The triumphant return of a fallen American hero.
What Tiger Woods did on Sunday. . . it doesn’t get any bigger or better than that.
I hope you were able to enjoy it. I say that because Woods is multi-layered. Troublingly so, for many people.
The tawdry serial philandering will always be a part of his story. His icy image—in contrast with the adoration heaped on his rival, Phil Mickelson—also was a part of the Tiger fabric. The young Tiger didn’t simply want to win. He wanted to dominate, intimidate. It was off-putting and irresistible at the same time. Time and Woods' maturation has softened that. But it is not completely gone.
And then came the long injury-riddled drought. After famously winning the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg in a playoff with Rocco Mediate, Woods seemed to be at the pinnacle.
He had won 14 majors in 12 years and was four short of Jack Nicklaus’ monumental record. He was 32, an age when many golfers are in the middle of their most productive years.
If he merely won one major a year, he would breeze past Nicklaus.
It was not to be. In November 2009, the parade of mistresses became public. He crashed his Escalade. His marriage also was totaled. The following February, there was that awkward, uncomfortable public apology.
As painful as that was emotionally, the string of knee and back problems were like piling on for Woods, who no longer had the respite of wreaking havoc in championship golf.
Even Woods thought he might never play golf again, let alone win another major.
``I had serious doubts,’’ he said Sunday. ``I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit. Couldn’t lay down. I couldn’t do much of anything.’’
In April 2017, Woods underwent back-fusion surgery and found the path back: ``All of a sudden, I realized I could swing a golf club again. The body’s not the same as it was a long time ago, but I still have good hands.’’
Two years later, on this emotional Sunday, he won his 15th major. This is his fifth Masters win, which places him squarely between Nicklaus, who won six times at Augusta, and Arnold Palmer, who put on the green jacket four times.
Will he surpass Nicklaus’ 18 majors? That question is back on the table.
Where does Woods rank among golf’s greatest players? Nicklaus. Palmer. Ben Hogan. Bobby Jones. Byron Nelson. Sam Snead. That question now also must wait to be answered.
What Woods did Sunday at Augusta, though, undeniably adds another magical layer to the Tiger mystique.
He is the rare athlete who begins his career with a legendary buildup and delivers on the promise.
This fifth Masters win was different. At 43, Woods prevailed with grinding precision. This was his first Sunday comeback, his first major win when he has not been the 54-hole leader.
He didn’t over-power anything or anybody. He won by hitting some shots close, by making some clutch putts. And by not making mistakes. His smart decisions and his poise were remarkable.
It’s another layer added to a legend that already is iconic.
From the very beginning of Woods’ career, some of my purist golfing friends used to rail at the media’s Tiger-mania.
``Why write about Tiger—why show Tiger on TV—if he’s way out of it and not playing well?’’ they would say.
Because. . . Woods transcends. You know that knockoff of the Edward Hopper `Nighthawks’ painting? The one with Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis Presley?
I’ve often thought Tiger would fit in neatly with that group. They are people we worship for the way they live life as well as their considerable talents and accomplishments. And yet, there’s a shroud of loneliness.
The first time I covered Tiger Woods was in the fall of 1996 at the Quad City Classic. He had recently turned pro and was trying to earn enough late-season money to receive a 1997 tour card. Because he was in the hunt after two rounds—and because Illinois was playing a Saturday-night football game at Arizona that ended too late for a Chicago newspaper—I went to see Woods.
Playing well, he took a one-shot lead after three rounds. Even at 20, Tiger was a phenomenon drawing large galleries. On Saturday, he almost drove the green on the short par-four seventh. ``And he hit a 2- or 3-iron,’’ according to several awed fans I overheard in the gallery.
I didn’t really believe that, but I hadn’t been up at the tee. So after the round, when he was going over his clubs and distances, I asked him what he hit on that hole.
``It was just a little sand wedge,’’ said Woods, whose drive left him maybe 50 yards from the green, if that.
``No. Off the tee,’’ I said.
``I hit driver,’’ he said.
I wanted to fill him in on the urban golfing legend, but decided not to hold up his post-round remarks.
After that round, I joined a couple of my golf-writer friends for a quiet little session with Woods’ father, Earl, who was a great and willing interview. Sometimes, though, his insight sounded outlandish.
At one point, Earl said, ``Tiger has been focused on winning the Masters since he was 3 years old,’’
I’m sure that’s true. But it sounded so serious, and so silly at the same time. The image of a 3 year old being fixated on winning at Augusta, gave me the giggles—especially in a quiet little gathering.
I excused myself and got out of the hushed room before I did something silly myself.
Years later, when Woods’ personal life became sad and sordid, I thought back to Earl’s observation. When a kid grows up the way Tiger did, it’s understandable that problems followed.
And when the expectations are that he can drive a par-four with an iron—well, that’s a lot of pressure. Even when he was winning, and certainly when he wasn’t, Woods was so intense at times that I thought he got in his own way.
No one put more pressure on Tiger than Tiger himself, I suspect.
That’s one of the most interesting sidelights about his amazing fifth Masters win. He not only has restored his body and his game. It appears that he has learned to deal with—well, all of the things that must be going through his head.
Whether you are a Tiger fan—I suspect most people are after Sunday—or one of his detractors, there’s a lot to appreciate about Woods’ comeback. And a lot to anticipate about whether a legend can add to his legend.