When Donald Trump tweeted a picture of him playing golf with Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus on February 2, I had one question: How did it take two years for this to happen? They’ve known each other for a long time — before Trump became president, he hired Tiger to design a golf course for him in Dubai, and in November 2017, they played a quick roundbetween one diplomatic trip to Turkey and another to the Mar-A-Lago lukewarm-prime rib table. But prior to six days ago, there had been no official photographic evidence that the pair had broken bread on the links.
The resulting image, by the way, is unbelievably horrifying:
Trump and Tiger have the same fake Nike check of a smile, and the same rail-stiff posture that old guys use in photos as an alternative to sucking in their guts. Jack Nicklaus, who served as the face of the sport until Woods came along, is there as well, smiling uncomfortably as though he really hopes this photo isn’t going to show up on the internet. They’re playing at one of Trump’s own courses — Trump National Golf Course in Jupiter, Florida, so the photo probably violates some sort of White House ethics guidelines against the president using his platform to advertise his own businesses, but at this point getting mad about that would be like complaining that the kitchen in the Titanic wasn’t up to code.
Tiger played terrifically, by the way, according to Trump, and will soon be winning tournaments again. As shocking as it is to say, folks, Donald Trump does not know what he is talking about. Tiger Woods will not be regularly winning golf tournaments again soon, and not just because playing well on a random golf course is not a good metric for success in a professional golf tournament. Time has not been kind to Tiger Woods, undoubtedly the greatest golfer of his generation and probably the best shot-for-shot golfer in the history of the sport. There was the whole “getting caught sending awkward sexts to porn stars” thing of 2009, the “cosplaying as a Marine” thing that came out in 2016, as well as the “getting pulled over while whacked-out on pain meds” thing that happened last year, but mainly, as Woods has aged he’s no longer a singularly dominant figure in golf. Instead, he sits by and watches helplessly as younger golfers, playing by the rules he rewrote, take over.
There are two eras of professional golf: everything that happened before Tiger, and everything that happened after. Before Woods, golf was sort of like bowling in that it was technically a sport, but you could still succeed at its highest level if you were an overweight alcoholic. In the days of greats like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, chain-smoking through a round was par for the course (sorry). In the ‘70s, a putting technique called the “whiskey finger” became popular on the PGA tour, because it supposedly stopped hungover hands from shaking on the green. In the early ‘90s, the biggest celebrity on tour was John Daly, a fat dude with a mullet who outsmarted the whiskey finger by showing up to play golf still drunk from the night before.
There are two eras of professional golf: everything that happened before Tiger, and everything that happened after.
As lame as it is to use the word “disruption,” golf in the mid ‘90s was primed for it, and Tiger Woods was the exact person for the job. The scion of an ex-Army colonel who was literally militant about his son achieving greatness, Woods pioneered the idea of the golfer as a legitimate athlete. By the time Daly and his ilk were groggily waking up and reaching for the Advil, Woods had already run four miles, done strength training, and played 18 holes. His level of physical fitness was closer to an NFL cornerback than the overweight alcoholics around him, which allowed him to hit the ball farther than anyone else around, never get tired, and stay focused when things came down to the wire. He was young, he was good-looking, and he was so cool that he could hawk motherfucking Buicks. The old guard didn’t stand a chance.
Unlike most sports, golf is a competition not only between player and player, but between player and environment. Tiger’s abilities inspired course architects to start “Tiger-proofing” their designs, moving actual heaven and earth to arrange holes in ways that might flummox Woods and level the playing field come tournament time. Golf courses are already terrible for the environment; the amount of water, fertilizer, and mechanical equipment required to keep a course, which usually imports non-native grass into an incompatible ecosystem, looking pristine is genuinely horrifying. The only way to create a sustainable golf course is to design one that fits into the natural curvature of the land, embarking upon less of a building project and instead the strategic mowing of a big field until a golf course reveals itself. This is basically the opposite of what designers were trying to with Woods, and his popularity inadvertently led to a wave of high-profile courses that were expensive to maintain and therefore expensive to play at, effectively reinforcing the perception that golf is solely the domain of the economic elite.
As Woods aged and his personal life devolved, a new generation of golfers began to achieve success, emulating his methods and perfecting their game on courses meant to throw him off. With the upstarts breathing down his neck, Woods stumbled, taking stretches of time off the PGA tour to care for an ailing back and losing pretty much every time he attempted to return. Tiger Woods had inadvertently turned golf into a contest in which physical stamina and mental acuity could produce a more blandly perfect 18 holes than everyone else and, in a lightly karmic twist, he could no longer keep up.
Since he Woods and Trump hit the links last week, the consistently abhorrent golf press parroted Trump’s claim that Tiger was back to his old ways — in part because golf journalists are professionally discouraged from thinking critically about anyone who owns as many golf courses as Donald Trump, but also because within golf there’s a genuine yearning for Tiger Woods to make a comeback. Unlike Jordan passing the torch to Kobe, Tiger’s legacy is now upheld by a handful of semi-stars, none of whom possess his charm and charisma. If he stays healthy and keeps hammering at it, Woods probably will win another tournament soon, but it won’t mean he’s truly “back.”
But because he was so great for so long, Woods will always be the biggest golfer in the universe, at least until a truly worthy heir comes around. He’s an aging legend with a sleazy and embarrassing personal life, eking by on the strength of his brand, as the actually proficient run laps around him. No wonder Trump loves the guy.