Tiger Woods’ Comeback Is Not a Redemption Story

Last Sunday, Tiger Woods made a remarkable comeback after years plagued by scandal, irrelevance, and injury to win his 15th major championship and fifth Masters tournament. As a sports story, it is truly impressive. But let’s not call it a redemption story.

Millions of people tuned in to watch Tiger Woods on Sunday. For the first time in his career, he came from behind on the last day to win a major, finishing at -13 to win by one stroke over a trio of fellow golfers. The crowd on the 18th hole erupted as he tapped in his final putt, and Tiger threw his arms in the air in celebration.

This victory was a long time coming. Just over a decade ago, Tiger was on top of the golfing world. After first winning the Masters in 1997 at just 21 years old, he started collecting major tournament titles like they were refrigerator magnets.

It started to seem inevitable that he would pass the legendary Jack Nicklaus, who holds the career record of 18 major victories. In June 2008, Tiger gutted it out through the U.S. Open on an ailing left knee to collect his 14th career major. But just two days later, Tiger announced that he would undergo knee surgery and miss the remainder of the year.

Everyone expected his comeback to take a while. No one expected his comeback to take so long. And certainly no one expected the events of November 27, 2009.

Early that morning, Tiger was found in the driveway of his Florida home with face lacerations, as he drifted in and out of consciousness. His wife had smashed in the back of the car with a golf club. A series of stories of marital infidelity emerged. More than a dozen women came forward with claims of having affairs with Tiger. It was a personal and P.R. nightmare. Several of his multi-million dollar sponsorship deals fell through. And in August 2010, he and his wife of seven years, Elin Nordegren, divorced.

The scandal in his personal life was quickly accompanied by a series of nagging injuries, first to his achilles and then to his back. He went winless in six of the next eight years with zero major tournament victories. This was a startling decline. He had to sit out nearly all of 2016 and 2017, and the only time he made headline news was when he was arrested for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

It looked like we had seen the last of Tiger Woods and his glory days. A career wrecked by injuries and a messy personal life: Jack Nicklaus’s record was safe.

Or so it seemed. Until last Sunday.

His victory at the Masters was no small feat. Eleven years had passed since his last major victory. He was trailing as he started the back nine holes. What happened was without a doubt a thrilling comeback.

But please, do not call it a redemption story. That’s a word we throw around too casually in the sports world. A player or team suffers a setback, overcomes adversity, and achieves victory. “What a redemption story!”

When a fallen athlete returns to greatness, that’s a comeback. Redemption is the restoration of relationships gone wrong.

As we enter the Easter Triduum and contemplate Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection, we prepare to witness real redemption. Jesus saves us from sin and death, which no longer have a claim on us. He shows us the greatness of God’s love and restores us to a right relationship with God.

Redemption has to do with right relationships, and it has to do with healing. It runs deeper than an athletic performance, however remarkable.

I truly desire redemption for Tiger Woods. We all should. And perhaps he has achieved it. But his redemption cannot be earned on the golf course. His redemption involves healing and restoration to right relationships. With his ex-wife. With the women he slept with. With his children, family and friends. With himself. With God.

A handful of external signs suggest that Tiger has made big strides in some of these areas. Elin Nordegren and Tiger maintain communication, and she has said publicly that he’s a good father to their two kids. Tiger spoke on Sunday after winning the Masters about the emotion of embracing his children as he reflected on how far he had come since he was embracing his own father after his first Masters victory in 1997. He has come a long way since 2009.

But there is only so much that we can know about Tiger. Most of what we know about him is on the golf course, as it should be. Let’s leave his redemption to him and God. We can still appreciate his comeback, because that’s precisely what it is.

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Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user Chase McAlpine.

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