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Tiger, The Masters and Redemption: Easter Week Chapel Message

Lee Burns

Each year, I have the privilege of addressing our students during the week of Easter in Chapel and sharing a message about the season with them. Here's my talk from this year. 

On a sunny, late Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1986, I sat glued to my television watching the final round of the Masters, golf’s premier championship and one of the most iconic sporting events in the world. Though not a golfer then as a junior at McCallie, I was nonetheless captivated by the unfolding drama set on a gorgeous stage of perfectly manicured fairways and of undulating, shadow-filled greens guarded by pristine bunkers and blooming azaleas and towering pines and rustling creeks and serene ponds.

Jack Nicklaus at the Masters

Amidst this magical place was its former king, Jack Nicklaus, the glorious champion of a bygone era who, at age 46, was a sentimental favorite, but whose best days and championships had long ago faded like evening sun into the dusk. Yes, Nicklaus still played the Masters, but he was surely too old to compete for winning it once again.

But something stunning started to unfold that Sunday afternoon, as Jack Nicklaus made a charge on the back nine. He reached par fives in two shots, and sank sweeping putts across both sunny and shadowy greens. He eagled some holes, birdied others. He electrified the patrons in Augusta. Their roars rang through the pine trees from one part of the course to another as Nicklaus continued his dramatic charge. Could the golden-haired old man do it one more time in a “win for the ages?”

I wish I’d been there that day to witness one of the most memorable moments in golf history as Jack Nicklaus, with a 30 on the back nine, claimed his final championship. Many Masters enthusiasts claim it was the most electric and glorious day in tournament history.

That is, until this past Sunday.

About a week ago, one of my brothers, who lives in London, asked me if my 14-year-old son Arthur and I wanted to go to the final round of the Masters. He had two extra badges. It didn’t take me but a second to say yes and thank you.

Lee and Arthur Burns

As Arthur and I were driving down to Augusta on Saturday afternoon, we were listening to the tournament on the radio. The leaderboard was jammed with the world’s best players. A dozen or so of them were within a stroke or two of the lead. Multiple players had been tied for the lead. A little ways back were Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

I’ve most often pulled for Mickelson or Webb Simpson in big tournaments in recent years. Mickelson seems increasingly a long shot to win at perhaps the twilight of his brilliant career. Tiger has been injured and irrelevant for a long time and he’s gotten old too, but it was intriguing to see him in the mix through the first part of the tournament.

Arthur and I talked about who we’d each pull for. He said Tiger. Why don’t you pull for Tiger, too, he said. I thought about it for a while.

Tiger Woods burst onto the scene in 1995 as a 19-year-old golf prodigy. Two years later, he won his first Masters, by a staggering 12 strokes, at the youngest age ever, in a brilliant display of power, accuracy and shotmaking the tournament had never before seen; in fact, the game of golf had never seen someone with such talent. For the next 10 plus years, he would dominate the sport as no one ever had before, winning over 80 PGA tournaments, including 14 majors. His youth, his drive, his incredible talent and his athleticism drew millions of fans, both to him and to the game. He became one of the most recognizable people on the planet. He earned tens of millions of dollars a year, in prize money and endorsements. He married a Swedish supermodel, and they had two children. They lived in a $39 million mansion in Florida. He continued to win tournaments and adulation.

Life surely was good for Tiger Woods. Except that it wasn’t.

Seemingly having it all wasn’t all that it seemed. Being full on the outside doesn’t mean being fulfilled on the inside.

Rumors and then reports and then recordings came out in 2009 that showed a very different Tiger Woods. They showed a secret Tiger living an unseemly and seedy life in the shadows. The stories were humiliating and shameful, full of scandalous moral failings. His wife left him. So did most of  the companies that had endorsed him. He played a few tournaments to a reception that could be at times chilly and sometimes included jeering him. He entered a treatment center. His world ranking dropped from 1 to 1,199. His back gave out on him, requiring four surgeries that seemed certain to sentence him to a life of crippling pain and of course end his golf career. He was arrested for DUI. He wrestled with temptations and entitlements, seemed to struggle with prescription pain medication, and squandered his reputation and relationships with reckless living.

The star had risen quickly, and shined brightly for a while, but it had crashed in an ugly and permanent way. Some golf fans and others who, perhaps themselves full of self-righteousness and hypocrisy, had found him to be arrogant, aloof and amoral took some smug satisfaction in his demise.

He was mostly out of sight for a while, but was doing physical therapy. His injuries and surgeries were such that it hurt him to walk or stand or lie down. Two years ago, he had to get a nerve block shot just to be able to fly to the Masters for a dinner of the former champions. It seemed clear to most everyone that he would never play golf again. He allegedly confided in friends that his career was over.

He finally, though, did get to hit a golf ball. He took out his driver. He drove it a paltry 90 yards.

He kept working. He got better. He eventually played a few tournaments, but not particularly well, until last fall.

And then there was the Masters this past week.

Early Sunday morning, Arthur and I set up our chairs on the hillside overlooking the par three 16th hole over water, with a view of the par five 15th green a bit beyond. It’s customary at the Masters to set up one’s chairs in a spot early in the day and leave them until you are ready to sit there. We’d come back to them later in the day as the final groups rounded Amen Corner and came to 15 and 16.

We then made our way to the 5th tee box, where we waited for Tiger and his two playing partners. We were maybe 15 feet from them, standing in the first row right behind the ropes. Tiger blasted his drive down the middle of the fairway to loud cheers. He was laser focused. He had that look in his eyes: Eye of the Tiger.  

