Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
When you cover a golf tournament, as I had never done before September’s Tour Championship in Atlanta, the only real difference between your vantage point and other attendees’ is that you are inside the ropes that line each hole to barricade the gallery from the area of play. The slightly closer view is nice, but more important is the freedom of movement that allows you to keep pace with your subject and position yourself advantageously to observe and report. It was a myopic sense of this practicality that led me, on the 18th fairway on the final day of that event, to first be annoyed when I noticed fans had trampled those ropes and were now rushing past me, blocking my view of tournament leader Tiger Woods as he prepared to close out his first victory in five years. I was worried that I would not be in position to do my job, to document the moment and capture some telling scene or gesture of Woods’s in this climactic moment that I had been sent to write about.
And then, when I lifted my head fully from my notebook, where I’d been scribbling thoughts and phrases to use in my story, I realized the crowd now swallowing me in its throng was the story. There were hundreds of them by then, maybe a thousand—a flash mob of jubilation that was whooping and shouting Tiger’s name and generally looking more like something you would see on a stormed field after a college football upset than on a high-end golf course. Even Woods, typically the model of stoic focus, said afterward that he and his playing partner, Rory McIlroy, were discussing the mob as they approached their next shots. Woods said his main concern was that he might get run over.
What happened on that fairway, what gathered and swept up seemingly everyone within reach, was as organic and ecstatic and impromptu a celebration as you are likely to find in sports. An event that in another era verged on fait accompli—Tiger closing out a Sunday lead—had been imbued with thrill by the long gap in its occurrence and the various surgeries, doubts, rumors, and close calls that had filled it. All the while a great pressure of expectation and uncertainty had been building, waiting for its prompt to explode. And that it did.
In purely golf terms, Woods’s victory in Atlanta was its own remarkable accomplishment. He had undergone four back surgeries in less than five years, the pain at times leaving him wondering if he would ever again live normally. He entered the 2018 season searching first to build a new swing. But there was more to the scene on that 18th fairway than that. During his career Tiger has held a singular level and form of popularity within his sport, perhaps within American sports as a whole. The more Tiger has mattered, the more golf has too. You could see his influence that weekend in the grown men decked out in full red-shirt-black-hat-black-pants cosplay, hear it in the way a group of 20-something bros referred to Woods’s playing partner on Saturday, No. 1-ranked Justin Rose, as “another guy.”
And in the middle of that euphoric swarm on 18, you could feel it all around. They were cheering Tiger, yes. But they were also cheering that they were cheering Tiger—that they had cause to again, that for at least one September weekend he was back, and they were too.