Tiger Woods: Sport’s Greatest Comeback?

I never much cared for Tiger Woods.  In his dominant early career he was the sun that burned so bright you couldn’t see the other stars.  Els and Mickelson reduced to his Washington Wizards.

 

Watching his tournaments was like a Tarzan serial.  You knew who was going to emerge victorious.  You only watched to see how.  His immense driving?  Miraculous long putting?  Genius escapes from trees across water?  Just as often the disintegration of his opponents from mental intimidation and the force of his character.

 

Then it all stopped.  Burned out like a comet consuming itself.  His back gave out.  His wife found out.  And so did the rest of the world.  The public humiliation of stage managed apologies.  The DUI arrest where he couldn’t say if he was in Florida or California.  The false starts of multiple surgeries and duffed chip shots that consoled a world full of us duffers that Tiger was now one of us.

 

 

Except he wasn’t.  In 2018 he was seriously competitive again.  In contention at the British Open and the PGA Championship, but now the bridesmaid no longer the dazzling bride.  A reminder of what could have been and what was lost.  There would now always be someone younger and stronger and braver to withstand the best efforts of a 40-something ex-champion.

 

And then there wasn’t.  Sunday’s final round at the US Masters was a master class in wisdom and experience outlasting youth and strength.  Tiger’s driver was inconsistent, so he largely hit a piercing butter-cut 3 wood from the tees.  His putting was competent but without the wizardry of his heyday.

 

But the iron shots!  The second and third shots steepling onto tablecloth patches of safety on the folded greens of the genius 1930’s design by Alister MacKenzie that reward only the bravest and most skilled.  

 

Tiger now winning as a mature man not the wonder child.  More in command of himself than he was of his game.  Winning like Jack used to.  Setting a number that he needed to shoot – and where to hit it on the most challenging of courses – where disaster and triumph are always bed partners.  If they can do better they deserve to win.

 

But they couldn’t and over the course of 4 days the best of the modern generation found themselves outmatched and out-thought by their boyhood idol.  He was playing chess while they were playing checkers.

 

I was lost in admiration and my mind turned to sport’s greatest comebacks and recovery stories.

 

Muhammad Ali banned from boxing for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War at the peak of his powers from age 25 to 29.  Then fighting his way back to the top via the legendary trilogy of fights with Joe Frazier before besting George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle at age 32.  Ali the only man to hold the World Heavyweight Championship 3 times.

 

Monica Seles winning 8 Grand Slam singles titles by age 20 before being stabbed on-court in 1993 by a crazed fan of her great rival Steffi Graf.  Two years out of the game recovering before winning the Australian Open in 1996, but never the dominant force she was before the attack.

 

Closer to home Bradman had 8 years between Tests from 1938 to 1946 due to the Second World War.  His comeback at age 38 to bolster war-ravaged spirits was admirable, culminating with the 1948 Invincibles Ashes tour when he was 40.  Still a genius at the crease, but he had not seen active service during the war (due to “poor eyesight”) like Keith Miller (“pressure is a Messerschmidt up your arse”).

 

Rod Laver had 6 years between his Wimbledon wins in 1962 and 1968 and is the only man to have won the Grand Slam of all 4 majors in a calendar year (1962 and 1969).  But technically he never retired from tennis as he went to America to play on the fledgling American professional circuit before the game was unified, with the Open era from 1968 allowing all players to compete on an equal footing.

 

The intense physical demands of Australian Football make comebacks from long retirements improbable.  I could only think of Essendon’s Tim Watson retiring due to injury after 2 premierships at age 30 in 1991.  Sitting out the 1992 season and then being lured back by Kevin Sheedy to play a pivotal role in the Baby Bombers 1993 flag.

 

Which brings me back to golf and Tiger, who humbly deferred to the 1950 comeback of Ben Hogan from a car accident in which he broke his pelvis, collarbone, left ankle and suffered circulation problems that affected his sight and dogged him for the rest of his life.  Hogan had been the dominant player winning 3 Majors in the immediate post WW2 era, before spending 2 months in hospital in 1949 recovering from his injuries.