Arthur and I were a few feet away from him on eight as he chipped out from behind a broadcast tower behind the green and birdied the hole on the next shot. His confidence seemed to grow, as did the passion and energy of the massive crowds that followed him.

Tiger Woods lining up a putt

As the round continued, Tiger played better. He got closer to the leader. And the cheers got louder and louder. We could hear long roars through the trees near where Tiger was playing. An electricity, powered by the red-shirted Tiger hunting down the leaders, surged through Augusta National. Could the 43-year-old man, the injured, written-off, broken man who hadn’t won here in 11 years, do it again?

Arthur and I were in our chairs when Tiger birdied 15 to claim the lead. The crowd exploded. The 16th hole is a short but tricky one over a long pond, with the green sloping down to the water and the pen placed near its edge. Tiger’s shot was high and soft, landing I guess 60 feet above the pen, but the backspin and slope started to slowly bring it down to the pen. It rolled. It kept rolling. It looked like it was on line with the pen. It rolled and the crown roared. The rolling and roaring was probably just a few seconds, but it felt much longer. Was it going in? The patrons, nearly all of whom, myself included, were pulling for Tiger, seemed to be willing it in, as the roars reached a crescendo. It rested two feet from the hole. The crowd seemed to me as intense and loud as at any SEC football game or Duke-Carolina basketball game. Tiger birdied the hole. He was in first place by himself, with two holes to play. History seemed to be in the making. The impossible was on the verge of being possible, even probable.

Arthur and I skipped the 17th hole and hurried to 18, trying to find a good place to view the final hole and, presumably, Tiger winning the tournament. We had a good vantage point for his second shot in the fairway and his walk up to the green to a throng of thousands of cheering fans chanting his name.

With a short putt, Tiger won the Masters several minutes later to perhaps the longest and loudest cheering in its history. I found myself pulling for Tiger and happy for him and cheering for him, too. But why?

We love comeback stories. We love it when broken pieces and lives are are put back together, when the wayward are found, when our better selves win out over our baser instincts, when good triumphs over evil, when the endings are happy. We love redemption. We are wired for redemption.

A few years ago, Tiger Woods’ life was littered with personal failures and shame, reduced to shambles. He seemed to have no path forward with his golf...not even the physical capacity to hit a golf ball. He had been reviled by many, written off by many more. And yet there he was, wearing the green jacket, basking in the cheers and chants of thousands as he embraced his family. Some pundits have already called it the greatest comeback in sports history.

Redemption.

Redemption is often unexpected. It begins at a low place of brokenness, of emptiness, of neediness. Each of us, despite the many ways we are blessed, despite the resources we enjoy, despite even our successes, will, like Tiger, encounter moments or seasons of brokenness. We will sin; we will fall; we will fail. What, though, will we do with our failings, with our neediness? Will we quit, languish in self-pity or pride, bitterness or blame? Or will we see our brokenness as the start down a path of redemption, and will we walk down it?

This week, Christians around the world celebrate Easter, recalling the sorrow and shame and seeming loss of Jesus crucified on a cross. His cruel death was a bitter, devastating low point for His followers at the time, but in reality, it was the necessary turning point for a glorious redemption. Easter is the story of God’s redemption of a fallen mankind through sending His Son Jesus to rescue us from our sinfulness, to pay the penalty for our sins on the cross instead of us doing so and receiving His perfect record instead of our stained one. It’s an incredible act of love, forgiveness and grace.

Christianity is often misunderstood, even by some of its followers, as centering on rules and recitations. In reality, it’s about repentance and redemption. The Gospel message tells us that being saved doesn’t depend upon being good, or following rules, or earning it. It rests solely on God loving us, most powerfully demonstrated by His sacrificing His son for us. Our only contribution to salvation is our own sin: being dirty and messy, falling and failing, in need of rescue.

This redemption, solely done by God, frees us up from needing to perform—for God, ourselves or others. We don’t need scorecards; we can take His score, claim His hole-in-ones rather than our own triple bogies. It can free us from our guilt about all the things we’ve gotten wrong...and free us from our worries and anxieties about the future. We can be gracious and forgiving of others rather than judgmental and self-righteous. We can be different, changed, whole and healthy and humble. To be known intimately by God, and yet also to be loved unconditionally by Him, frees us up to be authentic and vulnerable, to be bold and courageous, to serve God and others with purpose and gratitude and joy.

Easter is rebirth, resurrection. It is a crucified Jesus walking out of the grave on the third day, with a promise to resurrect us also. It is taking new life from death. It is healing up our brokenness. It is redemption.

A number of people have noted that, since his life and golf career fell apart a few years ago, Tiger has been more humble, gracious, authentic, vulnerable, apologetic and approachable. Brokenness has a way of changing us, preparing us for redemption.

Broken Tiger Woods gave rise to Redeemed Tiger Woods. And both are better than Original Tiger Woods.

The same goes for all of us. Our broken, redeemed selves are better than our seemingly self-sufficient, successful selves. Lean into your failings and falls, and embrace your brokenness, for God is at work on a redeemed you.

Tiger’s comeback was pretty incredible. It’s but a foretaste, though, of the redemption that God promises us. His rescue is far more dramatic...and far more needed. God’s rescue of us is the ultimate redemption. The joy and love that Tiger experienced on the 18th green was pretty incredible too, but it is but a shadow of the joy and love that God promises us in an eternal victory.

I hope this Holy Week you will contemplate the redemption that our loving God offers all of us as His beloved children.