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The moments before and after everything changed for Tiger Woods

Written by 
Published in Breaking News
Wednesday, 03 March 2021 04:28

THE DINNER INVITATION came in as Justin Thomas was already on his way home.

He'd played poorly and missed the cut at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles on Feb. 19.

Tiger Woods had been flying from Florida to Los Angeles, and if Thomas were still in town, the two friends would've likely met that night or at some point that weekend to catch up.

But this wasn't a real dinner invitation. Woods knew Thomas had missed the cut and was already on his way home to Florida. Woods just couldn't resist the chance to rub it in.

Yes, Woods, 45, is nearly two decades older than Thomas. But that's the role Woods has come to play on tour in recent years. Part icon, part older brother -- an equal-opportunity needler. And this was a good one.

But what could Thomas say? There would be another time to take his shots and get back at Tiger.

It's always assumed there will be a next time between friends on the PGA Tour. For dinner, for a round of golf or just to catch up.

That was shattered in an instant on the morning of Feb. 23 when Woods' car sped down a winding hill, crossed over the median into oncoming traffic, rolled over several times and crashed head-on into the sign welcoming residents and visitors to Rolling Hills Estates and then a tree.

The front of his car was crushed. So were his lower legs.

A neighbor heard the crash and called 911.

The first officer to reach Woods after the accident found him alert, but in shock. He knew his name, but not the extent of what had happened.

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2:03

First responder describes Tiger's reaction to crash

Deputy Carlos Gonzalez shares details about Tiger Woods' car crash, including Tiger's initial reaction to the accident.

"Tiger," he told Deputy Carlos Gonzalez.

"And that moment I immediately recognized him," Gonzalez said.

But at that moment, all that mattered was a man was trapped inside a mangled car. Not that he'd been summoned to help one of the greatest golfers of all time.

"I have seen many collisions," Gonzalez said. "It's very fortunate that Mr. Woods was able to come out of this alive."

It took a few hours for news of Woods' accident to spread around the golf world. By then Woods was already in surgery at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, a Level 1 trauma center, 7.5 miles away.

It will take weeks or months for authorities to piece together what caused the crash. It will take far longer to know what it means for Woods' career.

There may never be complete answers.

But nothing will ever be as it was before.


RIVIERA COUNTRY CLUB in Pacific Palisades, California, is a special place for Tiger Woods -- even if it is the venue he has played the most without a victory on tour.

It is the PGA Tour stop -- known back then as the L.A. Open -- closest to Woods' boyhood home in Cypress, California. It is where he made his debut in a professional tournament, playing as an amateur in 1992 at age 16. And it is where, in 2017, his TGR Foundation became the beneficiary of tournament proceeds, with Woods as tournament host.

That's why he traveled by private jet from Stuart Aviation near his home in Jupiter, Florida, to Los Angeles on Feb. 19.

Woods wasn't playing in the event. He was just eight weeks removed from his fifth back surgery in seven years. Still, there was still plenty for him to do: meet and greet tournament sponsors, converse with foundation employees, catch up with other players and preside over the trophy presentation.

On Saturday, Woods ran into Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele, a young player Woods has befriended, who along with Johnson and Brooks Koepka was a runner-up to Woods at the 2019 Masters.

Woods said he hadn't been practicing much, just hitting chip shots and putts. He was waiting to ramp up activity after a scheduled MRI on March 1, which would have been 10 weeks following the back procedure. But he seemed like he was in a good place.

"I was picking on him for being old," Schauffele said. "He was looking forward to his MRI. He talked about his kids. And you could definitely tell he wanted to be as fresh as possible for Augusta [and the Masters in early April]. You know he really gets up for that thing. He was a little anxious about the result [of the MRI], but he was really looking forward to it as well. Once he was cleared, then he could start practicing more.''

On Sunday, Woods presented the trophy to Los Angeles native Max Homa, who'd defeated Tony Finau on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff. Woods and Homa met each other for the first time at the 2013 U.S. Open and saw each other sporadically over the years. But this time Woods made a point of pulling Homa to the side and complimenting the way he'd regrouped to win the playoff after missing a short birdie on 18 that would've sealed his second career victory.

"He said great job hanging in there after missing the putt on 18," Homa recalled. "It felt good coming from a guy who understands quite well the process of winning. ... I felt like he was happy that I was happy. It was cool. It's kind of what you'd want. For me, it was probably the longest I ever talked to Tiger.''

The tournament had been Woods' first public appearance since he underwent a microdiscectomy, a minimally invasive procedure to relieve pain caused by a herniated disc in the spine. Woods had had the procedure three times before, so he understood the recovery timeline: a whole lot of nothing for about a month, so scar tissue can form and hold the remaining disc in place, then a careful ramp-up in core-strengthening exercises to hold it in place long term.

It's the kind of recovery that shouldn't be sped up, as Woods has learned. In 2014, he came back too soon, returning to action in less than three months.. Five back surgeries and five knee surgeries later, Woods was determined to take things slower and listen to his body this time.

The Masters was a goal, but not the only goal. And when CBS' Jim Nantz asked him if he would be at the Masters, some seven weeks hence, Woods gave a measured answer.

"God, I hope so,'' he said. "I have to get there first.''


THAT INTERVIEW WAS replayed so many times Tuesday in the immediate aftermath of the crash, as the world searched for answers to what had happened.

It's not just what he said -- "I have to get there first" -- that was so jarring in retrospect. But the way he said it, and how he looked as he said it. There has always been a bit of mystery behind Woods' eyes. Even his best friends can't always decode what's behind them.

He is fiercely private, as one would expect from a man who has lived his life in the brightest of spotlights. But he has also been in tremendous physical pain for the better part of a decade, which makes it impossible to know when one of his thousand-yard stares is an attempt to build a moat around his privacy or just get through another day of pain.

