Upon winning the US Masters last year, Tiger Woods, a man as fanatical about his privacy as he is about his iron game, did something unexpected. His voice clogged with emotion, he spoke of his father’s struggle with prostate cancer and how Earl Woods, though he had travelled to Augusta for the tournament, had been too ill to come out and watch his son’s victory in person. “Every year that I’ve been lucky enough to have won this tournament,” said Woods, “my dad has been there to give me a hug, and he wasn’t there today.”

Earl Woods, who is 74, will not make it to Augusta this year, and it is possible that his son may not be there, either. The elder Woods’s health has apparently taken a turn for the worse, and Tiger has indicated that he may forgo the Masters, which starts on Thursday,
in order to remain at his father’s side in California. For an athlete as single-minded as Woods, it is surely jarring to find golf suddenly, of necessity, thrust into the back seat.

But as golfers go, Woods’s experience is hardly out of the ordinary; life issues – ageing parents, faltering health, troubled marriages – tend to intrude on the golf world to a far greater extent than is the case in other major sports.

Indeed, Woods found himself paired during the first round of last month’s Players Championship with another golfer bitten hard
by reality, Darren Clarke, whose wife Heather is battling breast cancer that has now spread to her liver and her bones. (Woods commented afterwards that it was a fortuitous pairing and that he and Clarke spent much of the time commiserating and trying to lift each other’s spirits.)

Padraig Harrington played in the shadow of a death sentence for much of last season; after his father was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, Harrington had to adjust his schedule on a week-by-week basis and, plainly distracted, missed the cuts at both the Masters and the US Open. His father finally died during the week of the British Open, which Harrington skipped to be with his family.

Golf has also seen some appalling personal tragedies in recent years. Stuart Appleby’s first wife was killed in a freak car accident in London in 1998. The following year, Payne Stewart died in an air crash. In 2004, Tom Watson’s longtime
caddie, Bruce Edwards,
lost his much-documented battle against Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Last year, Jack Nicklaus’s young grandson drowned in a hot tub.

Golf is no more prone to these sorts of horrors than any other sport; it has just had a run of seriously bad luck lately. However, it is also the case that professional golfers often carry a lot more baggage than other professional athletes – and the excess weight is not just on account of the clubs they have to lug around.

Most golfers don’t come of age until their 30s (the precocious Woods being a notable exception), and they then tend to stick around into their 50s and even 60s. It
is during these years, of course, that parents begin to die, marital bonds can begin to fray and other personal issues rear their heads. Life tends to intrude on professional golfers much more so than it does, say, with tennis players, most of whom are out of the game before they even hit 30.

Fans want to feel a kinship with their sports heroes, and at a time when the lives of sports stars have never seemed more remote, the fact that golfers confront these personal issues to a far greater extent than other athletes naturally makes it easier to identify with them. Colin Montgomerie has never been a particularly popular figure, but countless fans could sympathise when the 42-year-old father of three went through his recent brutal divorce.

It is much harder to feel simpatico with a 24-year-old tennis player who spends his days chasing down forehands and his nights bedding models. “Golfers go through all the life cycles that the rest of us experience,” says the writer John Feinstein, author of Caddie for Life: The Bruce Edwards Story and several other
best-selling books. “My father died last month; I
can relate to what Tiger is going through with his father now.”

And it is not just personal travails that make golfers empathetic figures in a way that other athletes are not. The public’s affection for Phil Mickelson can probably be traced back to the 1999 US Open.

While Mickelson battled for the title at Pinehurst, in North Carolina, his wife Amy was in Arizona, about to give birth to the couple’s first child. Mickelson had made clear before the Open began that he would withdraw and fly home to be at his wife’s side if she went into labour at any point during the weekend, and this gave the tournament an irresistible storyline. Not many people can relate to what Mickelson does with a golf ball, but scores of men could relate to a guy trying to squeeze in a last round before being summoned to the delivery room.

The baby held off long enough for Mickelson to finish runner-up by one stroke to Payne Stewart, and the sight of Stewart, who would die four months later, gently clutching Mickelson’s face and consoling him with thoughts of pending fatherhood now looms as one of the more poignant images in golf history.

Asked last week whether the golf course was a sanctuary from his other concerns, Woods said: “Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Some days are where it’s the greatest place to be, on the golf course away from everything. Sometimes it’s one of the tougher places to be.”

Should Woods tee off at Augusta on Thursday, there is little question that it will be in the hope of giving his father one more reason to exult. There is also little doubt that circumstances will challenge Woods’s famed powers of concentration as never before.

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