Wednesday 26 September 2018

Vincent Hogan: Tiger Woods 'miracle' has Augusta spell-bound

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson (R) are full of smiles as they walk onto the 13th green during a practice round at Augusta yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson (R) are full of smiles as they walk onto the 13th green during a practice round at Augusta yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Vincent Hogan in Augusta

Augusta is the mirror to its own smile and, in this history-scented place, there was never going to be much appetite for shining a light into the shadows around Tiger Woods' "miracle".

So he came to a packed media auditorium, this man who a year ago seemed to exist as just old newsreel, and it felt like an audience with Florence Nightingale. Of all the colliding narratives here this week, the story of Tiger's redemption is the one that brooks no conflict.

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy

His arrival in radiant good health has electrified the tournament even before a ball is struck in competition. And we hit peak-Tiger just after 1pm local time, journalists scrambling for the last remaining seats as he arrived on stage with more than wistful nostalgia to sell.

Maybe just a third of those seats would still be occupied for the next man on the roster, Rory McIlroy, who admitted to watching the Tiger press conference before himself being beckoned in. Both men are among the shortest of prices to be called to the Butler Cabin on Sunday evening, but only one can claim the undivided attention of America now.

It's 21 years since he won the first of his four Masters by twelve strokes, yet - in many ways - the most compelling threads to Tiger's story have been drawn from off-course struggles and what most assumed was a hopelessly diminished game.

Few explorations of Woods' life have managed to unwrap a particularly likeable man and it may well be that the latest book, 'Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian', paints the bleakest picture of all. Not alone does it perpetuate the image of a cold, emotionally vacuous personality, it depicts a childhood home almost guaranteed to engender such shortcomings.

Tiger's father, Earl, is described as a man inclined towards routine infidelities, abusive to his wife and someone for whom "pornography played steadily on the television".

And Tiger's links to the controversial Canadian doctor, Anthony Galea, have re-surfaced with the new book, albeit Woods was asked about this at Augusta before, insisting then that Galea "never gave me HGH (Human Growth Hormone) or PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs)".

None of this, patently, matters to the vast majority of people if we are to judge on the sense of giddy euphoria following a redemptive Tiger around Augusta Nationa l during the last two days of practice. Woods has come here admitting to be feeling better than he's done for "seven, eight years" and, on recent evidence, a live contender to win his fifth Masters.

Soaring

Three of the top four players in the world are under 25 yet it is Woods, at 42, and finally soaring again after fourth back operation - who dominates every conversation.

"It's been a tough road," he told us. "I've described a little bit of it; the pain of just sitting there and the amount of times that I've fallen because my leg didn't work or I just had to lay on the ground for extended periods of time. Those were some really dark, dark times.

"The reason why I say I'm a walking miracle is that I don't know if, I don't know if anyone who has had a lower back fusion that can swing the club as fast as I can swing it. That's incredible. Some guys have said 'Yeah I need to fuse my back so I can hit it harder!'. No, you don't want to go through that," he said, smiling.

"But that's why I say that. It is a miracle. I went from a person that's been…who really had a hard time getting up, walking around, sitting down, anything, to now swinging the club. You saw it at one of the TrackMans, 129 (mph). That is a miracle, isn't it?"

Tiger's contact with the outside world tends to be wrapped in corporate-speak and practiced reverence and it was no different here with his referencing of "Mr Hogan" (Ben Hogan recovered from being hit by a bus to win more majors) when asked for his idea of the greatest sporting comeback in history.

He also addressed his discomfort attending the last two Masters champions' dinners as a virtual invalid.

"It was very difficult," Woods stressed. "The last two I came up for, a couple of years ago, it was really difficult because Arnold (Palmer) wasn't doing well and Jack (Nicklaus) and I helped him into the dinner where we were going to take our photo. And then I helped him over to his table and his seat.

"That was tough to see my friend like that.

"Then last year to feel so uncomfortable just sitting, because my nerve was on fire, it was going down my leg and it was just burning. So the last couple of years have been tough."

Yet here he is, golf's dream ticket again, TV ratings through the roof and every last one of his fellow competitors singing eulogies to his redemption. When Jon Rahm was asked if Woods had been much of an influence on his generation, the Spaniard seemed tickled by the question.

"I mean if you don't use Tiger Woods as a reference in golf, I mean it's pretty silly not to do it to be honest," he shrugged, having earlier spoken of Tiger's last victory here in '05, as his first Masters memory.

He mentioned the standing ovation Woods got on Monday when he stepped onto the driving range, reflecting "it doesn't happen for anybody else".

And it doesn't. The Woods comeback has turned this place, potentially, into a little North Georgia corner of make-believe. That's how it feels.

Shadow

All the young firebrands may be gathered here, McIlroy included, yet all seem lost in Tiger's shadow.

"It's crazy," agreed the champion of '97, '01, '02 and '05.

"I'll be honest with you, it's crazy. I thought prior to the fusion surgery that that's pretty much it. I'll have a nice, comfortable and great life, but I'll never be able to swing the club like I used to speed-wise. Just there's no way (with) lower back fusion.

"But, for some reason, I don't have any pain. Yes, I'm much tighter, but I don't have any pain. And I've had to really work on the strength in different ways. For some reason it's come back. I wish I could tell you, I wish I knew. But, all of a sudden, I have this pop and my body and my speed's back and my timing. I'm hitting speeds that I hit in my prime."

His rushed comebacks before now had been "a pipe dream" he told us.

"My back was fried. To be able to...I was trying, whether it was cortisone shots, epidurals, anything to take away the pain so maybe I might be able to withstand a week.

"Nothing worked, my disc was gone. So how I feel now versus then, I mean, it's just night and day."

Someone found the audacity to ask if he'd maybe felt unfairly criticised for the chaos in his private life decanted by that collision with the fire hydrant and he smiled that Colgate smile, re-iterating just how much he was looking forward to teeing up in the Masters again.

Nicklaus once remarked about the business of challenging for majors that "you only have so much juice".

It seems that Tiger has found new reserves.

Irish Independent

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