A tempest of praise encircled Tiger Woods last Sunday, from sports stars to pundits, actors to presidents the 15-time major winner was lavishly serenaded as he prowled off the soft turf at Augusta’s 18th hole. Not since the 2008 US Open had Woods lifted one of golf’s coveted majors. Following spinal injuries, a marital breakdown and a DUI charge most thought he’d never win another. Indeed four years ago one was hemmed in with obituaries expressing Woods’ calamitous golfing denouement. He had just shot a round of 80 at the US Open, his worst at a major; TV commentator Butch Harmon decreed, “It was like watching Roger Federer struggle to get the ball over the net.” The writing was on the wall, it was time to retire. The Tiger had lost his stripes.
In an elitist sport he was the ideal depiction of US multiculturalism…Woods was bigger than golf.
Following an amateur career most professionals envy, Woods had vivaciously turned pro at the age of 20 in 1996. One year later he’d won the 1997 Masters by a record breaking 12 strokes. He was charismatic, daring and above all exceptionally talented. His swing oozed precision, his iron shots were things of beauty. He was bold, approaching 10 foot putts with an unwavering belief that they were unmissable. He would curl it around trees, skim it across the water – once the ball was on the green it was as if the iconic nike tick was a magnet destined for the hole.
Off the course he was portrayed as a saint. The perfect father, the perfect husband, the perfect son. In an elitist sport he was the ideal depiction of US multiculturalism. The first African-American to win a major the Floridian was polite and well-spoken; fitting the southern comfort mannerisms that dominate the sport stateside. Sponsorships were aplenty and why not? He won 14 more majors over the next 11 years as he unapologetically chased down Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. Woods was bigger than golf, he was obsessive, self-assured, incredible and seemingly immortal.
His fall from grace mentally and physically is painfully tragic albeit heavily self-spawned. An agonisingly difficult public statement ensued in 2010 after a car crash initiated revelations of multiple extra-marital affairs. “I never thought I’d say this but I feel sorry for Tiger.” said rival Rory McIlroy at the time. A string of back surgeries saw Woods gradually slip down the ranking before his arrest in 2017 for reckless driving – which saw no fewer than five different painkillers in his system – completed his collapse outside the world’s top 1000 players.
It was as if Woods was beyond Golf’s necessary psychological decorum, the reason many thought he would never win again.
He lost supporters yes, but many stuck by him. A bad back, dodgy knees, hair loss, divorce these are very human problems, it is easy to see why he continues to collect middle-America’s sympathies. Golf is played in the mind, a struggle with one’s self-doubt, the ability to overcome pressure, to rectify bogeys by birdying the next hole. It was as if Woods was beyond this, a psychological decorum no longer attainable, the reason many thought he would never win again.
Quitely, the now mature and considerably more vulnerable 43-year-old had returned to the circuit. Top-30 finishes in his last four events on the PGA Tour this calendar year by no means made him the favourite at this season’s Masters, but the Augusta patrons were murmuring, if only to say how popular a winner he would be.
In an era of muscle mass, where the longest drive positively correlates to the positions on the leaderboard, Woods seems like a ballet dancer, gracefully creating angles, playing with slopes and focusing on accuracy as he delicately clips shots off the tee. Paired with Open champion Francesco Molinari, another bastion of the less-is-more approach, the duo were a tribute act to a style of golf many thought had been left behind. At the iconic 12th green, Golden Bell, where picturesque azaleas watch over Ben Hogan bridge, the ever-so consistent then tournament leader Molinari found Rae’s Creek, while Woods, now a man of pure confidence took a rare conservative approach, playing round the water before parring to seize the momentum.
Swinging back the years he would go on to birdy the 13th, 15th and 16th. The latter being the location where he famously birdied in 2005 which is still, undoubtedly, the most dramatic shot in televised golf. Augusta’s crowd cheered as his round was updated on the course’s prominent manuel scorecards. He was given a guard of honour as he strolled up the fairway towards the final green.
Woods had been at one of the lowest points a man can ever face, caught in a seemingly inescapable bunker.
When he bogeyed the 18th to win his fifth green jacket there were no tears. Instead he punched the air and lifted both arms in pure joy. He held a smile of untainted happiness and almost unanimously the sporting world smiled back. Some of his behaviour has been uncondonable yes, other setbacks have been out of his hands. Woods had been at one of the lowest points a man can ever face, caught in a seemingly inescapable bunker, only to return, meaner, hungrier and more determined than ever before.
So, where does this victory fall on the list of sporting revivals? Does it topple Liverpool’s miracle in Istanbul in 2005? Niki Lauda’s 1976 Formula One Season? Or Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle? Truthfully, it remains hard to place. Tiger Woods’ round was crumbling at its halfway point; this could well be a back nine for the ages.
Featured image: Flickr – Keith Allison