BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Tiger Woods looms over Bethpage Black from a bridge positioned 20 feet above a walkway. He’s making his way to the tenth hole, where he’ll begin his first round of the PGA Championship.
The crowd below—hurrying toward the tee like pledges late on a Sunday morning to clean the frat house after a party—realizes he’s above them. “Go Tiger!” a few people shout, phones out, amazed that they’re in the right place at the right time. Woods is visible between the barriers for a moment and then disappears behind a gate again.
Everyone underneath him turns around and beelines it for the course. A few guys are wearing shirts screen-printed with a picture of Woods in wraparound sunglasses, his classic Sunday red shirt and a backwards hat from last year's PGA Championship. “G.O.A.T.” is splashed under the photo in block letters. Others wear tees with Woods’ plush tiger-shaped head cover on it. The pathway is getting progressively muddier as more and more people tramp through the grass to try and get a glimpse of history.
Spectators gather around the tee, twenty-people deep. Two men near the front are mad that a golf cart for people with disabilities has parked near the ropes. They get aggressive with the driver. “But I can’t just knock them out, you know?” the driver says, shrugging. At exactly 8:24 a.m., Brooks Koepka steps up. People clap and whoop. Several shout, “Go Brooks!” Koepka tees off, followed by Francesco Molinari. And then—it’s Woods’ turn.
The crowd goes nuts; it's twice as loud as it's been for anyone else. Then everything falls silent. Woods, wearing light pants and a blue vest over a blue polo, adjusts his stance. He looks down the fairway, then back to the ball. He whips the club around and the thwack echoes up through the trees.
“Get in the hole!,” someone yells, and the cheering resumes.
After his unbelievable comeback win at Augusta, Woods enters a major as the man to beat for the first time in more than a decade.
It feels too good, from a narrative perspective, to be true. Almost everyone watching here and at home cares more about Woods than any other competitor and it’s not even close. Woods is not only one of the greatest athletes, he’s one of the greatest stories. Just like he did for the actual game of golf, he's taken the narrative to a new level. In person, it’s jarring to see him—a human—swinging a club. At this point he represents so much more than himself that you forget he’s made up of bones, muscle and skin. Yet here he is, standing in plain sight.
There are few classic, overarching narratives that don’t apply to Woods. He's a walking collection of Greek myths. Inside this one man, you can find a story of a son and a father: Earl Woods was the driving force behind Tiger’s career, the one who made Woods great and the one from whom Woods inherited unshakable vices. You can also find the story of a son and a mother: Tida Woods is the woman Woods never wanted to let down but had to face when he repeated the sins of his father. You can find the story of friendship and loyalty: Woods' caddy Joe LaCava didn’t give up on him, even when the golfer momentarily gave up on himself. You can find the story of a pioneer: Woods is the first person of color to kick down the door to the whitest sport and command the conversation inside. You can find a story of love and commitment gone completely awry. Of a man trying to shape and escape his own destiny. Of perseverance, of hard work, of focus, of discipline.
You can also find the story of destruction. There was beauty in some of it, sure: the broken records, the broken barriers. But there was more pain: broken hearts, broken car windows, broken promises, a broken back. Even if much of it was by his own doing, Woods suffered a total emotional and physical come-apart from which even Green Berets like his father would have a tough time clawing back.
To circle back to that whole myth thing: Woods flew too close to the sun.
The wings his father glued to him might’ve melted off, but miraculously, Woods didn’t drown when he hit the water. He salvaged the splintered pieces and for more than a decade has been gluing, stitching, and willing them back together. We might not have been able to see them at the beginning of the Masters, but by the end, the set of wings Woods wore were glowing. He flew past all the other golfers on the back nine, sunk that final put, and soared into the arms of his family as a champion for the first time in 11 years.
Comebacks like this don’t happen. But this one did, and it was hard not to feel some type of way about it. How often do you get to see a stunning plot-twist in a story that's already stranger than fiction? Unless you were under a rock after the Masters, you probably heard writers, or pundits, or your friends, or coworkers, or just some guy in a bar pick which myth of Woods they wanted to retell, which version of Woods they saw themselves in, which aspect of Woods inspired them, repulsed them, and left them conflicted.
In an actual myth, this would’ve been the end. But this is real life, so what does Woods do now? It almost doesn’t matter, and at the same time it matters more than anything. With his first swing this morning, Woods jumped off the edge of his own legend and is about to find out how sturdy his new wings really are. Will the 2019 Masters become known as that one last shot across the sky—the final flight of a man who once couldn’t be kept down—before the wax melts again? Or will it be the start of a comeback tour that even the ancient Greeks would have a hard time conjuring up?
Woods doesn’t know, but he does know the weight his own story carries. And if can help it, it won't end anytime soon.
“It’s great to be part of the narrative,” he said at his press conference on Tuesday. “You know, my narrative spans 20 years now, just over 20 years. And if you look at most of the players, or the players that had the most success on tour, you’re not...an NFL football player where you get in the Hall of Fame after nine years. You play out here only nine years? You haven’t really done that well. You’re measured in decades. Arnold Palmer played in 50 straight Masters.”
Woods is hoping for many more tournaments and many more unbelievable wins. But for now, we're all just waiting to find out what's on the next page. And no matter of which version of this man (because, despite everything, he is still just a man) you believe in, root for, despise, or want to see, the fact remains that golf is undoubtedly more dramatic with its tortured hero back in the spotlight.