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December 2015 and the eyes of the golf world are fixed on Nassau in the Bahamas.
To most people, the Caribbean archipelago is a tropical utopia, an oasis of golden sand and turquoise sea.
Heaven on Earth. Unless your name is Tiger Woods. On that day, this picturesque pocket of paradise was akin to the then 39-year-old’s own personal dystopia.
Wearing a blue polo shirt that was a perfect colour-match for his mood, his eyes heavier than a freight train, the world No.400 faced reporters ahead of the Hero World Challenge, an event he has hosted every year since 2000.
Flanked by first-time participant Anirban Lahiri and Pawan Munjal, the chairman, managing director and CEO of title sponsor Hero MotoCorp, Woods – sidelined since the Wyndham Championship three-and-a-half months earlier – cut a forlorn figure as the probing began.
He was asked when he could imagine playing competitive golf again: “I have no answer for that, and neither does my surgeon or my physios. There is no timetable.”
He was asked if he had started rehab: “No.” He was asked to describe his functionality: “I walk.” He was asked how he felt: “Depends what time of day it is.” He was asked when he last hit a golf ball: “About two months ago.” Finally, he was asked how he would feel if he never won a golf tournament again: “I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy.”
Fast-forward 1,231 days and, with the world’s golf media for company once again, he cast his mind back to that presser.
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“I had serious doubts after what transpired a couple of years ago,” he said. “I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit. Couldn’t lie down. Couldn’t do much of anything.”
His mood, on this occasion, was somewhat chirpier. He had a new Green Jacket on his shoulders. In scenes the likes of which Augusta National had never witnessed before, Tiger Woods won the Masters, his 15th major and his first in more than almost 11 years.
Tiger Woods won the Masters.
Once upon a time, and actually not all that long ago, there would have been nothing remarkable about those five words. In the early-to-mid-2000s, Woods was routinely listed at around 2/1 to win a major. He finished inside the top-five in 24 of his first 36 major starts as a pro, hoovering up eight wins along the way. It was a surprise when he didn’t win.
Slowly, surely, events of the last decade prompted people to forget about his superhuman levels of dominance.
Of the 42 majors played between his 2008 US Open win and last year’s Masters, he sat out 14 and missed the cut in seven more, including an unprecedented three weekends off in a row during 2015. Between the 2015 and 2018 majors, 11 consecutive majors came and went without Tiger featuring at the weekend. He went five whole years without a top-ten in the events that had come to define him.
On November 26, 2017, having once spent a record 281 weeks as world No.1, he awoke to find himself 1,199th on the world rankings. This, combined with the October 2016 launch of what he described as his “next chapter”, TGR Ventures, gave the appearance of a man not so much preparing for life after golf as moving into it.
Of course, there were extenuating circumstances: a well-publicised sex scandal, a succession of injuries, even an arrest for DUI. However, most people agreed that there was little-to-no way back, and that his playing days were effectively done.
All of which makes what happened at Augusta National last year all the more remarkable.
People tend to forget this but he got off to an inauspicious start, sitting tied for 11th and four shots off the pace set by Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka after round one. He fell further back early in his second round when he clocked up a pair of bogeys before recovering to shoot a four-under 68. Suddenly, he was going into the weekend just a shot off the lead held by five players – all of whom had won a major more recently than Woods.
Hopes that he might mount a moving day charge were seemingly dashed when he played the first five holes of his third round in one-over. That’s when the tide started to turn. He birdied six. Then seven. Then eight. More birdies followed at the two par-5s on the back nine – the 13th and 15th – before he rolled in a slippery eight-footer at 16. It all added up to a 67, his lowest round at Augusta National since a second round 66 in 2011, where he finished in a tie for fifth.
There was electricity in the air that Saturday night as the patrons packed up their seats and made for the exits, and it had precious little to do with the advancing thunderstorms.
He couldn’t… could he?
That was the question. That was the only question.
The last time Woods won one of the game’s marquee events, he was 32 and formidable. Now, he was a flawed but brilliant 43-year-old. You also had to go back to 2007 to find the last time Woods went out in the final group on Sunday at Augusta National, and two years even further back for the most recent of his four Masters wins. He had also never won a major championship having trailed after 54 holes.
The only man above him on the leaderboard was a familiar foe, the Italian, Francesco Molinari, having become Tiger’s own personal Kryptonite.
First, he beat Woods in their decisive singles match at the 2012 Ryder Cup. Then 2018 happened. In June of that year, Woods presented Molinari with the AT&T National trophy before losing out to him, less than a month later, in the Open at Carnoustie. That’s to say nothing of the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National, where three of Molinari’s five wins came at Tiger’s expense.
Now, the Italian was standing between Woods and a career-defining victory.
With Mother Nature threatening to interrupt the drama, the Masters Tournament Committee brought the tee times forward, sending the last group – Molinari, Woods and Tony Finau – out at 9.20am.
At 12.47pm, the floodgates opened and drama rained down. Molinari, leading by two as the trio arrived at the par-3 12th, undercooked his tee shot and watched on, powerless, as his ball rolled back into Rae’s Creek. Woods was next to play, arrowing a 9-iron into the heart of the green, well left of the flag but dry. Finau then stepped up. Straight in the drink, just like Molinari.
Woods two-putted for par. His playing partners, like Ian Poulter and Brooks Koepka up ahead, made double. Suddenly, the lead was 11-under and shared by Molinari, the advancing Xander Schauffele and, yes, Tiger Woods.
Almost exactly an hour later, at 1.46pm, Molinari found water again, this time on 15. Another double followed. Game over for the Italian. Woods, by contrast, made birdie. For the first time, he had the solo lead.
Another birdie followed at the 16th and, after Brooks Koepka’s birdie putt at 18 missed, he walked up the last knowing that a bogey would be good enough. Just as well. His fairway wood off the tee held tight to the trees on the left, almost blocking him out. His 8-iron came up well short and, suddenly, there was a taut feeling across the collective guts of golf fans everywhere.
He couldn’t… could he?
He chipped to the heart of the green, leaving him two putts from 14 feet for the win. His first slipped past the hole.
Inches. To end 11 years of misery in the events in which he’d built his legend.
Inches. To complete perhaps the greatest sporting comeback of all time.
The putter went back and through. The ball dropped in. The arms flew up. The cheers rang out. Tiger Woods, Masters champion. A major winner for the 15th time.
“TIGER, TIGER, TIGER” roared the crowd. Grown men rubbed tears – incredulous, disbelieving tears – from their eyes..
“You never give up,” said Woods afterwards. “You always fight. Giving up’s never in the equation.”
April 14, 2019, and the eyes of the golf world were fixed on Augusta, Georgia.
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