ROME – Sunday turned out to be one of those magical days that sports fans will always remember, down to the details of where they were when it happened – when, with a fused back and enough personal baggage to sink a battleship, a 43-year-old Tiger Woods nevertheless managed to turn back time and win the Masters.
Watching Woods walk off the 18th green into an emotional embrace with his ten-year-old son, flashing back to images of a 21-year-old Woods hugging his own father after his first Masters win, was the kind of thing that left grown men in bars, airports and their own living rooms sobbing like little kids.
Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, himself a huge golf fan – for the record, Barron was watching a golf tournament in his room at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary in 2015 when he got the call telling him he’d been named a bishop – wasn’t actually watching the Masters on Sunday, since tee times at Augusta National had been moved up because of a looming storm.
However, once he learned what had happened, he said he found a TV set and watched the replays and post-match coverage, transfixed by what he saw. Barron said he always hoped Tiger would recapture the magic, despite all the turmoil of his personal situation.
“When Tiger had his great collapse 10 years ago and the stories came out about his personal life and how out of control he was, like many people I shared a certain disgust about that, this guy has really lost his way,” he said.
“But at the same time, I confess that all these years I’ve been rooting for Tiger,” Barron said. “I know that some people gave up on him and said, ‘I don’t like this guy anymore, I’m rooting against him.’ But even during this long desert period I was hoping. Every major, somewhere in the back of my mind, if Tiger was playing, I was hoping he’d win.”
“So it was unique, it was a very special thing,” Barron said.
What may distinguish Barron’s reaction from many other golf aficionados is that where most see a great comeback story, Barron also sees redemption.
“What always struck me was Tiger Woods in 2009,” he said. “Talk about someone who’s got the four great things that Thomas Aquinas talked about as the substitutes for God, the four things we human beings seek: Wealth, pleasure, honor and power. In 2009, he’s got all of those in spades.”
“He’s making like $95 million a year probably at the height of his powers,” Barron said. “He’s arguably the most famous man on the planet in 2009, and power – look at his influence culturally. Pleasure, there’s where we see the beginning of the downfall. Tiger’s getting all the sensual pleasure he could possibly want. He had everything that the world, to use the Biblical term, offers us and yet clearly his life was out of control, clearly he bottomed out spiritually.”
“To me that’s the great lesson,” Barron said. “Go all the way with the goods of the world, like Tiger Woods. Put him on top of the mountain, but clearly it was not enough to sustain his life at a deep level.”
Barron said the Woods saga also offers another great spiritual lesson.
“What we saw was a very Biblical archetype of someone who falls from grace and is then forced through in his case a 10-year desert experience whose purpose was, if we’re going to think spiritually, to bring him to what really does give life its deepest meaning,” he said.
“I think that’s what people sense in the embrace of his kids after the [final] round,” Barron said.
In that sense, Barron said, Woods is almost like a Biblical figure.
“Think of every major figure in the Bible … Moses comes to mind, the Prince of Egypt, all that. The Bible doesn’t give details, but you get the idea: wealth, pleasure, power, honor. Moses needed years in the desert before he was ready to see God and find his mission,” he said.
“So Tiger goes through a really long desert experience,” he said. “I would say, if I were offering spiritual advice to him, ‘Look for the signs of life. Where is God leading you to through this desert?’”
“There’s something beautiful after that period in finding again the ability to win,” Barron said.
For the record, Barron thinks we may not be done yet in catching glimpses of that beauty. After affirming that he regards Woods as the greatest golfer of all time, he also said it’s entirely possible Woods may yet break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships.
“If he goes on a little bit of a tear and can get a couple more majors quickly, who knows?” he said. “If he’s got another six or seven years of competitive golf in him, that’s 28 majors and he has to win four more, so I wouldn’t count him out.”
Whatever happens, Barron said, it’ll be fun to watch.
“Tiger Woods to golf is like Isaac Stern to the violin or Joe DiMaggio to the baseball bat, like Michelangelo to marble,” Barron said. In that sense, he said, it’s also a tale of someone “finding what he was meant to be,” then losing it, and finally getting it back.