Saturday 25 May 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Mental strength gave Tiger a decisive advantage'

Tiger Woods is pictured after winning the 2019 US Masters in Augusta National last April. Photo: Getty
Tiger Woods is pictured after winning the 2019 US Masters in Augusta National last April. Photo: Getty

Dermot Gilleece

Much has changed at Augusta National over the last decade. Not only have women been welcomed into their exclusive fold; female competitors trod the sacred turf in competition for the first time on the Saturday prior to the Masters.

And then there's Tiger Woods.

During the traditional green jacket ceremony in The Butler Cabin, club chairman Fred Ridley described the preceding days as "one of the most amazing weeks in our history." Minutes later in the press interview area, the newly-crowned champion sat shoulder to shoulder with Craig Heatley, who would be moderator of reflections on a breathtaking achievement.

"Tiger, welcome back," said the wealthy New Zealand businessman. Then, most pointedly, he added: "Or should I say, more appropriately, welcome home." The prodigal had redeemed himself and Augusta National were ready to embrace him as one of their own.

It represented a stunning contrast from the same week in 2010 when Woods was back at the Masters with the lurid revelations of his sexual adventures still fresh in the mind. Billy Payne, Ridley's predecessor, chose his chairman's address to the media on the Wednesday to publicly strip the transgressor to the bone.

The intention was clearly to inflict hurt, publicly, for what was viewed as totally unacceptable behaviour for a Masters champion.

The use of the word egregious which, to be honest, I had never typed before, was clear evidence of their disapproval. The Oxford dictionary defines egregious as "shocking, remarkable". On the American side of the Atlantic, however, it is used to convey something extremely distasteful, even reprehensible.

Americans revere their sporting heroes, and I remember the words earlier that year of Greg Hansen in the Arizona Daily Star, after Woods publicly repented. "Tiger said all the right things Friday," he wrote, "which is a credit to his thinkers and to those who prepared his speech. But his slate will never be clean, and his image never separated from the hypocrisy and the attempted cover-up of his scandalous past. The scars are much too deep."

Some of the world's greatest composers lived lives of debauchery. And only recently, we learned that everyone's favourite storyteller, Charles Dickens, behaved scandalously towards a long-suffering wife. Yet for our own pleasure, we manage to separate their glorious work from their morals.

The difference with Woods, of course, is that his off-course behaviour happened to seriously impinge on his golf, leaving his many admirers deeply hurt. But if notoriously conservative green jackets were prepared, as they saw it, to bury the past, is it not time to put an end to the resentment? The general public clearly think so.

CBS have reported that their overnight coverage of the Masters averaged a household rating of 7.7 for last Sunday's triumph. This was the highest such rating for golf since the measuring system was introduced 34 years ago.

Down at the back of the 18th green at around 2.30pm last Sunday, I stood with thousands of others, hardly believing what was happening. When the final putt went down, they erupted in the chant of "Ti-ger, Ti-ger, Ti-ger", interspersed with wild cheering.

Fearful of being caught in a predicted storm which never materialised, I stood beside an American colleague who remarked that the scene lacked the emotion of 1986, when Jack Nicklaus strode majestically to his sixth Masters triumph. "There were plenty of tears back then," he said. "I don't see any now." He didn't see them because this was a very different celebration, though profoundly striking just the same.

They loved Nicklaus, their golden bear, the family man who, with his son on his bag, beat anno domini by scaling the heights once more at 46 years of age. Woods' triumph, as I saw it, was that of indomitable spirit against formidable odds, a deeply moving portrayal of raw human resilience.

Equally enriching was his delight in what he had achieved. In almost 25 years observing this amazing golfer, I've never seen him smile the way he did, as he moved joyously through the hordes on the way to signing his card.

When the opportunity came for me to return this year to the Masters, there were inevitable thoughts about a memorable swansong. And I imagined Rory McIlroy supplying the other bookend by securing the career Grand Slam, 12 years after Pádraig Harrington had launched Irish golf on a marvellous adventure at Carnoustie in 2007. Instead, I witnessed a different strand of golfing history.

For Woods, the 15th Major, if it happened, was most likely to come at Augusta. When Nicklaus was asked to name his all-time two favourite golf courses, he memorably replied: "St Andrews, because of where it is, and Augusta National because of what it is."

After Woods had staged a hugely impressive challenge for the Open at Carnoustie last July, I believed he would win another Major title. Further confirmation came in a second-place finish in the PGA Championship a month later and most telling of all was his victory in the Tour Championship in September.

No course is going to separate Woods from his challengers more decisively than Augusta National, which is emphasised by his lowly tied 44th position in the putting statistics. He simply knows it better than his rivals do and possesses the greater mental strength when it comes to decision-making over its wonderful back nine.

Even as a 21-year-old in 1997, he could appreciate the significance of Amen Corner. "Those holes, 11, 12, 13, can hurt you in a heartbeat," he said back then. "In fact, I knew I couldn't relax until I got past the water holes."

After Sunday's exploits, he said: "It helps playing this golf course so many different times." He then referred to his reaction when Ian Poulter, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari found water on the short 12th. "Brooksy is stronger than I am and he flights it better than I do. I'm sure he hit a nine-iron and didn't make it.

"So I knew my nine-iron couldn't cover the flag. I had to play left and I said to myself, just be committed, hit it over the tongue in the front bunker and let's get out of here. And I did [with a crucial par to Molinari's double-bogey five]."

Molinari then finally killed his waning chances by gambling with his third to the 15th. He elected to hit a high shot through pine branches, and after finding timber, it could be said that he had lost the election.

In the moment of victory at the 1997 Masters, the one that began it all, I wrote about an awareness of something very special - "of a talent that may not be matched for another generation". I further observed that "only in tearful hugging of his father and mother, who greeted him in his moment of triumph beside the 18th green, did we suddenly realise he was little more than a boy, albeit an exceptional one."

And on Sunday, the boy we knew was now a middle-aged man and a parent himself, hugging his daughter Sam and son Charlie, while his mother, Kultida, maintained the link with events of 22 years ago.

Woods is one of a kind. The world of golf suspected as much as early as 1995, when he played for the beaten US Walker Cup team at Royal Porthcawl. And as of now, there is no end to the greatness we may anticipate from this extraordinary champion.

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