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What we see in Tiger we saw in Payne

Updated: Apr 18, 2019

I listened to the No Laying Up post-Masters podcast tonight on a solo drive, sunroof open and cruise locked on 80, from Austin to Dallas. The guest was Kevin Van Valkenburg, whose golf writing for ESPN I've admired for a long time. He and the hosts picked around at the meaning of what happened Sunday in Augusta, and in my view confronted the essential truth of how and why Tiger's winning his fifth jacket touched so many people.

It's this: Tiger Woods is closer to us than he used to be. He's more like us now, fallible and flawed, broken once and mending, a man who seems to accept his limits and regrets, which makes him more real and less elevated. Woods also is nearer to us in the physical sense. He acknowledges his legions of fans far more than he allowed when he was younger and more inaccessible. He was more forgiving, during Masters week, of those annoying little distractions that come with playing in the presence of so many people who want to tell their friends back in Tallahassee or Topeka that they were there when Tiger won the Masters again after 14 years and a million gallons of unsavory water under the bridge. It's all different in 2019. Michael Rosenberg captured this spirit (can we call it redemption?) in his well-toned cover story for Sports Illustrated: "Woods lets us in now. Not too much. But he lets us in."

The return of Woods to leaderboards from Atlanta to Austin to Augusta reminds me of 1999, when Payne Stewart also emerged from his own period of reckoning. The circumstances for Stewart were far less disastrous, the stakes less severe. He'd suffered from a balky neck injury, but nothing like the physical calamities Woods has endured. Stewart had not won in four years, but he'd never not been able to simply swing a driver, as Woods had. Stewart also carried a reputation into 1999 that he was committed to change through his actions and his words, and that's where these two personal narratives, and a lot of personal narratives, begin to align ever so much. I wouldn't call them parallel. But I'd call them close enough to feel familiar, these two lines that rose, fell and rose at about the same pitch and attitude.

Last fall, as I was looking at the many relics from the 1999 U.S. Open behind glass in the clubhouse at Pinehurst, I wondered if Tiger Woods would achieve the kind of peace I could see on the face of Payne Stewart in the picture under the brightest light in the display. No one can say. Well, Woods could, but as he lets us in in 2019, he doesn't let us in too much. Maybe we'll see that peace in June at Pebble Beach. I want to believe we will. Maybe we'll get a U.S. Open like the one in 1999, when Stewart, then 42, played prepared and cautious golf to beat Woods (whose one major at the time was the 1997 Masters), David Duval, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh. I hope we do. It would be another echo of that season two decades ago and the subject of my next book, "The Last Stand of Payne Stewart," to be published in October by Hachette.

While I have you: There's a lot of fine journalism about the 2019 Masters Tournament. I have two favorites. In one, Sam Weinman of Golf Digest reminded us to recognize all it took for Woods to merely get back to Augusta, and to hold him to no higher standard than that. In the other, Tom Friedman wrote in The New York Times about the similarities between golf and life, concepts Harvey Penick understood until he died the afternoon before Masters week in 1995. "Each and every round is a journey," Friedman wrote, "and, like all of life's journeys, it's not a straight line."

When Woods won, we all won, just as we all won with Stewart in 1999.

We're a lot better off when those we admire move nearer to us, when their stories begin to seem and sound like ours.

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