Wiedmer: Tiger delivers the comeback story of the century

Wiedmer: Tiger delivers the comeback story of the century

April 15th, 2019 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tiger Woods hugs his family after winning the Masters on Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club. The title was Woods' fifth at the Masters and his 15th in major tournaments.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Mark Wiedmer

Mark Wiedmer

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press

Maybe that was a tear Tiger Woods wiped away as he ran a towel across his face on his victory march up Augusta National's 18th fairway Sunday afternoon, and maybe it wasn't.

Tears were certainly not his thing in the old days, pre-2009, when he often looked anything but human. Emotions were for everybody else. Frustration bordering on anger that he was so good so young for those who rooted against him. Joy mixed with awe for those who couldn't believe anyone so young could be so good and who knew how lucky they all were to have been born at the right time to witness it.

Over those first 11 years of world domination, from his first Masters win in 1997 to that unbelievable U.S. Open victory in 2008, the one won on a broken leg, the surprise was not when Woods earned each of his first 14 major championships. The surprise was when he didn't.

But then life took over, in all its humbling reality and cruelty. The seemingly perfect husband and father wound up on the wrong end of a messy, humiliating divorce due to his stupidity, selfishness, recklessness and hedonism.

Serious injuries soon followed, mostly to his back, which is often as destructive to golfers as throat nodules are to crooners. If you can't swing, your game can't sing.

It all got so bad two years ago at the pre-Masters' Champions' Dinner that Woods — a four-time winner of the tourney's green jacket at that time — had to take a nerve blocker just to sit through it. He even told a few of his closer friends that evening, "I'm done."

He also hopped on a plane to England later that night to seek a remedy, if only so he could be an active father again to son Charlie and daughter Sam.

The consultation resulted in a surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his back. He might never play competitive golf again, but that wasn't the primary goal.

"I was able to be around my kids again and go to their games and practices and take them to school again," Woods told the media before this year's Masters. "These are all things I couldn't do for a very long time."

A long time. Before Woods completed that walk up No. 18 on Sunday, before his afterthought bogey left him one stroke clear of the field with no holes to go, thus delivering him his fifth green jacket a shocking 14 years after he earned his fourth — which set a record by eclipsing Gary Player's 13 years between his 1961 and 1974 Masters crowns — he'd been all but irrelevant for a very long time.

There was no longer talk of threatening Jack Nicklaus's 18 majors, as had once seemed a certainty. There was no talk of him ever returning to No. 1 in the world, a position he once held, as ESPN pointed out Sunday, for 281 consecutive weeks before falling as low as 1,199 in 2017.

Yet that didn't mean it couldn't happen. Woods finished sixth at last year's British Open. He was second at the PGA Championship and won the Tour Championship last September at Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club. Even if he wasn't the Tiger of old, he could no longer be dismissed as some delusional has-been.

Then came the Masters. Woods kept hanging around, or as he said of Sunday's final round, "just plodded my way around all day."

We should all plod so well. Soon the rest of the field was acting as it so often has when threatened by Tiger. They backed up. Or as ESPN's Mike "Greeny" Greenberg tweeted at one point: "If all these mistakes and scared looking putts look familiar it's because they are. We used to call it the Tiger effect. And today proves, it never went away."

Indeed, four of the world's best golfers — including Tiger's playing partners, Tony Finau and Francesco Molinari — dropped tee shots into the water at Amen Corner's No. 12 within 15 minutes of each other. With those mistakes, the Tiger Effect was once more alive and well.

Less than two hours later, a 43-year-old Woods was again the Masters champion, wrapping his mother Tida and children in separate bearhugs in much the same way his late father Earl embraced him 22 years earlier. If he wasn't crying, he may have been the only one. Especially when the vast gallery of patron began chanting "Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!" at the tops of their lungs.

America has always loved its comeback stories, and this may have been the greatest comeback of them all for a golfer who had never previously come from behind in the final round to win a major. If he didn't appear human in a bad way all those years ago, his performance on this damp, windy Sunday didn't appear humanly possible in the best of ways.

Soon, another green jacket slipped over his broad shoulders in Butler Cabin, Woods smiled and said, "Ah, it fits."

It fits this sports year in general. In February, 41-year-old Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to another Super Bowl win a year after being embarrassed by the Philadelphia Eagles in that same event. A week ago today, Virginia won the NCAA men's basketball tournament a year after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the event's history.

And has it been mentioned that golf's next two majors — the PGA next month at Bethpage Black and the U.S. Open in June at Pebble Beach — are at venues where Woods has previously won majors?

As he watched it all unfold, CBS analyst Nick Faldo, who won three Masters himself, said, "We'll never see anything as exhilarating as this again."

Maybe not. But given how well he played at the Masters and how alive the Tiger Effect once more seems to be, we might see Woods win enough majors to challenge Nicklaus's 18. After all, the Golden Bear was 46 when he won his last one.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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