Our world has no shortage of great athletes, but occasionally we are graced with transcendence. By transcendent, I mean unsurpassed.
So dominant, the entire sport changes to account for this newfound supremacy. So captivating, an entire culture breaks from normal routines to behold the supremacy. So inspiring, an entire generation dreams of one day emulating the supremacy.
We will always have sports, but sometimes, on those rare blessed occasions, we are given transcendence.
In my opinion, when it comes to transcendence, Tiger Woods transcends them all.
Simply put, he’s the best to ever play the game of golf, and yes that includes Jack Nicklaus. Jack was incredible, but he wasn’t Tiger Woods. Jack won tournaments; Tiger dominated tournaments. Jack impressed his contemporaries; Tiger terrified his contemporaries. Augusta was no match for Jack’s game; Augusta had to literally remake the course to “Tiger Proof” itself against Tiger’s game.
And the only thing Jack still has on Tiger (18 majors) now, after Tiger won number 15 this weekend, feels precarious once again. In fact, after Tiger’s victory on Sunday, Nicklaus was asked if he was still confident his record would stand. His response? “(Tiger’s) got me shaking in my boots”
Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer to ever play the game, and nobody is going to convince me otherwise.
But as everyone knows, the story of Tiger Woods goes much further. Adding to the mystique of Tiger’s transcendence is Tiger’s redemption. It might seem impossible that one figure could simultaneously be the greatest player in the history of the game as well as the most unlikely comeback in the history of the game, but with Sunday’s victory, Tiger is now both.
His downfall has been documented ad nauseum and not worth repeating in detail here. In summation, Tiger was a deeply troubled soul trying to fill the void with reprehensible sexual exploits that I personally and vehemently condemn. Nobody can sustain the life Tiger was leading, which is why it all came crashing down. And I literally mean crash. On November 27, 2009, Tiger’s wife Elin Nordegen uncovered Tiger’s habitual betrayal and infidelity. She was understandably traumatized and furious, and Tiger fled. Speeding out of his driveway, he lost control of his SUV and crashed into a neighbor’s tree.
Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s amazing biography Tiger Woods describe that moment with poignant authenticity: “As Woods lay unconscious on the road at 2:25 a.m. on November 27, 2009, blood on his teeth and lips, he finally appeared as he truly was—a vulnerable, fragile, deeply wounded person. In shock, Elin tended to the man who had broken her heart.”
The mystique was fully demystified for all the world to see, but it would prove only the beginning. As his life unraveled so did his golf game. In short, he lost it all and had to start over. Surgery after surgery to repair a body worn down by his notoriously aggressive swing and insane practice regime.
One could argue his fight to get back was even more difficult than the fight to get there in the first place. Merely two years ago he couldn’t even attend the Augusta’s champion’s dinner without a nerve blocker to stunt the pain. Shortly thereafter, he required spinal fusion surgery, and after a grueling recovery, he finally got to pick up a club again. His first drive carried 90 yards.
And yet there we were this past weekend, less than two years after a 90-yard drive, glued to our televisions watching Tiger defeat the greatest golfers on the greatest stage.
To me, that victory was more significant than any of his other major championships. Why? Because the only thing greater than transcendence is redemption. You see, transcendence is possible for only few, but redemption is available to us all.
At the beginning of Tiger’s rise to dominance, Nike went all in on the Tiger brand, releasing its iconic commercial and famous slogan: I am Tiger Woods. The commercial featured boys and girls of all ages and ethnicities hitting golf shots with the same creed on their lips, “I am Tiger Woods.” The marketing was genius. Instead of a generation on basketball courts dreaming of being the next Michael Jordan, why not on the golf course dreaming of being the next Tiger Woods? And in many ways it worked, inspiring a generation of golfing excellence the game had never seen before.
But let’s be honest, the slogan was as hopeless as it was inspiring, for there will never be another Tiger Woods. I’m not Tiger Woods. You’re not Tiger Woods. Nobody but Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods, which is why Tiger Woods is transcendent.
And yet ironically, the Nike campaign has proven true in the most unforeseen way. Not one person reading this can say I am Tiger Woods the golfer, but every single person reading this can say I am Tiger Woods in need of redemption.
I found it very fitting that Tiger’s redemptive victory took place on Palm Sunday this year. For those unfamiliar with the Christian tradition Palm Sunday is the beginning of our most sacred week, commonly referred to as Holy Week. What is Holy Week all about? The audacious hope that redemption is possible. The hope that I’m never too far gone, that my failures are never beyond forgiveness, indeed, that my mess is never beyond redemption.
It is during this week that we follow the journey of Jesus in his final days, and what we discover is that Jesus is to religion what Tiger is to golf—an utterly unique and transcendent religious figure. While most religions tell you how to redeem yourself; Jesus accomplishes redemption on our behalf. On Friday he is crucified and on Sunday he rises, and both his death and resurrection open redemption to the world. In his death I am offered forgiveness for what I have done, in his resurrection I am offered freedom for a new life to live.
The truth is, I am Tiger Woods. Not the golfer. Nobody is. I am Tiger Woods the failure. Tiger Woods the sinner. Tiger Woods the broken desperate man in need of redemption. The redemption I have found, and the redemption I pray you find, is the redemption offered in Jesus.
Tiger Woods is my golf hero. Jesus Christ is my redemption hero.
Robert Cunningham is the Senior Pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church and Head of School at Trinity Christian Academy. Follow him on twitter at @tcpcrobert and submit any comments or questions to [email protected]