• There's something a little different when Tiger Woods wins a golf tournament. That much was revealed during his win on Sunday.
By Jacob Feldman
September 24, 2018

In the most indelible image from Tiger Woods’s first tournament win in over five years, it’s practically impossible to spot the golfer. A thousand people had flooded East Lake Golf Club’s 18th fairway in pursuit of Woods as he pursued trophy No. 80. If you follow the arms aloft toward the boom mics, ignoring the poor standard bearer who’s gotten swamped several yards back, you can find him. Maybe. 

NBC golf producer Tommy Roy surrendered a Tiger close-up, capturing the player’s emotion, to show the wide crowd shot, letting viewers grasp everyone else’s feelings. “We certainly did not have any idea it was going to happen,” Roy told The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch, “but once it did, we stayed with it.”

“Have we ever seen anything like this?” announcer Dan Hicks offered on the call. Golf fanatics responded from their living rooms: Yes, back at the 1997 Western Open. And, honestly, the crowds have been there for every moment in between.

At the start of Woods's afternoon, other elite golfers thought someone had buried a long iron shot on hole No. 1 Sunday afternoon when they heard commotion. In fact, he'd simply made a birdie putt to begin the day. But you can’t blame them; many weren’t around when things were last like this. Instead they learned for the first time this weekend. Tiger’s “roar” doesn’t come from the man himself; it rises from the rest of us.

Often, drama in individual sports stems from glimpsing the interior. Isolate a human on a stage, crank up the pressure, and admire the result, whether it’s Roger Federer’s resolved grace, Ronda Rousey’s confident ferocity, or a Spelling Bee participant’s cool perseverance. But with Tiger, it’s different.

You could craft a similar argument for Tom Brady, LeBron, or Serena—athletes who’ve become symbols because of their performances on the biggest stages. Discussions about each of them are inevitably really about everything else. But in Tiger’s case, his magic has always been about his impact: competitors wilting in his presence, fans flocking to the TV and the sport, balls seeming to be at his command. It’s what drew Woods’s followers into Sunday’s stampede. So what if they couldn’t see him. It’d been so long since they’d felt The Tiger Effect.

Why is Woods’s appeal so much more about what he induces? Maybe because casual golf fans (myself included) don’t understand what it really takes to win a tournament. Maybe because of how easy Tiger made it look at his peak. Or maybe because he never let it be about anything else.

Tiger’s father trained him to ignore the noise at all times, jangling coins or shouting during his son’s backswing. By 24, Woods was already being described as a machine—”tough, unemotional, very cold.” For most of his career, the crowds have been framed as another adversary showing up every weekend, with Woods saying the bozos had cost him “a lot” of shots over the years.

Making the image Sunday all the more striking. Having fought for so long to separate himself from the pack, Woods was one of the people, and he was smiling. “Tiger I think is getting a kick out of this,” one commentator suggested on NBC. “He really is.”

It was hard to tell in his post-win press conference. Woods was back to his old self, indirectly admonishing the gallery for celebrating when the tournament was not yet over, eulogizing “the art of clapping.” But by the time Scott Van Pelt got to him for a midnight SportsCenter interview, Woods had been able to reflect. “I probably wouldn’t have achieved the things I’ve been able to achieve this year without the support of all the people and all of the fans and their cheering,” Woods said. “They’ve been so supportive and trying to pick me up and, trust me, it helps. Then you have days like today when it was just off the chain coming in…. It was a sound I won’t ever forget.”

After Tiger sank his final putt on 18, there was no trademark fist-pump. He didn’t need one. The roar said everything.

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