grand Slam. He was in St. Louis, and St. Louis clamored to see Tiger.

My brother, John, was 11 at the time, and he loved golf. My family lived—my parents still live—a mile from Bellerive, in a house that’s a three-minute walk from where the media shuttle drops me off this week, right across the road from my elementary school. To get back after the tournament every night, I’ve retraced my walk home from pre-kindergarten. But I digress: On the night of Sept. 10, my dad was set to take John to see his favorite player put on a clinic. But he got stuck at work late, and so my mother and John left me at home and walked up the road. The tournament people would let you walk to the course back then, past neighborhoods, a synagogue, a private high school. There was still a swath of farmland just to the east of the country club—it’s houses now—and at his clinic, Woods walloped drives out onto the road and into that grass. John remembers it vividly, how the 25-year-old phenom bounce-bounce-bounced balls on his wedge before turning his trick into a perfect chip shot. It was, my brother told me this week, “peak Tiger.”

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I didn’t go that night; I’m sure I was extremely busy being an eighth-grader—and by that, I mean I was probably laying by the pool with lemon juice in my hair. I had recently announced in the middle of a round that I was quitting golf—I had a flair for the dramatic when it came to retiring from the various forced activities of my childhood—but I still liked the sport. I’d grown up with it. I can remember being quietly excited to tag along that weekend to Bellerive to see the golf—to see Tiger.

I learned what amateurism was because of Woods. I decided for a time I was going to go to Stanford because of him. I was an early fan of Kid Tiger, and by 2001, by the time King of the World Tiger came to St. Louis, I was feigning cool but still fascinated. The morning after his clinic, I was in Algebra II, about two miles from Bellerive, clicking my pencil and wearing a uniform. Woods has said that he got back to the clubhouse, his round interrupted by the confusion of the tragedy, in time to see the second tower fall. At my all-girls, Catholic high school, Mrs. Campbell heard something was going on in New York and turned on our classroom television around the same time.

I’ve always wondered this about Sept. 11: If you kept doing whatever you were doing that day for years, if you’re still doing it every day, does that one morning stand out? I don’t know. I went to eighth grade, and then ninth, finished high school, finished college, lived in a half-dozen cities. I can tell you the play-by-play of that day—math, then science, then English, a prayer service in the school’s chapel—and I never experienced anything quite like it again. But people like my dad, a surgeon who’s gone to the same hospital at the same time nearly every morning since, can they pick Sept. 11 out of a lineup when they live its approximate routine every day? I can’t fathom going back to eighth grade, sitting in that desk, wearing that plaid skirt—which is essentially what Woods is doing this week. Same old, same old.

He talked about that on Tuesday: how strange it is to be 42 and about to compete in a major championship on a course he’s never played in competition. That just doesn’t happen, not for someone who’s won 14 majors and spent 683 weeks atop the world rankings. But Woods was injured when Bellerive hosted the BMW Championship in 2008, so when he squeezed in five holes between thunderstorms on the second day of practice rounds this week, it was the first time he’d stepped onto the course since Sept. 12, 2001, when the weekend’s tournament was officially canceled.

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This season, Woods’s comeback, has traded in the same kind of nostalgia that marks his Sept. 11 story. We want to hear about the old Tiger, the Tiger with limitless possibilities. He’s visiting courses he hasn’t played in years, climbing the rankings, figuring out how to reconcile the golfer he is with the golfer he was with the golfer everyone wants him to be. This weekend will mark his final chance at a major championship in this resurgent year, and the fact that Woods winning is anywhere within the realm of possibility is just plain fun. Everything old is new again, at least until Woods misses the cut or falls too far back of the lead or even loses in heartbreaking fashion. But he could win.

I started writing about golf this summer, and when I filed my first story at Shinnecock two months ago, I called my dad. We talked for a bit, and I realized I must be feeling what many other sports writers, most of them men, feel when they write their first story, period. They report something about football (or baseball, or basketball, or whatever their sport of choice might be), and it brings back memories of being very good at the sport, or very bad. It reminds them of their fathers and father-figures, whoever tossed the ball with them or taught them how to stand or grip or pivot. No one ever taught me any of that, because I couldn’t play football or baseball, because I was too scrawny for basketball.

But as soon as I started typing that Thursday in the Hamptons, there was my dad, looming in the back of my mind, letting me drive the cart as soon as my feet could reach the gas pedal, showing me how to chip and putt, laughing when I couldn’t drive the ball to save myself, groaning internally when I decided I hated the clothing I had to wear on the course. There’s my dad, sitting in the same leather chair where I’ve found him so many times this week, relaxing in his study in front of a television tuned to golf. His hair is white now, but it’s dark blonde in these memories, and we’re talking about Tiger—back then, and at the dinner table this week.

I wish my dad had gotten home from work a bit earlier than night in 2001. I wish I’d walked up the street to Woods’s clinic. I wish I could picture him that night: smiling, cocky, feigning that the business of being Tiger wasn’t at all complicated. I wonder if somehow we’ll get to see a version of that 25-year-old this weekend.

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