FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The crowds following Tiger Woods on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park this week looked more like a marauding army than a gathering of golf fans on a pleasant day. They trampled everything in their path and went under and over ropes designed to prevent them from doing exactly that. One fan even broke a fence trying to get a better view of Woods over the swarming masses.
To be fair, in the grouping with Woods at the P.G.A. Championship on Thursday and Friday were Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari, who have sizable fan bases of their own. But even their best shots — and Koepka had plenty of them, leading the field at 12 under par after Friday’s second round — were overshadowed by the roars elicited when Woods took a swing.
Young men wore red-and-black ensembles mimicking what Woods wears on Sundays and apparel with the stylized “TW” logo. At least three people wore full tiger costumes, including Sam Kerr, 26, of Newtown, Conn.
“This is an Amazon grab, but it is an investment,” said Kerr, who was watching Woods in person for the first time on Thursday. “I’ll have this every Sunday for the rest of my life.”
The continuing, perhaps even growing, love affair with Woods is one of the biggest stories in sports in 2019, especially after Woods won his 15th major championship, and his first in more than a decade, at the Masters last month. Yes, his talents and accomplishments have long been awe inspiring, but his dismissiveness toward fans and sometimes his fellow players over the years, as well as his personal troubles, have left him less than lovable.
And yet Tiger love thrives, seemingly a function of America’s infatuation with stories of redemption and its ability to compartmentalize personal failings and professional success.
“America is a country of divorce, rehab, drug abuse and D.U.I.s,” said Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University who has written a book about Woods. “People can identify with a lot of the things Tiger has been through.”
Television audiences still spike when Woods is on the leaderboard, and data from Luker on Trends, which conducts the ESPN Sports Poll, shows his popularity tracks almost exactly with his golfing success. After his infidelity was publicly revealed in 2009, his popularity declined in 2010 and 2011, years he also stopped winning, and ticked upward in 2013 and 2014, when he regained the No. 1 ranking. It bottomed out in 2017, the year of his fourth back operation, and grew in 2018, when he had two top-10 finishes at major tournaments and won a tournament for the first time since plenty of fans could remember.
As missed shots piled up for Woods throughout his second round on Friday, a raucous gallery followed his every move. Four men wore T-shirts with an image of Woods’s mug shot from when he was arrested and charged with suspicion of driving under the influence in 2017. Other onlookers shouted for Woods to work his way back into contention.
It wasn’t to be. Woods shot 72 on Thursday and 73 on Friday, and was five over for the two days, missing the cut by a stroke. That will mean less fan interest and fewer watching on television as there are many people who identify as golf fans but are really Tiger fans, like Travis DeMarco, 30, from Westchester County, who was following Woods on Thursday. “The Tiger roar, I was saying before, we heard the roar, and that’s worth the price of admission alone,” he said.
He bet on Woods at 18-1 to win the Masters, but if Woods is not playing, DeMarco is likely to watch only the Sunday round of a golf tournament.
There is no telling whether Woods’s surgically repaired back will hold up this season, or how great a toll age has taken on him. But with a Masters victory at 43 — capped by him picking up his son, Sam, and embracing his mother — his narrative arc seems complete.
Woods began his long-term residency on tabloid front pages in late 2009, when The National Enquirer reported he had cheated on his wife, Elin Nordegren, with a nightclub hostess. Two days later, he crashed his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant outside his home after 2 a.m., and a stream of stories emerged that added up to Woods’s being a serial adulterer.
He and Nordegren later divorced.
More damaging to his golf game, however, was his debilitating back pain and the subsequent operations. He went a decade without winning a major tournament, much of the time unable to even play. In 2017, shortly before the spinal fusion procedure that resurrected his career, he told a fellow golfer, “I’m done.”
Not long after the fusion, he was charged with driving under the influence. He was found asleep behind his steering wheel in an opioid and sleeping pill haze. Woods pleaded guilty to reckless driving and entered a rehabilitation program to treat a dependence on prescription medication.
All of which raises a question: After numerous personal failings and a decade of barely playing, why is Woods still one of the most popular athletes alive?
Starn described Woods as a “mythical, almost biblical, figure in American society at this point,” whose life has followed a classic Greek story arc that many find irresistible: A child prodigy falls back to earth, struggles physically and emotionally, then is resurrected, transfigured and re-elevated.
But Woods’s story is also distinctly American, with its indulgence in reinvention and second chances. When he was dominating in his 20s, Woods had a reputation for being robotic and rarely interacting with fans. But now fans can identify with his failings, both personal and professional.
Rory McIlroy, who for a time was supposed to be the next Tiger Woods, said on Tuesday that Woods was a different person now. “He’s in a different space in his life, and yeah, he just seems very grateful for this opportunity to do what he loves and compete,” McIlroy said.
Noah Cohan, a Washington University professor who studies fandom and sports narratives, pointed to news media coverage that conflated personal failings and athletic accomplishments that had little to do with each other, and said that fans were drawn to stories of redemption.
“It is so hard not to see athletes as protagonists in their own story,” Cohan said.
With an early-career Nike commercial in which Woods said that some country clubs would still turn him away because of his skin color, followed by an attempt to live a largely apolitical adult life that has included friendships with Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump, Woods has managed to be both a progressive icon and somebody who does not threaten golf, which has an older, whiter, richer and more conservative fan base than most sports. President Trump awarded Woods the Presidential Medal of Freedom this month, even as other African-American athletes have chosen to spurn the White House and a president they see as racist.
All of that, though, takes place somewhere else for fans like Kerr, the fan in the Tiger suit, whose appreciation of Woods is confined to the golf course. When it comes to Kerr’s fandom, the nonsports stuff does not get in the way.
“I respect him as an athlete,” Kerr said on Thursday. “I think his personal life, that’s disappointing and frustrating. But as far as his athletic ability, that’s what I’m here for.”
Email Kevin Draper at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @kevinmdraper.
Kevin Armstrong contributed reporting.
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