by Karen Crouse
Tiger Woods was walking with his pro-am playing partners Wednesday at Medinah Country Club when he heard that Serena Williams had pulled out of a tournament in Ohio because of back spasms. It was the second time in the span of three days that she was forced to drop out of a competition. The same injury also forced Williams to retire during the first set of the Rogers Cup final in Toronto.
Woods could relate. He withdrew before the second round of last week’s FedEx Cup playoff opener at Liberty National Golf Club when he awoke after an opening 4-over 75 bothered by a strained oblique muscle that left his surgically repaired back feeling stiff. Five days later, Woods said he felt much better, but as a precautionary measure, he refrained from hitting full shots during the second nine of his pro-am before the BMW Championship, which starts Thursday.
Woods, 43, and Williams, 37, are both transplanted Southern Californians who live roughly 25 miles apart in South Florida, but their bond is more than roots-deep. They are trailblazing, transformative champions who, after being the faces of their respective sports for the past two decades, find themselves fighting battles on multiple fronts, against age, injuries and youthful adversaries, all while juggling parental responsibilities.
“That’s why we’ve become so close,” Woods said.
Their journeys from childhood prodigies to parents and single-name icons have taken them down parallel paths. Williams was pregnant with her daughter, Olympia, when she won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the 2017 Australian Open to pull within one of the career record-holder, Margaret Court.
Last year, after Williams returned to competition following a difficult childbirth that included serious medical complications, she advanced to the final at Wimbledon in her fourth tournament back. Then she made a second final at the U.S. Open. She lost both but won the everlasting admiration of Woods, who said, “It’s unbelievable what she’s done. To come back and play like she has, it just goes to show you how good she is, how talented she is.”
Woods credited Williams for inspiring him in his comeback from spinal fusion surgery, which he described as “a last resort” after three less complex operations. He put together his own improbable run last summer, finishing second at the 2018 PGA Championship and winning the Tour Championship a month later for his first title since 2013.
In April, Woods won the Masters for his first major title in 11 years and his 15th overall, pulling him to within three of the record-holder, Jack Nicklaus. Afterward, in a Twitter post, Williams said she was “literally in tears” watching Woods, whose performance she described as “greatness like no other.”
She added, “I’m so inspired. Thank you, buddy.”
Woods and Williams exchange texts frequently. Their friendship has deepened and evolved, Woods said, since their scar tissue began to accrue. They are fellow travelers comparing notes on their separate journeys through the same largely uncharted terrain.
Both have outside interests that could happily occupy them. Neither Woods nor Williams needs any more titles to feel complete. Woods has his foundation, which funds learning centers throughout the country, and a side business in course design. Williams has her own fashion line.
They are among the wealthiest athletes on the planet, and yet there they were, Woods in New Jersey, Williams in Canada, trying to compete through pain and failing, but returning days later to give it another go, as if their next mortgage payment depended on it.
“I think they put themselves through it because they don’t want to let people down,” said the four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, who knows Woods well and observed Williams at close range while he was engaged to her good friend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
He added: “You get what you give, and I think Tiger and Serena over the years have given people so much joy by playing their sport the best they can. They want to be able to keep doing that, but it’s hard. Time catches up.”
In their primes, Woods and Williams were otherworldly, seemingly dropped on Earth to show us how to play their sports. They won so often, it was easy to take their excellence for granted.
Not anymore. The fans who watched Woods walk the back nine of Medinah didn’t mind that he wasn’t playing. At least Woods was there in front of their eyes to honor, cherish and behold, at the course, he noted Wednesday, where he has won two of his major championships.
“People can relate to vulnerability,” McIlroy said. “Serena and Tiger didn’t show any vulnerability for 20 years. Now people see that side of them and it humanizes them and it makes them more endearing.”