There is also his history of car crashes. In the early-morning hours the day after Thanksgiving in 2009, his SUV ran over a fire hydrant and hit a tree near his home in Isleworth, Florida. That began a far-reaching scandal that derailed his career and marriage.

Then, in May 2017, Florida police found him asleep at the wheel of an awkwardly parked car on the side of a road. He was arrested on a DUI charge, which he later said was due to prescription pain medication given to him after back surgery.

It wasn't hard to connect the previous accidents -- and back surgeries -- to this one. But Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva tried to quickly put an end to that speculation when he noted at a Tuesday afternoon news conference that first responders did not see any evidence of impairment.

"We're looking at signs of impairment under the influence of either narcotics, medication, alcohol, odor of alcohol, all these different things that would give you an idea and their behavior," Villanueva said. "But there was none, none present."

On Wednesday, Villanueva went even further, stating that Woods would not face charges from the crash, because "This was purely an accident."

Still, questions remain. And the answers, so far, range from simple to unsatisfying.

According to doctors familiar with the back procedure Woods had, it is normal to be cleared to drive within several weeks of surgery if an individual's pain tolerance allows. Which meant it was up to Woods, and he likes to drive himself. He has almost always shown up for tournament rounds with his caddie Joe LaCava, or Steve Williams before that, or with friend Rob McNamara in the passenger seat. He has even been known to make the four-plus-hour drive from his home in Jupiter to the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, with people recognizing him along I-95 or at a gas station.

Woods had driven himself to Riviera on Saturday and Sunday. He'd driven himself to the set on Monday, filming various outtakes and scenes for Discovery-owned GolfTV. And he was familiar with the area from previous trips.

While locals who live near the crash site initially speculated Woods could have been surprised by the steepness of the grade going north on Hawthorne Boulevard, that does not appear to be the case.

That particular section of road just happens to be exceptionally dangerous -- Villanueva said there have been 13 crashes since January 2020 there. While the speed limit is 45 mph, it's easy to travel faster due to the downhill slope, and there are numerous signs warning trucks of the steepness and even a runaway vehicle lane just up ahead of where Woods crashed.

The investigation will seek to determine why Woods did not appear to brake as he hit the median. Photographs, videos, black box data from the SUV and cellphone records will be used to determine that, investigators said. They can also request a warrant for blood samples that were taken at the hospital, though Villanueva did not indicate whether they would.

Hawthorne Boulevard was shut down for nearly eight hours on Tuesday as authorities collected evidence from the scene. Camera crews and reporters from dozens of outlets filed reports from the middle of the road throughout the day as helicopters broadcast gruesome images of Woods' wrecked SUV laying on its side, several hundred feet away, up the hillside.

For a city still traumatized by the death of former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant in a helicopter accident in January 2020, the horrifying photos were hard to process.

But soon word came from the sheriff's department and Woods' longtime agent, Mark Steinberg, that he'd survived the crash with serious leg injuries.

By 3 p.m., authorities were preparing to open Hawthorne Boulevard back up to traffic. A deputy gave warnings to the camera crews and local residents who'd gathered in the street.

Thirty minutes ... 10 minutes ... 5 minutes...

Then, in an instant, cars came speeding down the hill, as they always do.


NOTHING IS THE SAME after an accident like that. Not for the man involved, or those who care about him. Not for a world that has been fascinated by him since he debuted on "The Mike Douglas Show" as a precocious 2-year-old, alongside his father, Earl.

It has been hard to watch as his body failed him these last few years. To see him struggle to walk all 18 holes or grimace each time he had to bend at the waist to retrieve a ball. In December, before his latest back surgery, Woods' 11-year old son Charlie was knocking his ball closer to the hole than his father on routine wedge shots during their appearance at the PNC Championship. It has also been incredible to watch him battle through that pain and rise up for seasons like 2018, when he won the Tour Championship, contended at The Open (T-6) and the PGA Championship (T-2), and rose from 656th in the world at the end of 2017 to 13th at the close of 2018.

Before the Masters that year, he was asked if it would be the greatest sporting comeback of all time for him to win in Augusta again.

Woods was too much of a historian of the sport to accept that designation.

"I think that one of the greatest comebacks in all of sport is the gentleman who won here, Mr. Hogan," Woods said, of nine-time major champion Ben Hogan, who spent 59 days in an El Paso, Texas, hospital after suffering a broken left ankle, collarbone, cracked rib, double fracture of the pelvis, head abrasion and internal injuries when his car collided with a bus in 1949.

Hogan was just 36 at the time. But he had pain and circulatory issues in his legs for the rest of his life. When Hogan finally did return to golf 16 months later, he had to wrap his legs in Ace bandages every day, then soak them in hot water and Epsom salts after every round.

"I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won major championships," Woods said in 2018. "The pain he had to endure, the things he had to do just to play -- just how hard it was for him to walk, walk period -- and he ended up walking 36 holes (on the final day prior to the playoff) and winning a U.S. Open.

"That's one of the greatest comebacks there is, and it happens to be in our sport."

Like Woods' interview with Nantz that Sunday, this speech has been replayed hundreds of times in recent days as the golf world ponders what Woods' future in the sport will be.

He'll likely need many more procedures on his legs before he or his doctors will have any idea whether he can play again. He suffered multiple open fractures in his right lower leg, which caused tremendous vascular and soft tissue trauma as well. He's also 45, with the accumulated scars from five back surgeries and five knee surgeries, not 36 like Hogan.

But he has come back from so much before, so it's hard to count him out.

ESPN producer Raajik Shah contributed to this report.

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