Berg is the Word: Rooting for Tiger is a complicated experience

Tiger Woods celebrates after winning his fifth Masters and 15th major championship Sunday in Augusta, Ga.

Shortly after Tiger Woods secured his fifth Masters victory Sunday, I received a text from a friend. It read, “Is there anyone capable of stopping the whole sporting world the way Tiger just did?”

It’s a fair question, and one that requires a more in-depth response than you might think. Tiger has been golf’s biggest draw since he burst on the scene with a dominant victory at the 1997 Masters, where the 21-year-old became the tournament’s youngest winner by a historic 12-stroke margin. Woods’ dominance, laser-sharp focus and flair for the dramatic not only made him golf’s biggest star ever, it made the sport cool.

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how famous Tiger was in the 2000s. His signature red shirt, black hat and pants combo became a staple of final rounds. Every youth golfer wanted the tiger club head cover. He single-handedly made Nike one of the go-to golf brands because he was a brand unto himself.

As Woods plowed his way to win after win, he built up a mystique reserved for sports’ all-time greats. Competitors wilted when playing final rounds with him, unable to cope with the combination of the blinding spotlight and Tiger’s deadly intensity. He seemed poised to join the ranks of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan as athletes who were so great they transcended their sports to simply become public icons.

The height of the Tiger mystique was the 2008 U.S. Open, which Woods won in a dramatic playoff after holing a long birdie putt on the 72nd hole to stay alive. Oh, and he did it with a double stress fracture in his left tibia; the damage was such that he needed ACL surgery after the tournament. Watching Woods limp up and down that course and fend off the competition despite being unable to fully plant his feet is one of the greatest displays of grit and determination I’ve seen or even heard about in sports. To my 9-year-old self, Tiger was a god. He was unbeatable.

But then came the revelation that Woods had cheated on his wife with as many as 120 women. A mysterious car accident on Thanksgiving Day 2009 was revealed as the result of his wife’s discovery of the infidelity, and the ensuing reports and divorce took a major toll on Woods’ image.

Things continued to go downhill from there. Woods began to struggle with constant injuries, missing significant time from 2014-17 with back issues that forced him into four different surgeries. When he did play he was a shell of himself, missing cuts left and right. Tiger hit a low point in May 2017 when he was arrested near his Florida home for driving under the influence of what he said were prescription painkillers. A man once revered by all had become a punchline.

We’ve established that Tiger has serious issues at best and is a deplorable person at worst. So why was his final putt Sunday met with some of the loudest cheers ever heard on a golf course and “Tiger” chants so raucous that they seemed meant for a drunken tailgate rather than the neatly kept grasses of Augusta? And more importantly, why was I completely rooting for Tiger to win all weekend? Why did I nearly get choked up watching him raise his arms to the heavens and yell in celebration?

Following sports is often more complicated than it seems. There are certain players — the truly great ones — that have a singular impact, that grab the attention of the audience and captivate everyone watching. Getting to watch these players is the single best thing about sports fandom because it’s larger than you: It’s an experience you share with anyone else lucky enough to say “I watched one of the great ones play.” Tiger is indisputably one of the great ones.

Is it wrong that I, along with so many others, rooted our hearts out for Tiger this weekend? Is it selfish to look past the horrible things he has done and continue to support him? I don’t think that’s really for me to say. As I think I’ve proven, I might be a little too close to the situation to decide what is right and wrong. Obviously I don’t condone what Tiger did, but I can’t seem to escape the ineffable quality he possesses as a transcendent athlete.

There are other reasons why his victory was so special. His comeback, no matter what you think of him as a person, is inspiring. It’s so rare to see someone be able to overcome the mental and physical challenges he’s dealt with, and you could see how much winning meant to him. His smile stretched from ear to ear, he let out multiple celebratory whoops and he hugged his caddy and family with uncontainable joy. It was hard in that moment not to be happy for a guy who took a long and difficult journey to get to this point.

And perhaps one of the reasons I wanted him to win so badly was that I wanted to feel like that awestruck little kid I once was. And I did. Growing up, Tiger always made me feel like anything was possible because of the overwhelming power of his talent. Now 43 years old, Tiger has taught an only slightly more mature version of myself that anything is possible with proper resilience and hard work.

But when I try to sort through my conflicted feelings about rooting for Tiger, I keep coming back to the same point: It is simply special to watch him play his best. It is a privilege to experience anyone do something as well as Tiger has for the majority of his golf career. Sunday marked Woods’ 15th major victory, three behind Jack Nicklaus for most of all time. Watching Tiger is watching history in progress.

Woods is an outlier among outliers, a singular presence who stands out among the best not just for his talent, but the persona he brings to the links. Tiger’s ability to draw every eye in the sporting world and seemingly make everything stop is what makes him, and the experience of watching him, so special.

Aidan Berg is a sophomore writing about sports. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” ran every other Tuesday.