Is this to be Tiger’s Augusta swan song?

Mark McGowan

Tiger Woods after winning the 2019 Masters (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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“There will come a point in time, I haven’t come around to it fully yet, that I won’t be able to win again. When that day comes, I’ll walk.”

The words of Tiger Woods, back in November, prior to the Hero World Challenge. Tiger Woods, the greatest winner the sport has ever known. Tiger Woods, the man who revolutionised a stagnating sport and inspired generations. Tiger Woods, the man who rebuilt his swing, rebuilt his body, rebuilt his game and rebuilt his public image in the wake of a public scandal and DUI charge. Tiger Woods, the man who completed the greatest comeback in modern golfing history when he won the Masters in 2019. Tiger Woods, the man who may well be playing his last major championship this week.

For all the headlines that a Tiger week generates, for all the fanfare that surrounds him at a tournament, all of the TV coverage and social media impressions, none of it matters to Woods if he’s not competitive.

The Masters is, in this writer’s opinion, the greatest golfing week of the year. Nothing comes close. And as a man who’s finished the week as the winner on five occasions, I daresay Woods would agree.

The spinal fusion surgery he underwent in 2017 gave him a new lease of life, allowed him to swing the club with a freedom he’d not felt since 2013 and maybe earlier, and opened the door for an Indian summer to a career that we all felt had been cruelly taken away prematurely.

The major runs across 2018 – leading the Open Championship after 64 holes at Carnoustie and pushing Brooks Koepka all the way in the PGA Championship at Bellerive – paved the way for the incredible 2019 edition of The Masters. I’m rarely one to get emotional, but I don’t mind admitting that there was a lump in my throat as Woods embraced his mother and two children behind the 18th green at Augusta. For all he’d been through, and all he put them through, there was nothing insincere about the emotion, about how tightly they gripped him, and about how tightly he gripped back.

They knew what it meant to him. They’d watched him suffer, they’d watched him slowly build back up his strength, knew the hours, days, weeks, months he’d put in to claw his way back to a position where something like this was not only possible, but to achieve it. In a career scattered with broken records, with one incredible achievement after another, this topped them all.

But it wasn’t sustainable. How could it be? The spine and nerve damage that looked to have ended his career prior to the fusion were only the latest in a long list of injuries caused by wear and tear, by hitting thousands of golf balls a week for the best part of 35 years, and swinging at insane velocity from early age.

By the time 2021 rolled around, his surgically repaired body had broken down again. The Tiger Woods who attended the Genesis Invitational as the non-playing host looked like a man in pain, like a man heavily medicated, and a man who may be watching the curtain draw on his career. And that was before the car crash.

In the weeks and months that followed, whether Tiger’s ankle, which had been shattered during the accident, could withstand the rigours of professional golf became the big Tiger talking point. What everybody seemed to conveniently forget is that near-fatal car crashes don’t just inflict new injuries, they exacerbate old ones too.

Tiger returning to make the cut at the 2022 Masters, 14 months after the crash and 18 months after his last proper competitive appearance – coincidentally at the 2020 Masters which was held in November – might be his most impressive achievement and that’s saying something.

When he limped away from Augusta National a year ago, mid-way through his third round after somehow surviving the 36-hole chop again, once more we feared that that was it. That his body had conspired to rob him and us of one last appearance in Sunday red. But he’s nothing if not persistent, and though his hopes of teeing it up once a month have failed to materialise, he’s back in the field again this year.

Should Woods make the cut again, he’ll set a new record of 24 Masters appearances without a missed cut, beating the current 23 tally he shares with Fred Couples and Gary Player. A keen student of golf history, this is something he’ll be acutely aware of.

When Tiger sits in front of the press tomorrow afternoon at Augusta National, he’ll inevitably be asked if he thinks he can win this week. And the answer will be “yes.” But does even he think so? Making the cut and setting a new record – one that will likely never be touched – could be the last great achievement on Tiger’s resumé. He’ll probably never admit it, but that would be a win in my eyes.

But either way, miss or make, that win is off the table, either safely secured in Woods’ clutches or lost and gone forever.

Is this to be Tiger’s swan song?

For somebody who grew up watching him, who was 13 when he won his first Masters back in ’97, who was doing his Mock Leaving exams when he completed the final leg of the Tiger Slam in ’01, who was in New York when he won the US Open at Bethpage Black in ’02, who leapt off the couch punching the air in a Drumcondra student house when that chip sat on the edge and dropped in in ’05, and who blinked back tears when he won The Masters in ’19, I dearly hope not.

People complain about the amount of TV airtime Woods gets when he’s well down the leaderboard, but not I. Every time he fills the screen, I remember those times, I remember how he helped nurture my love for the game, and I’m forever thankful.

But part of me wants to let go – needs to let go. Maybe he’s ready, maybe he’s not, but as long as he keeps fighting, he’ll have my support. But I think this is it. This is the swan song. This is the last time we’ll hear: “Fore please, Tiger Woods, now driving!” This is the last time he’ll cross that Hogan bridge with a TV camera following, the last time he’ll complete Amen Corner, and the last time he’ll climb the hill to 18, take off his cap and salute the crowd.

So here’s hoping it’s a memorable one. And here’s hoping it’s in red.

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