America has always loved a good comeback story.
It’s why places like the Alamo and Pearl Harbor get such prominent play in our history books. You can’t have a comeback without first having a comedown.
And that’s why America is rooting so hard again for Tiger Woods.
There is something oddly satisfying about the humanness of a fallen hero. But there’s also nothing more enthralling than the super-humanness of the hero who gains redemption.
We never cheered for Tiger more than after he won the 2019 Masters — 14 years, four back surgeries, and several personal downfalls after his last triumphant walk off the 18th green at Augusta National.
There’s no guarantee he’ll walk normally again after Tuesday’s car accident left him with a mangled right leg and ankle. But I wouldn’t bet against another redux for the 45-year-old Woods. Athletes like Tiger are at their best in the challenge of a hunt.
He suggested as much more than a quarter-century ago, on the eve of the 1994 CIF-Southern Section Individual Golf Championships at Santa Barbara’s La Cumbre Country Club.
“I love the competition, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Tiger said. “I’m just one of those people who loves to compete. If I didn’t have that, I’d try to find it someplace else.”
When asked to name which part of his game played best — His irons? His putter? His woods? — he said none of the above.
“I’d say it’s the mental side,” Tiger replied. “I can hit the ball a long way — I tend to hit it crooked every now and then, and I can bail myself out — but I think it has to do with the mental side.
“I’m very tough and I don’t let a lot of things get to me. And I think that’s a big bonus.”
Woods, a high school senior at the time, was already a media sensation. He’d already played in four PGA Tour events and had won three U.S. Junior Amateurs. But he still wanted to represent Western High School at the La Cumbre Country Club.
Ted Oh of Torrance High, the 1992 CIF champion, had skipped the 1994 event to play in a U.S. Open qualifier. But Tiger closed the door on his own Open opportunity. It would’ve meant missing his high school graduation that same week.
“Luckily, Tiger came in with a good head on his shoulders,” Western High coach Don Crosby explained. “I’ve always just tried to treat Tiger like one of the kids, period. And we’ve tried to make sure — and I know he and his family have tried to make sure — that, on campus, he was just Tiger Woods.
“And so I think he’s led a really normal high school life. The kids know who he is and they look up to him, but he’s just Tiger Woods. He doesn’t walk around like he’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Not on campus, perhaps. But he walked every golf course as though he owned it.
San Marcos High had its own wunderkind at the time in freshman Michael Chavez. He had just won the Channel League Individual Championship and he would soon become the youngest player to ever win the Santa Barbara City Championship.
Chavez started the 1994 CIF Tournament strong, birdieing No. 8 and No. 9 to finish the front nine at two-under-par.
But Woods, who began the tournament on the back nine, was tearing up La Cumbre like no one ever had. He birdied four of the first six holes he played.
Palm Desert High was represented in the event by Bryan Geiberger, son of the first golfer to shoot a 59 in a PGA event. Spectators began whispering about Tiger’s challenge to Al Geiberger’s feat when he rammed in another birdie putt at the 17th to finish his first nine holes with a 5-under 30.
That talk grew even louder after Tiger dropped in another birdie at No. 1 to put his score at minus-6.
He turned mortal, however, on the 522-yard sixth hole when he hooked his drive out of bounds. He took a double-bogey seven to drop to 4-under.
“I hit my driver three times today, all on the front side, and I hooked all three,” he would lament after all was done.
Tiger scored one more birdie at the par-3 seventh. He barely missed another on his final hole — the ninth — when his six-foot putt lipped the cup. But it remained one of the most amazing displays of golf ever played in this town.
“With Tiger Woods in the tournament, I knew the winning score would be under par,” said Chavez, whose 70 put him in a three-way tie for second, “but I didn’t think it would be 66.”
That 66 set both a course and CIF Tournament record — and left Tiger hungry for something better.
“I’ve never seen this course before, but I think it’s great,” Woods said afterward. “I liked the way the greens rolled. They got a little spiked-up toward the end because they dried out.
“My score could have been a lot lower. I missed a lot of putts. You have to watch out for the grain on the greens. They can fool you.”
He didn’t flinch when asked if there was fool’s gold in the high expectations that were getting stoked by the media.
“My expectations are so high no matter what anybody else expects, it’s going to be less than what I expect of myself,” Tiger replied. “So that’s a big bonus. Plus, I really don’t give a darn what they think.”
And that’s probably still true to this day, even with a right leg held together by a rod and some screws.