Thursday 22 March 2018

Struggle to find old magic produces spellbinding return

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods

Tommy Conlon

For anyone wishing him well in golf, whatever about in life, Tiger Woods was being alarmingly nice to people.

It was Wednesday at Augusta National, the day before the Masters, and Tiger had come down from his ivory tower to mix with the multitudes.

He was signing autographs, he was chatting with rivals, he was smiling and joking. He even played in the traditional Par 3 knockabout, his first time to do so in over a decade, and he had his two children alongside him dressed up in their little caddy overalls.

“It’s the new sort of happy-clappy, touchy-feely Tiger Woods,” remarked David Livingstone on Sky Sports. And obviously it could only spell doom for a man who in his supernova prime didn’t give a tuppenny curse for the rest of the world.

So it was with some relief that glimpses of the old competitive goliath emerged when the going got tough on Thursday. “Tiger!” he howled in frustration after his second shot on the 14th. “Goddammit!” He hated his drive off the 15th too. “No Tiger!” Then a pause as his ball disappeared into the trees. “Dumbass!” Followed by a deep and weary sigh of exasperation.

Oh yes, the furnace was still burning fierce alright.

Now 39, he has spent much of the last five years chasing a game that had previously bent passively to his bidding. A body that had been battered for decades by the whiplash of his physical force was also breaking down. His marriage, of course, had disintegrated in an infamous carousel of manic philandering. And a young generation of stellar talent was charging hard on his heels.

The descent into golfing banality reached a nadir of sorts on January 30 last when he shot an 82 at the Phoenix Open, the worst round of his professional career. A week later he abandoned during the first round of a tournament in San Diego, his old back problems once again resurfacing.

All eyes were on him therefore when he returned to public view at Augusta. What had he been doing in the meantime? Working on his game, he replied, from “sun up to sun down.” People, he added, “would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again.”

This struggle to find the old magic has been monumental. It seems to have been every bit as obsessive as the quest that propelled his miraculous achievements in the first place. He has gone to war against all the frailties and torments that hitherto hadn’t existed in his realm. That chilling will to power which made him invincible is now an equally desperate will to survive against the inevitable erosions of time.

And so it was on Thursday as he produced spasms of his old greatness, and shuffles of the new mediocrity that have slowly leaked like rust into his game.

His driving was frequently wild and erratic. Much of his round was spent in salvage operations that inspired some fantastic shots. His second at the seventh was one such, the ball emerging out of a canopy of trees and somehow materialising on the green. “Woah!” responded the crowd, as if shocked by his audacity.

His drive from the ninth was so far off line it landed on the fairway of the first hole. He scrambled to make bogey when it could have been disastrous.

At the 11th he faced a pitch shot that couldn’t have been more challenging for a player whose short game had been in tatters for months. “This will test his pitching,” remarked Sky’s on-course reporter, Richard Boxall. “The question is about to be answered.” Woods fired a classic shot, the backspin gripping and killing the ball dead a few feet from the hole. “And he’s just answered it,” replied Ewen Murray on commentary. “Magnificent.”

The crowd rolled out a generous reception for him as he arrived at the 12th tee. Great champions in decline are embraced with a warmth that is often absent when they’re at the height of their powers. For people recognise in his weakening gifts the same vulnerability, the same humanity, they see in themselves. Just another man fighting the good fight against age and its wearying burdens.

Woods seemingly out of nowhere had found the legendary short game that had deserted him; the technical mastery and competitive courage that once had made him peerless. Time and again it bailed him out, on the back nine in particular, as he hovered over one imminent crisis after another. But of course his reborn short game hadn’t appeared from nowhere. It came from the “thousands upon thousands of shots” he’d played in practice over the previous two months.

No one wanted it more when he was the best, maybe no one wants it more still.

But could it last? On Friday he played better again, finishing with a 69 to go with Thursday’s 73. On the 17th he’d faced a long, treacherous putt for par. The ball teetered up to the hole and dropped. Woods punched his fist through the air in another reminder of his heyday.

He was still 12 shots behind the leader but he’d made the cut when few had fancied him even to do that. And on Friday night he wasn’t ruling himself out for Sunday honours.

“I’m very excited,” he said, like a man who was about to put the nice on hold.

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