The most beautiful golf shot I’ve seen in years came at last Sunday’s Masters tournament. It was, oddly enough, a putt. A long putt, early in the final day. The fact it brought tears to my eyes says as much about me, I guess, as the putt itself, and its author, Tiger Woods.
We’ve been Woods fans for decades. And why not? He has always been a story in motion, a narrative packed with drama, every swing: “Triumph or disaster,” as Kipling said, and “treat those two imposters just the same.”
When the man Woods self-destructed in a personal way, it was really more a sad extension of the narrative fascination than a departure.
And then he began the long road back, painfully reassembling himself. His physical obstacles included a broken leg, crushed knee, four back surgeries, including a fusion. For a time, he could barely walk.
We do love a story of second chances. Most of us have transgressed, sometimes spectacularly, sometimes tragically--or just tragicomically--in our lives. When a sports great struggles back from disaster, and seems to have done so successfully, we feel a personal connection. We pull for him.
Yes, we do.
But then there is the golf. The two came together on Sunday in the beauty of that putt, one of many extraordinary shots he made that day. Looking relaxed, focused, through it all.
It was an unusually long putt on the eighth green. A downhill putt with a necessary break.
Any golfer knows the interior trembling induced in contemplating such a putt. The pull of gravity adds the element of dire consequences to the already daunting combination of distance and direction. I think of the challenge as an adventure in imagination.
Woods stood for a long time before he struck it. Calculating. Visualizing. I stood there with him, then. Many did.
We knew what was coming next.
Golf is a series of existential moments. Every part of the golfer must execute in perfect sequence before connecting with a stationary sphere barely wider than a quarter. It requires faultless concentration. You set up, you pause, swing—and you’ve stepped off a ledge, suspended in air until the ball drops.
You are not in control. At no point are what we think of as “you” in control. “You” may contemplate, estimate, and you should. Then something else about you takes over. Muscle memory, training—and if you can sustain it, over and over again, character.
Out there on the course, your truest opponent is yourself. Your rhythms, your nerves. The temptation to cut a corner in a friendly game is strong. Winter rules. Gimme putts. Mulligans. Who doesn’t long for a mulligan in daily life? Who doesn’t long for a do-over?
I said I stood with Tiger Woods as he imagined that long putt I found so beautiful.
I began to play golf at thirteen. A natural, the pro said of me. I even loved to practice, and the practice paid off, tee to green.
But I never became adept at putting. Faced with a putt as long as Tiger’s on Sunday, I would see my day’s score doubling. I would have far preferred to be the same distance from the cup off the green, where I could chip.
That’s why I was there with him when he struck the ball. Holding my breath as it rolled, and rolled and rolled—perfectly calibrated, hewing to its invisible track as it yearned toward the hole and Tiger’s eagle.
Tears arrived in my eyes--for its almost perfection.
For the unimaginable quantity of work required for its author to rebound from so much personal mess and injury. The months of mental, emotional and painful physical labor necessary to miss by only inches while within a stroke or two of the lead in the Masters.
And then, quite calmly, to go on and win.
Redemption, perhaps, is part of the greatest comeback story in golf, since Ben Hogan’s.