Sport Golf

Monday 19 August 2019

Roy Curtis: 'Tiger Woods' potential rise from humbled ruin to Masters champion would be miraculous'

Tiger Woods of the U.S. smiles on the 17th tee during practice for the 2019 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Tiger Woods of the U.S. smiles on the 17th tee during practice for the 2019 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. REUTERS/Mike Segar

IF Tiger Woods dared again to stop all the clocks, should Augusta National’s old ringmaster make the azaleas palpitate and the dogwoods swoon one last time, the Butler Cabin wardrobe superintendent would face an urgent dilemma.

Should it be a green jacket or a cloak of immortality draped over The Tiger’s muscular, unbending shoulders?

All of 14 years since he last transformed Amen Corner into his personal playground, Woods is hunting down something deathless, a prize to dwarf even the most skyscraping achievements on his imperishable CV.

Something to resonate louder even than his first seizing of the title deeds to this pristine corner of Georgia, the 12-shot spread-eagling of the field in 1997 that, for the first time, propelled the game of country club privilege all the way to the inner-city projects.

Bigger even than his victory here in the spring of 2001, the one that completed the Tiger Slam, the then untouchable Woods depositing all four major prizes into his Nike-emblazoned treasure chest.

If he were to win this week, it would carry the rhythms and inflections of the greatest sporting story ever told, one that might persuade Mother Nature to carve the 43-year-old’s initials into every magnolia blossom in these Elysian Fields.

Redemption’s song would have an updated chorus.

From where he has been - a study in athletic dilapidation, a humbled ruin, a sag-eyed police mugshot, so enfeebled by injury that he had to crawl from bed to bathroom – to again conquer the world would be miraculous.

Just a few years ago, an odds-maker might have offered shorter odds on a player holing in one at all four of Augusta’s par threes over the course of a single round.  

Woods precipitous, agonising, humiliating fall-from-grace back story is familiar to most:   The infidelities, the multiple back surgeries, the weekend-hacker golf, his glassy-eyed arrest, the 2017 spinal fusion that felt like the last desperate turn of the cards for a Vegas punter down to his final chip.

Yet, almost 11 years after seeing off the fast-talking Italian-American Rocco Mediate in a US Open play-off to claim his 14th major, here he is.  An authentic contender for his 15th grand slam.

It is as if the Titanic, after colliding with the iceberg and plunging to the seabed, had somehow righted itself, floated back to the surface and sailed serenely onwards to NYC.

Tiger contended at both the Open and the PGA Championship last season. But it was with his rolling back the years triumph at the Tour Championship that the depth of connection his improbable comeback had made with his audience became apparent.

The fairways at East Lake burst their banks as spectators spilled out onto the lawns to acclaim the returning Caesar.

A golf tournament was transformed into a rock concert.  Not for the first time The Tiger’s magnetic attraction had carried his chosen code to another dimension, to the centre of the earth, a place where no other player – not even his closest equivalent, Rory McIlroy – could hope to steer this ship.

Woods, alone, can command the instant, undivided attention of the non-golfing masses.  Here is the charismatic evangelist who reels in an audience who wouldn’t know Dustin Johnson from Dustin the Turkey.

Tiger captivates us.

Place all the tomes with Woods as their central character back to back and you might have the acreage upon which to construct the longest par five on the planet.

Woods is instantly, universally recognisable, yet, beneath his logoed baseball cap, he was for so long remote and unknowable.  In so many ways he still is.

But his fall made this remorseless golfing machine appear suddenly human and flawed, exposed vulnerabilities in a sporting terminator, revealed kinks that enabled the galleries to relate more closely to him.  It would be stretching it to say the Kevlar king was transformed into porcelain doll, but there was a clear softening.

Woods allowed the cold, frigid mask to slip a little.  He spoke openly of the dark days, he hung-out with younger players like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas who grew up idolising him. 

If it was hardly access all areas, it was as close as  the notoriously secluded House of Tiger will ever get to offering a guided tour of the rooms of his mind.

This week, though, his game face is back on.

Woods’s form this season has been only so-so:  Before his quarter-final exit at the WGC Match Play (he beat McIlroy in the last 16), his tournament finishes read 30th-10th-15th-20th-17th.  By no means terrible, but not Broadway.

The always illuminating Padraig Harrington was candid about the American's prospects this week.

"Tiger is not the player he was 15 years ago and you might say that his A-game now was his B-game back then.  Look, Tiger is well capable of winning majors again.  And I do think that he plays better under the pressure of a major and that he has an edge at Augusta.

"But it's pretty straightforward to me.  Back in the day the most famous statement about Tiger Woods was that he could win with his B-game - now he can only win with his A-game."

As with another Tiger at Aintree, Woods has a history of coming alive at Augusta.

He is a course and distance specialist at golf’s most storied and recognisable coliseum:  A four-time winner of the Masters, he has 11 top-five finishes to his name.

If his last top-five was six years ago (he missed three of the last five tournaments, finishing 17th in 2015 and 32nd last year), if another scaling of Everest remains a long-shot, still there will be a frisson of excitement and a thrill of hope in the Georgia air come Thursday.

They will crowd, 25-deep around the tee-box as Woods, not so long ago ranked outside the world's top 1,100 but again a contender, prepares to launch his first missile. 

In the Butler Cabin, a wardrobe superintendent will listen anxiously, wondering, like the rest of the world, if, for the four days that follow, the sacred ground all about him can again be transformed into the one true Church of the Tiger.

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