At the time of his crash, Hogan was 36, and a late starter in a career interrupted by World War Two. Despite or perhaps because of his horrific injuries, his best triumphs lay ahead: In 1953, on shattered legs, he played just 6 tournaments and won 5 of them including the Masters, the US Open and the British Open.
We don’t know why Tiger Woods spun off the road—no other vehicles were involved. We do know he was late and tired, and driving on a notoriously dangerous stretch of road. We know he is 45, and was a very early starter in a career interrupted by wild women, sex addiction, scandal, divorce, drugs and severe physical damage brought on by too much wear and too much tear: He’s had 5 operations on his back and 5 on his knee, among many other medical decisions and revisions and incisions.
Ben Hogan had a car crash and then the man became a legend.
Tiger Woods was a legend and then the man became a car crash.
Hallowed be thy name
Aside from golfing prowess, and a car crash, these two men have this thing in common; Both were shaped by the extremes of the father.
"The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents,” wrote Carl Jung.
For Hogan this was literally true: He was 9 and in the house, possibly even in the room, when his father took his own life with a pistol.
Earl Woods meanwhile was a college baseball player who spent 20 years in the US Army—including tours of duty in Vietnam as a Green Beret Lieutenant Colonel—before finding his true calling: putting his son on the world stage.
He put a golf club in his hand at the age of one, had him appear on TV—with Bob Hope—at two and turned him into a kind of child soldier of golf.
As a newly-minted pro, at a dinner in his honour, the father said of the son: “He will bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before…I acknowledge only a small part in that in that I know that I was personally selected by God himself to nurture this young man.”
Later, he said: “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity.”
Sports Illustrated asked for clarification, suggesting he meant sports history. He surely wasn’t suggesting Tiger would be bigger than, say, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Buddha? Was he?
Yes, he was. He added that Tiger would accomplish miracles and was, in fact, the “Chosen One.”
We are always hearing about athletes’ physical health in great detail. When the England football team captain David Beckham broke the tiny second metatarsal bone in his left foot in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup, it was practically a national emergency.
But very little is said about their mental health, which is odd when you consider how odd their lives are. Studies show that around 35 percent of elite professional athletes suffer from a mental health crisis, in all the usual time-honoured ways: addiction, drugs, stress, eating disorders, sleep disorders, burnout, depression, anxiety.
These concerns are increasingly being taken seriously by sports’ governing bodies, with a blueprint provided by the International Olympic Committee’s 2018 Expert Consensus Statement on mental health in elite athletes.
But the athletes themselves rarely speak out about their troubles. One exception is Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who suffered a Tigeresque career meltdown but lived to tell his story. Two years ago he tweeted: “I struggled with anxiety and depression and questioned whether or not I wanted to be alive anymore. It was when I hit this low that I decided to reach out and ask for the help of a licensed therapist. This decision ultimately helped save my life. You don’t have to wait for things.”
Then there is the culture of golf. You play the ball as it lies. You don’t complain. You accept the bad bounces. And above all, you must maintain the image of golf as good and wholesome, a cure for mental ill-health rather than a cause of it. While other top athletes spit and swear and occasionally break someone’s jaw, golf pros are expected to call penalties on themselves, shake hands with their opponents, donate their winnings to the nearest cancer hospital. It’s good for business.
Any famous golfer must surely struggle at times with their idealized public image as a dominant, fearless but ever-polite superhero, a role model, an exemplar of human potential, especially when beset by feelings of internal turmoil or doubt or murderous rage or the vast emptiness that fame and a life on the road can bestow. The more vaunted the image, the bigger the shadow.
When you consider what Tiger Woods has been through—his childhood, the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, the scandals, injuries, accidents, and not least, throughout it all, the endless death threats, trollings, put-downs and shamings from a largely white sport with a racist history—his comeback in 2018 and 2019 is astonishing.
But as he recovers from his horrific injuries—he surely will—perhaps what comes next is not another comeback to the Tiger of old, but a “go forward” to something new.
The real Tiger Woods is neither the world peace humanitarian he was once made out to be; nor is he a sex-addicted junkie. Like anyone, he’s just trying to play it down the middle.
Jung wrote a pretty good guidebook for this sort of thing, called “Modern Man in Search of a Soul.” He writes: “Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life's morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”