Friday 23 August 2019

From the depths of despair in a police car to return to game's top table in a mere 674 days

Tiger Woods celebrates after winning the 2019 Masters. Photo: REUTERS/Mike Segar
Tiger Woods celebrates after winning the 2019 Masters. Photo: REUTERS/Mike Segar

Oliver Brown

Tiger Woods had five different drugs in his system when Jupiter Police found him slumped at the wheel on a deserted Florida road. It was the dead of night and it looked, by any objective judgment, like the death of a career.

Even all the extramarital scandals could not quite conjure the unspeakable sadness of a single mugshot, the spectacle of an idol reduced to a husk.

Was this to be Woods' fate? To play out his days amid a bombardment of painkillers and sleeping pills, as well as a chorus of caustic references to the man he once was? The choice did not appear as if it was his to make.

He had already confided to Nick Faldo that as a golfer he was, in all probability, finished. He couldn't even enjoy a kickabout with his children in the back garden without crumpling to the ground in agony. In one of his darkest hours, he fell down practising, incapable of moving until his daughter, Sam, summoned the doctor.

Anything he achieved in golf beyond that point would, he said, using an old English idiom, be "gravy". A fifth green jacket, we can safely say, represents not so much gravy as the entire Sunday roast. Between his fourteenth and fifteenth major titles, Woods has gone through the fire hydrant episode, sex addiction therapy, the collapse of his marriage, back pain, knee pain, ankle pain, multiple surgeries, and a seemingly terminal bout of the chipping yips.

And yet there he stood last night, in the shadow of Augusta's giant oak tree, his voice hoarse from jubilant screaming and his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus fully reengaged. It had taken, from the moment those highway patrolmen discovered him in a stupor, just 674 days.

Measuring the magnitude of a sporting comeback can be an imprecise science.

Golf historians will point out that Ben Hogan had a car crash in 1949, suffering a double fracture of the pelvis, a broken ankle and collarbone, chipped ribs, near-fatal blood clots, and still went on to win the US Open 16 months later. Formula One fans remind you that Niki Lauda almost burnt to death at the Nurburgring and was back behind the wheel within six weeks.

But few, if any, have held a candle to Woods' transcendence beyond his craft. Even fewer have cemented their revival in an amphitheatre quite like Augusta's 18th green. The setting for Woods' explosion to global prominence as a 21-year-old now staged his reinvention as a cherished elder statesman.

A refrain here was that books and screenplays would be written about this feat for decades to come. Not that Woods will care much: his backstory is already the most voraciously picked-over carcass in American public life.


The stories of the mistresses, the obsession with Navy Seals, the awkward rounds with Bill Clinton, even the parsimonious tipping, are all in the widest circulation. But through it all, Woods exerts a fascination like no other athlete on the planet. Each year, an Augusta guidebook prescribes everything that patrons cannot do: no running, no hollering, no lying down on the grass. But even this manual of Southern decorousness could not stop the chants of "Tiger, Tiger" from rolling across the fairways.

In a devout part of the world, this was as close an approximation to a sporting miracle as most are likely to see. Until last year even, Woods was, in the eyes of even his most fervent admirers, washed-up. There was the sight of him blading chips through the green in Phoenix and shooting 85 at Nicklaus' tournament in Ohio.

Talk of a comeback just sounded like a feeble flight of fancy, even to Woods himself. To anoint him as golf's greatest of all has long been a task fraught with danger. Today, he still needs another four majors to overhaul Nicklaus. What can be said with certainty is that where Nicklaus remains pre-eminent by the numbers, Woods is the most dominant when it matters most. His one-stroke victory might not have had the brutal emphasis of his demolition jobs back in 2000, but it still underlined his status as the ultimate major contender.

Woods left it until the age of 43 to correct one of his more curious omissions, by winning one of these championships from behind. For one so idolised, he has had to come through savage opprobrium to savour this glory. After news of his philandering first broke, he gave a painful mea culpa to a worldwide TV audience.

When he made his return to the Masters in 2010, then chairman Billy Payne upbraided him piously from Augusta's bully pulpit, while a small aeroplane flew overhead, trailing the banner: "Sex addict? Yeah, me too." It feels apt, then, that the sportsman of a generation has had the last word. When he teed off at the par-three 16th yesterday, his ball taking the slope to finish mere inches from the cup, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian, was standing behind him. The force of one great transmitting itself to another.

Woods admitted he sensed his life had come full circle. Where father Earl had been on hand to embrace him in 1997, he walked off this time as a dad-of-two himself, swallowed up by the excitement of his young son, Charlie.

Given a litany of travails that would have floored a rock star, few could begrudge him the happiness. For this was the day when sport's most compelling soap opera ascended to the realm of a true epic. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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