Thursday 20 June 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Major ambitions are real once more'

Return of the Tiger

Tiger Woods celebrates with his caddy, Joe LaCava. Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Tiger Woods celebrates with his caddy, Joe LaCava. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Dermot Gilleece

With eager crowds streaming onto the 72nd fairway behind the final pairing, the scene at East Lake was a throwback to Open Championships of another time. And Tiger Woods could have been nodding to such sentiments when he remarked: "Well, when I came out here [on tour], there was no internet."

This was the PGA Tour Championship last September, when stirring images of former glories were revived by an 80th tour victory for Woods, one he had been waiting five years to secure. Indeed, with good reason, he feared it would never happen. "Probably the low point [during that time], was not knowing if I'd ever be able to live pain-free again," he said.

"Am I going to be able to sit, stand, walk, lay down without feeling the pain that I was in? Is this how the rest of my life is going to be? [If so] it's going to be a tough rest of my life."

Then came the comeback, which began at Torrey Pines last January. "You know," he reflected, "if I could somehow piece together a golf swing this year, I felt like I could do it. My hands are good enough, but I just didn't know if I could piece together a golf swing."

The extent to which he succeeded could be gauged from the reaction of Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 Major titles is once again vulnerable. "I never dreamed Tiger could come back and swing the way he has after surgery," said the Bear. "I think you could argue he's swinging better than he has ever in his life."

There could hardly have been a more ringing endorsement.

Even the bookmaking fraternity were impressed. Prior to East Lake, Woods was on offer at 12/1 to win the US Masters at Augusta National next April, behind the favourite, Jordan Spieth. In the wake of his Tour Championship triumph, he had become 9/1 favourite to win the Masters for a fifth time, bridging the gap to his last triumph in 2005.

The wiseacres in our midst would argue smugly that the signs were there in some sparkling performances through the year, most notably in the Open Championship at Carnoustie and the PGA Championship a few weeks later.

Carnoustie, however, raised more questions than it answered, given that while Woods finished tied sixth behind Francesco Molinari, he had effectively squandered a winning position with nine holes to play.

The importance of East Lake was in proving that he could actually finish the job. Not even he could have known that this was possible. Small wonder he described the victory as "certainly up there with obviously all the Major championships I've won, the Players and the World Golf Championships. It was a grind out there, and I loved every bit of it."

Indeed it was so commanding as to make Rory McIlroy, his top challenger entering the final round, appear almost irrelevant among those climactic images.

The only thing that seemed to matter was that Tiger was back.

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