When Tiger Woods won the ’97 Masters by a dozen, he broke every record in Augusta National lore. The tally, the margin, the vibe, the scorecard. The golf world was shattered by a guy who was just 21 years old, whose entire life was shaped by his parents, especially his father, for that very moment.
As Jack Nicklaus won the ’86 Masters 11 years prior, it was the first time Woods sat down to truly watch the April tradition. At 10 years old, he couldn’t possibly have appreciated what Nicklaus had accomplished in winning a sixth green jacket. Certainly, an 18th major meant something that Sunday, six years removed from his 17th. The celebration had the air of finality to it. But 10-year-old Woods couldn’t have grasped what Nicklaus had to summon for just one more Georgia afternoon to rise to greatness again.
As Tiger Woods tapped in the winning putt for his fifth Masters title, his first in 14 years, and his 15th major win, his first since winning the US Open on one good leg in 2008, Woods no doubt understood everything Jack felt as he raised his arms, putter in hand, above his head 33 years prior.
This was the best Masters.
When you’re young, success feels solely yours. You won the spelling bee. You aced your test. You hit that three-run home run to win the game. There’s a lot of first-person singular in your running autobiography. It’s easy to be entirely ignorant of the people who stopped their lives, their pursuits to push you forward. The practice spelling tests your dad administered in the car on the way to school. When your mom turned off the TV to force that one last cram session. Your coach throwing a bucket of beat-up baseballs on a poorly manicured field, waiting for you to get the timing on that curveball just right.
Achievements happen early and often when you’re young. There’s always a milestone. You roll over. You crawl. You walk. You run. You learn your letters, your numbers and how to count and read. Sports and hobbies on the weekend. Every day at school is a chance to shine and be praised. The rights of passage come in a steady, often pre-determined, stream.
The victories of youth aren’t only experienced differently, they’re celebrated differently. Those hugs and high-fives and kisses from your parents and family and mentors, you can’t yet understand what it feels like the be on the opposite end. They start to lose meaning. Why celebrate this one when another win is right around the corner? You can’t be this proud of me.
When Tiger Woods, fist-pumping and jabbing the air with his left and his right hand, came up the hill behind Augusta National’s 18th green on that Sunday in 1997, he gave his ailing father Earl the biggest, strongest bear hug. It was a celebration of their work together, but no doubt Woods thought of it differently than his dad. This was the first of many and the latest in an unending line of personal accomplishments, he had to figure.
For as flawed of a man as he was, Earl knew a win was a chance to tell his son just how proud he was of him. As a parent, you can do that every day, but as the years pass, the big trophies — physical and metaphorical — take on a different meaning. Earl knew that; Tiger yet didn’t.
The mileposts of youth give way to the grind of an adult life. The victories aren’t pre-ordained, and they aren’t a stepping stone to glory. You have to create your own goals, your own dreams. Those things take longer to accomplish. They require a lot more work than you’re told. And this is the toughest pill to swallow, they happen in large part because of other people and the vagaries of life that are completely, utterly out of your control.
Along the way, you realize your heroes aren’t perfect. They stumble, and they fall, sometimes hard. The veneer from your youth wears off, revealing people for what we really are. We’re fragile. We crack. We succumb. Even the people that always felt invincible, including you.
Before that self-realization dawns on us, we fight our God-given imperfections. We make excuses. We shun people just to preserve our pride. We make rash decisions to escape accepting responsibility. We can get into a rut of life that’s convenient for us, even if it hurts those around us.
So many people never rise to be their better selves, much less their best selves. It’s easy to blame invisible forces conspiring against us or to point out the realities of a system rigged to hold us back. Perfect can be the enemy of good, or too often, good enough. In a feeble effort to just get through another day, we take the easy way out. Just stay down.
Then something comes along to make you get off the mat. It could be your wife, your husband, your partner. It could be your children and your unrequited love for them. It could be a spark of genius, an idea in the dark recesses of your mind that this can’t be it. There’s work to do, and it’s worth doing. You make your goals, and you make a plan, and you get a shovel to dig your way out of this damned mess. Then you start digging, head down. Then you hear someone digging with you. And you realize, you’re in this together. They’ll dig for you when you’re tired or discouraged. They’ll make you better and put their arm around you when it seems too much.
At our best, we struggle for each other. That work is love, it’s our best expression of what it means to truly care for someone selflessly. You show those you love what you’ve learned along the way, hoping they won’t make the same mistakes you did, now wise enough to know most of us learn better from failure than success.
In the end, your own struggle makes you love your heroes all the more because they fought through everything that makes them human to do the best they could for you. They wanted to be the superhero for you that they always had, or in many cases, longed to have for just one day. You re-write your autobiography. It’s a we story, not a me story.
Eventually, you forget the old grudges. Why didn’t you just say you were sorry? Why didn’t you do the right thing before it was too late? And you’re forgiven, too. Maybe you forgive yourself. Life almost never turns out how you dream it when you’re little, but when you realize the best version of yourself when you’re older, you’ve truly hit your peak. Don’t look back wondering what could have been had you known all that you know now. Be grateful that you learned everything you did to get to this point, and never stop learning or fighting.
When Tiger Woods walked with wide strides up the hill behind the 18th green on Sunday, he felt the pride of accomplishment, of overcoming so much so few will ever understand to get to slip on the green jacket for a fifth time. The old Varsity jacket still fits, and he is among the few who get to be the star quarterback again. His father, who died 13 years ago, wasn’t there. His mother Tida, maybe her proudest yet, embraced her son as he said, “We did it.” But when Tiger embraced his son, Charlie, and his daughter, Sam, I have no doubt he finally understood what his dad was feeling 22 years ago.
On both Sundays, it was Tiger doing something once thought impossible. The first time, when Tiger embraced his father, he hoped Earl was so proud of what he did. The fifth, when Tiger embraced his children, he just hoped they were proud of what he did — that he got to show them that imperfect people can have perfect days.