Anybody else coming down with a big sense of déjà vu in the lead up to this week’s Masters? If you didn’t know it already, and my god I commend you on your ability to live off the grid, Tiger Woods is attempting his latest seemingly impossible comeback, just three years after his last one.
It’s just as well they call him GOAT and not cat these days as Tiger’s nine lives must be running out, but whatever the count, few predicted Woods would be playing golf so soon after a near-fatal SUV smash 14 months ago, let alone be teeing up at the Masters with a chance to win.
What? You don’t think he has a chance to win? Write this man off at your peril. I’ll admit he’s not a Willie Mullins trained chaser returning to Cheltenham fresh off a long absence and straight into favouritism. Hell, he’s better than that, and on the 25th anniversary of his first Masters triumph, it would come as no surprise to see Woods much further along in his recovery than he’s led us to believe in recent weeks.
Many people dismissed notions of Woods ever winning a 15th Major. Even in his current state, they won’t make the same mistake again, but I’m not here to talk up Tiger’s chances of winning… Even though… have you seen him swing this week? But no, I’m here to pour cold water on throngs of middle-aged men far too hot under the collar for their own good, and to remind them that Tiger has already given us arguably the greatest comeback tale sport has ever seen. And as much and all as we want it – SO BAD – it would be oh so greedy, and oh so human of us to expect another miracle.
To properly paint the picture of Tiger’s 2019 heroics you need to dive into the evolution of Woods, the man who literally changed the game. People both familiar and unfamiliar with golf came from far and wide to see this phenom in action. Woods was athletic, powerful, cool. A gym-junkie when few golfers bothered. He worked hard for his advantages, and there were plenty. But that hard work came at a cost.
Woods’ intense military training and weight-lifting, coupled with his aggressive action were often cited as the main contributing factors to his back injuries, but whatever about the origin story, 2014 is when the full extent of Tiger’s damaged back really came to light.
An eight-time winner at Torrey Pines, the warning signs were blinking when Woods shot a third round 79 at the Farmers – his worst score on American soil and one that saw him fall short of making the final round at his season-opening event.
Then, after an outward half of 40, Woods would withdraw on the 13th green during round three of the Honda Classic, citing back spasms, before he would grimace his way through a final round 78 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship a few weeks later.
How much trouble was Woods in? Enough to miss April’s Masters Tournament for the first time in his pro career, however the true extent of his agony is perhaps best told by a story in Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s ‘Tiger Woods’ biography, released in 2018.
It was the day after that final round 78 at the Cadillac, Woods out chipping balls at his back-yard practice green, trying to keep the spasms at bay. He played one patented flop-shot over a bunker too many and by the time he finished the swing, Woods was laid out on his back, unable to move.
The pain was so excruciating that Woods could hardly breathe. Lying there, helpless, it wasn’t until his then seven-year old daughter, Sam found him that Tiger could call for help:
“Can you go tell the guys inside to try to get the cart out to help me back up,” Woods asked.
“My back’s not doing very good.”
Yes again, Sam, can you please go get those guys?”
Far from simply fearing for his golf career, Woods’ home life was gravely under threat from his ailing back. He struggled to get out of bed regularly. Found it almost impossible to physically pick up his kids. Copious scandals, tales of adultery and that infamous fire-hydrant had already torn down the cloak of invincibility around Woods, and yet remarkably, the worst was yet to come.
Images of a road-side cop pulling Woods over for dangerous driving beamed pictures of a scarcely recognisable then 14-time Major winner around the world for all to see. Woods, the supreme athlete, could barely stand. He couldn’t tell the officer if he was coming or going. The walls were caving in around him. His private life was in tatters. His back following suit. He couldn’t come back from this…
Fast-forward to September 2018 and the sight of Woods, fused back together with club in hand once more, prowling in Sunday red at the Tour Championship as hordes of fans jostled for position to picture him win, proved just the shot in the arm our great game needed.
As it happened, it provided the shot in the arm Tiger needed, too.
The apex predator returned to Augusta in 2019 with the taste of victory fresh on his lips. Even the fact we could speculate about a 15th Major was remarkable in itself but when Woods put himself in position on that fateful Sunday, and the roars rang through the pines courtesy of that unique Tiger chorus, suddenly the clock rewound to those all too familiar days when names buckled under the weight of Tiger’s presence until all that was left was for the great man to hole the winning putt.
It’s certainly the greatest sporting comeback I can remember. Some will say Niki Lauda racing again six weeks after coming out of a coma with horrific burns trumps it. The Netflix documentary series ‘Drive to Survive’ depicts Lauda’s courage brilliantly – apologies that that’s my only frame of reference.
I was only six years old when Monica Seles slammed her way to victory at the Australian Open in 1996 just three years after being stabbed in the back on court, and she’s certainly another worthy candidate for greatest sporting comeback ever.
And surely boxing’s greatest, Muhammad Ali must be up there too, returning to the ring having had his prime years stolen from him for refusing service to the Vietnam War, only to come back seven years later and reclaim the heavyweight crown?
For Woods, his isn’t even the greatest comeback in golf. Ben Hogan takes that honour, having come back from a near fatal car crash of his own to win the US Open not much more than a year later.
The story goes that Hogan leaped to his wife’s aid as an oncoming bus hammered into their vehicle. While his wife was somehow unharmed, Hogan’s injuries looked bleak; a broken pelvis, collarbone, ankle and ribs amongst the debris. It was a miracle Hogan survived, let alone win another six Majors.
Tiger got lucky with his car crash in February 2021 by comparison. It was his own doing, but it hasn’t been his undoing. Woods underwent successful surgery on open fractures to his right tibia and fibula bones. Has put himself through painstaking rehabilitation to recapture the golf swing that many thought he’d left behind in that smash, and judging by the noise coming out of Augusta this week, not least from Fred Couples who came away from a practice round with Tiger on Tuesday declaring, ‘He looks phenomenal. If he can walk around here for 72 holes, he’ll contend’, having been written off many times prior to winning the Masters in 2019, nobody would be so foolish as to write him off now.
“You never give up,” Woods says. “That’s a given. You always fight. Just giving up is never in the equation.”
I’ve no doubt Woods will tee up on Thursday and play well. Whether or not the comeback is as successful as the last one doesn’t worry me though. 2019 was more than enough.