Not only did Tiger Woods roll back the years to win for the fifth time at Augusta, but he also completed the most remarkable of sporting comebacks, writes GARY LEMKE.
There are moments in sport that leave you thinking your eyes have betrayed you. Muhammad Ali knocking out George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, the USA defeating the Soviets in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics, Mike Tyson losing his cloak of invincibility in Tokyo in 1990, even Wayde van Niekerk running the fastest 400m at the 2016 Olympics. Every decade or so there’s a story that will create a lifetime of memories.
Then there is Tiger Woods.
You can end the debate as to who is the greatest golfer of all time. The old school of thought might lean towards Jack Nicklaus because of his 18 career Major championships, whereas Woods’ fifth Masters victory, and his first Major since 2008, pushed him to ‘only’ 15. That view is now as redundant as suggesting Margaret Court was greater than Serena Williams, based on a statistic that showed she won 24 Grand Slam singles titles compared to Williams’ 23.
Tiger is the GOAT. We can put that to bed for as long as we live, and now open the debate whether he’s the greatest sportsman we’ve ever seen. However, that argument is best left for another day. Right now we must live in the moment and reflect on how the 43-year-old American defied age, injury, opinion – even life itself – and put the current golden generation of golfers to sleep when he captured his fifth Green Jacket at The Masters and his 15th career Major title at Augusta National.
In February, inside the space of a few weeks, Woods played a round of golf with US president Donald Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama and both were quick to congratulate him on social media. This was after a riveting final round where the normally ice-cool Francesco Molinari collapsed under the pressure of his playing partner, a living legend who went round Augusta in a closing 70 to allow himself the luxury of being able to take a bogey-five on the 18th hole and still have enough to hold off Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele by one shot.
‘Congratulations to Tiger Woods, a truly Great Champion! Love people who are great under pressure. What a fantastic life comeback for a really great guy!’ tweeted Trump. ‘Congratulations, Tiger! To come back and win the Masters after all the highs and lows is a testament to excellence, grit, and determination,’ tweeted Obama.
Twitter officials noted that there were more than 1.4-million tweets about Woods alone, compared to more than 1.8-million about The Masters as a tournament.
Even when Woods miraculously – there is no other word that fits better – beat a select 32-man field to win the Tour Championship in Atlanta late last year, there were those who doubted whether the golfer who has kept us enthralled for over two decades would be able to replicate that and add to his tally of 14 Majors.
Greg Norman, the 64-year-old Australian who spent 331 weeks as world No 1 and won two Majors, had this to say after Woods won a tournament for the first time in 1 879 days: ‘I hope they don’t put all their eggs in one basket again and just be all Tiger, and forget about all this other wonderful, fantastic talent. I’d hate to see them get lost again in that Tiger talk.’ All those eggs have now combined for the most tasty of golfing omelettes.
Norman had reckoned that the younger players aren’t scared to play against Woods. ‘They didn’t grow up from 2000 to 2005 when Tiger was the dominant player. They never went toe-to-toe with him,’ he said. ‘So they respected him and watched him, but now they’re out there doing their thing and they’re teeing up next to Tiger, and they’re not intimidated.’
Perhaps they aren’t intimidated, but now they have all got an up-close-and-personal view of what Tiger in his prime must have been. ‘I think I speak for a lot of the golf world when I say… We’re happy for you TW! @TigerWoods. What a victory,’ 25-year-old one-time Major champion Justin Thomas tweeted.
After his miraculous display that saw him eventually get through the masses and sign for a 70 that left him on 13-under 275, Woods admitted that times have changed. ’When I first turned pro, I was the only one in the gym, except Vijay [Singh]. So it was just basically he and I for years, and now everyone trains. Everyone works on their bodies, besides their game, and hey, even Phil’s [Mickelson] working out. Things have come a long way.’
Two years ago Woods was not able to bend over to tie his shoelaces, let alone swing a club. ‘I had serious doubts after what transpired a couple years ago. I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit. Couldn’t lie down. I really couldn’t do much of anything.’
On the final morning of The Masters, preparing to go out in the final group alongside Tony Finau and two shots behind Molinari, the 2018 Open champion and a hero of last year’s Ryder Cup, Woods was up at 3:35am preparing for the big day.
By the end of it, the world was treated to probably the most remarkable victory scenes we’ve experienced in golf as Tiger was embraced by family, friends, officials and fellow golfers. Most importantly for him, though, was the presence at greenside of his children, Charlie, 10, and Sam, 11, his mother and his girlfriend.
In 2017, surgeons fused two discs together in his spine, an operation ‘that gave me a chance just to have a normal life. And all of a sudden, I realised I could swing a club again,’ he said. ‘I was very fortunate to be given another chance to do something I love to do. But more importantly, I’ve been able to participate in my kids’ lives in a way I couldn’t for a number of years.
‘I think the kids are starting to understand how much this game means to me, and some of the things I’ve done in the game’, he said. ‘They only knew that golf caused me a lot of pain, that if I tried to swing a club I would be on the ground. I struggled for years, and that’s basically all they remember. Now we’re creating new memories for them.’
Tiger’s comeback? Back surgery in 2014, 2015 (twice), 2017, knee surgery, excruciating neck pain and problems with his Achilles. Not quite in the Ben Hogan league of winning a Major 16 months after being hit head-on by a Greyhound bus, but remarkable nonetheless, especially considering the number of potential winners of a tournament these days is higher than it was nearly 70 years ago.
But it was at the Champions Dinner in the Augusta National clubhouse in 2017 when Woods delivered the bombshell to Nicklaus: ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ Sir Nick Faldo, with his three Masters Green Jackets, was in the room. Recalling the sad, hunchbacked figure who had trouble sitting down throughout the meal, Faldo also suspected this had a discernible feel of the last supper. Two months later, the world gasped as the Florida Police Department released mugshots depicting Woods in a red-eyed, bleary mess after a late-night arrest when found slumped over his steering wheel. ‘There looked no way back,’ Faldo said.
Except there was. And it could probably only have been one person who could have come back.
The final round at Augusta, and the destiny of the tournament, turned at the 155-yard par-three 12th hole when Molinari put his tee shot into Rae’s Creek. ‘The mistake Francesco made let a lot of guys back into the tournament, myself included,’ Woods said, quickly adding that there were ‘so many different scenarios that could have transpired on that back nine. There were so many guys who had a chance to win. The leaderboard was absolutely packed and everyone was playing well. You couldn’t have had more drama than we all had out there, and now I know why I’m balding. This stuff is hard.’
At the post-round media frenzy, he was asked, ‘Do you feel like you’re back… that physically and mentally, you have everything it takes to win at this level?’ Woods grinned. ‘Yes, I do. Because I just did it.’
Inevitably, the focus will be on whether Tiger is able to hunt down – we’d all be millionaires if we were paid R1 for each time that expression was used by TV commentators during the final round – Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18 Majors. The PGA Championship is at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, where, ominously, Woods won the 2002 US Open with a three-under tally, highlighting how tough the layout is.
Whatever transpires outside New York in May, no one will ever be a-doubting Tiger again.