Friday 23 August 2019

Woods takes us on a ride back to his glory days

Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the 13th green during the second round of the Masters at Augusta. Photo: Kevin C. Cox
Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the 13th green during the second round of the Masters at Augusta. Photo: Kevin C. Cox

Paul Hayward

Wherever he finishes when the thunder stops and the prize is handed out, Tiger Woods has taken today's Augusta crowd on a tour of what the Masters was when he owned it.

The golf of 2019 boarded a ride on Friday to the golf of 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005 - the four years of Woods's Masters victories. Not in his play so much - though there has been plenty of controlled beauty from him here - but more in the frisson he brings to Augusta: the gleam in his eye, the sense that anything is possible when his game is right.

In his pomp, Woods had global magnetism. Like Michael Jordan then, or Lionel Messi now, he transcended the norms of spectating. It became obligatory to watch him. The time you gave was faithfully repaid because Woods was playing a different game to his contemporaries. He cowed a generation of good players but he also made them rich. Prize money soared, sponsors stampeded to the gates and Woods took golf beyond its heartlands to make it a prime-time narcotic. With the greats, people tune in to see what they can do. There is curiosity and excitement and awe.

The first age of Tiger Woods has passed. There are too many fine players nowadays for him to dominate as he did from 1997 to 2008, when he won 14 Major titles and appeared guaranteed to pass Jack Nicklaus's record of 18.

In a four-day contest, four back operations come at a high price. And Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and the rest are not dazzled by the Woods biography, though one suspects Rory McIlroy remains star-struck.

In 1997, at 21 years old, Woods beat Tom Kite with an 18-under-par 270 for a tournament record 12-stroke victory. In 2001, he put the mark of doom on David Duval and Phil Mickelson with a 16-under 272, collecting an unprecedented fourth consecutive Major title. Twelve months later, he retained the Green Jacket, beating Retief Goosen and Mickelson again. By now, many golfers were resigned to back-up roles. But the Masters run stopped, in 2005, with a spectacular chip-in at 16 and a 15ft birdie putt that was too good for Chris DiMarco in a play-off.

Close your eyes and you can recall the days when Woods was a runaway train, smashing records, demoralising opponents, until the Majors dried up in 2008. Open them again 11 years later and you find Augusta in a different kind of ferment. On Friday evening, as Woods pieced together a round of 68 to leave him one shot off the lead for the weekend, 'patrons' chanted his name (very rare at Augusta) and roared a 28ft birdie putt.

There were fist-bumps for two young spectators at the 18th tee and an electricity that took us back to 1997-2005. Then, people were lauding Woods's brilliance, his power, his cold efficiency. Now, they cheer one of the most dependable Hollywood plots: the comeback yarn. In this old script, personal calamity and shame shoot the superstar from the sky; the body is broken, the spirit aches and wails. People who disliked Woods's aloofness then start to see him as a patched-up advert for salvation, fighting decline, chasing a dream that seemed lost in time.

Even an overzealous steward sliding in the mud and catching his ankle, as happened on Friday evening, seems designed to burnish the story of Woods surmounting obstacles to win big again. If not now, eventually. That hope flared again when Woods won a tour event at East Lake in Atlanta last autumn, his first for more than five years, which transformed his outlook. It gave him the certainty: "I know I can win."

Five years of injuries, surgery and not winning would put doubt in anyone's mind - even a sporting god. Woods's first two rounds here were driven by the knowledge that victory was at least conceivable, even if harder than ever to achieve.

Too many missed putts in the 5ft-12ft range affirmed a doubt he expressed here on Tuesday: that he finds it harder these days to get all the working parts of his game chiming at once.

But everything in his demeanour pointed to enjoyment. Even the security guard's sliding tackle was brushed off as one of those things. In the old days, his scowling entourage would have leapt into presidential bodyguard mode. This time, Woods simply birdied the hole and said the ankle tackle was no big deal.

At a dinner on Wednesday, he confessed he thought he was "done" when he needed a "nerve block" just to attend the Champions Dinner and could not putt with his son in the garden. Two years later, he was setting out with Ian Poulter for his third round on the same mark (six under) as Johnson and with five Major winners one stroke ahead. That magnificent leaderboard contained most of today's giants and one colossus who could already claim a victory of sorts.


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