Back from the dead
Tiger Wood has proved doubters wrong but can he win a 15th Major?
For far too long, excitement about what people wanted Tiger Woods to achieve overshadowed all evidence of what he actually could. Within hours of last autumn breaking, as thousands of fans invaded an Atlanta fairway, hope met reality. At East Lake, in one of the most evocative scenes of his incredible career, Woods was the victor once more , in the Tour Championship.
Even Woods, never one to particularly revel in success, took time to relive the moment after the following week's Ryder Cup, during which he looked the epitome of exhaustion. Golf, a sport driven in respect of commerce and profile for years by Woods' very presence, hit fast forward to the coming week; he would return to Augusta National as a genuine Masters candidate.
The turmoil of recent years barely needs repeating. On three occasions in 2014 and 2015, he had operations for back problems. The spinal fusion performed on Woods in 2017 felt to all intents and purposes like a last throw of the dice but the man himself was more stark about its necessity. "I couldn't even go out for dinner. I couldn't sit," he explained. "I couldn't get from point A to point B in the house."
Another journey had caused embarrassment; after his arrest on a charge of driving under the influence, police footage of a discombobulated Woods was beamed across the world.
By the time Woods held the Tour Championship trophy aloft, he had flirted with glory at last year's Open and US PGA Championships. "He will never be the stand-out best player in the world again like he was back in 2000," says Rory McIlroy. "But I'd say there is a group of 10-15 guys right now who could stake a claim for being the best in the world and he is definitely one of them.
"People don't know the half of it, they really don't. They don't know the half of what he has been through. I was just hoping he would be able to have a life. To go beyond that and do what he has done? It's unbelievable."
Woods is cagey on what a 15th Major win would actually mean to him. It is left to others to pontificate on where such a victory would rank in the grand table of sporting recovery. "It would be special," is as expansive as the 43-year-old is when asked about the possibility of donning the Green Jacket for a fifth time. Generally, the more expansive Woods that emerged last year has regressed back towards more familiar, monotone territory.
Tommy Fleetwood regularly enjoyed a close-up view last season, including at Augusta National, as Woods clawed his way back to competitive prominence.
"If he wasn't Tiger Woods and you didn't know him, say he was a guy coming off the web.com Tour, you'd say: 'This is a guy who is gonna win at any time,'" Fleetwood says. "So I wasn't that surprised when he did but I think it's an amazing comeback, from not being able to swing a club or even move.
"He showed at the Tour Championship that, once he gets it in play, he is the best iron player in the world. It's sometimes easy to forget that he is the greatest golfer of all time, you just judge him as a competitor."
The mere sight of Woods heading for dinner in a Mexico City hotel with Jordan Spieth in February after cultivating friendships with golf's younger generation illustrates a change of approach. In his pomp, Woods was deliberately distant from virtually all of his opponents. "Tiger kept himself to himself," recalls Darren Clarke. "You have to remember it was very tough for him to have any semblance of a normal life. Everyone, everywhere, knew exactly who he was."
There are recurring traces of the Woods machine still being able to shut down coverage it may regard as intrusive. In the course of researching this article, it made sense to seek input from the Texas Back Institute's Dr Richard Guyer, who performed Woods' fusion. On the obvious basis no doctor would speak about an individual patient - let alone such a high-profile one - the aim was to ascertain precisely what was involved in this medical procedure.
Initially, the institute was forthcoming about the possibility of such an interview. After two weeks, it said that no such discussion would happen. Could it, then, point me in the direction of existing material relating to back fusion? "Sorry, TBI can't participate in this story."
Those within golf are happier to discuss what would be the most significant chapter of Woods' career, should it culminate in another Masters win. At 41, Paul Casey is perfectly placed to compare this version of Woods to the one who dominated his sport. Casey held off Woods by a stroke to win the 2018 Valspar Championship, after which the Austrian professional Bernd Wiesberger asked the Englishman how it felt to be "the man who killed Bambi". Six months later, Casey stood on the East Lake clubhouse terrace to watch Woods deliver his marquee moment.
"I went through it for so many years, when it was kind of impossible to hold off Tiger," Casey says. "He wouldn't ever make a mistake. At Valspar, everybody wanted Tiger to win but they could also see that he wasn't quite there yet, that something was building. By the Tour Championship you thought: 'This is it again, classic Tiger.' So he almost won at Valspar with his B or C game.
"There is no other way to describe it; I feel very lucky to have played with him, against him, at his peak. It was a joke, how much better he was. I kind of wish Rory, JT, Dustin, Jordan could see what we got to see. They don't actually fully understand, I don't think. They didn't get to really see it. It was amazing, stuff happened on the course you couldn't understand. It was incredibly frustrating as he would pull things out of a hat, but so cool."
David Duval, unlike Casey, occasionally got the better of the young Woods. Unlike Woods', Duval's greatness didn't stand the test of time. "I see appreciation for health, appreciation for the ability to play and compete," says Duval of his one-time adversary.
"Priorities change, life moves on. I see a person who has grown, aged and matured. We all get stuck in this thought that the person from 10 years ago is the same as now. I make the assumption that you hope you weren't the same person as 10 years ago but we don't allow athletes to mature and change. We want to assign them to a certain role. He is a 43-year-old man with children who has gone through a lot of stuff, been dealt some good blows; some self-inflicted."
Woods the commodity has never been fully rehabilitated from the infidelity scandal that trashed his image in 2009. It is hardly being cruel to suggest the position of Monster, the energy drink, as a key sponsor emphasises as much. Other brands ran for the hills. How much Woods' body has been impaired by a series of surgeries remains a complete unknown: he admits an inability to practise as much as was once the case and that a hectic tournament schedule is not viable.
"He has probably surprised everyone because he has maintained great form after career-threatening injuries," says Denis Pugh, the renowned coach who counts the Open champion Francesco Molinari among his pupils. "Everyone in the game, myself included, thought he would make a comeback, last about three months, then as soon as he was paired with a Rory or a DJ, break his back trying to keep up with them. He came out and his ball speeds were phenomenal. He had made no apparent concession to injury.
"His balance is serving whatever it needs to do, his plane is excellent and his leverage is great. The swing he has now is more worth copying than the one he came on tour with. The 23-year-old version of Tiger didn't swing as well as the 43-year-old. He has refined it, it is more copy-able."
But where can this technical improvement take him? "If he won the Masters this year, I wouldn't be surprised," says Pugh. "If you told me two years ago he could win the Masters in 2019, I'd have laughed at you. He has proven a lot of people who are supposed to be knowledgeable wrong. He is going to play until he knows he can't win."
In the eyes of the public, Woods was once a fallen idol. That gallery mood towards him softened, before the outpouring of glee at East Lake, suggesting the United States felt Woods had suffered enough. "It was different, there was so much anticipation," says Fleetwood of last year's Masters, where he partnered Woods over rounds one and two. "I don't think people saw him coming back."
Come back he did. Next stop, Augusta; where fairytales are part of the fabric.
Sunday Indo Sport