 

Sixteen months after the accident, when doctors feared he would never walk again, Hogan won the 1950 US Open over 5 days in an 18 hole playoff – his legs still swathed in bandages.  In 1953 he won the only 3 Majors he could compete in when he travelled to Scotland for the only time to win the British Open at Carnoustie.  In those days every player had to pre-qualify for the “Open” the week before no matter their standing, and the Open was scheduled at the same time as the other Major – the US PGA Championship.

 

Separating these legendary triumphs over adversity seems impossible and futile.  But what stands Tiger’s winning of the 2019 US Masters apart – 11 years after his 2008 US Open – is that his comeback spanned time and repeated adversity with physical, personal and emotional dimensions.

 

Tiger was shamed publicly and repeatedly and worst of all by hubris – things largely his own doing.  The crippling back injuries were not just from decades of relentless golf competition and practice, but (as his then coach Hank Haney makes plain in his book “The Big Miss”) from wanting to become a US Navy Seal instead of the world’s best golfer.  Relentless physical training to build his upper body and running in heavy military boots was at the core of Tiger’s back problems.

 

Tiger the sporting assassin raised by a Green Beret father to kill or be killed.  A stone cold killer on the golf course who had never learned how to live.  The epitome of toxic masculinity, forced by the repeated betrayals of his body and the public humiliation of his private life to find new ways of being – on and off the course.

 

Humbler, more reflective and open, and with the hard won knowledge that he could no longer win all the time – but with meticulous preparation and strategy – he could win when it mattered as he showed last week.

 

A man dying to his father’s image to be reborn to himself.  At Easter I can only think of one greater comeback story.

 

If you haven’t lost you don’t know what winning means.

Comments

  1. According to Brad Scott, Andrew Gaff’s return is on a par. And by that logic, so is Ben Cousins’.

  2. A number of years ago a big rumour went around the traps. Apparently COLLINGWOOD and RICHMOND were going to amalgamate. The new club was to be called THE TIGER-WOODS

  3. Great read, PB. I won’t claim to be a Tiger fan, far from it, in fact. But you do have to take your hat off to the man at the very least for his fightback from and overcoming of chronic back issues. Anyone with a crook back will attest to that. I hope that Tiger’s comparatively recent balance, modesty and perspective (as opposed to his former hubris) is genuine as he could be the real redemption package if that is the case.

  4. Mere rehearsals TT. Nic Nait will be back in Round 10 to win the Coleman and the Brownlow before going down in the last quarter of the GF but being carried back onto the ground on the back of a donkey (Tom Hickey) to receive his Norm Smith and Premiership medals.
    For as it is written in the Book of Israel “Thrice denied before the Crows cock up (again). If your neighbour smite you turn the other knee”.

  5. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Cheers PB. Not a fan of golf.
    In fact my fave golf moment is Michael Douglas inducing a heart attack from one of the snobbish and rude old country club codgers in the movie ‘Falling Down’ : “And now you’re gonna die wearing that silly little hat. How does it feel?”

    Jennifer Capriati
    Andrew Krakouer
    Great redemption stories.

    Now if only Ian Baker-Finch could get his act together…

  6. Good gets Phil – Will revisit the Capriati story. I remember she was a child prodigy who won Wimbledon after years in the wilderness.
    Spot on about Andrew Krakouer. Saw him play one of the greatest solo games for my Swan Districts when he dragged us over the line in the 2010 GF against the highly fancied Claremont. A man on a mission that season after his stretch inside. Judd/Buckleyesque in the games they played to win Norm Smiths.
    His main accomplice was a 16yo Stephen Coniglio his 5th league game straight out of Colts.
    Watch the brilliant Krakouer (in a head bandage) goal 4:30 in this clip in the 34th minute of the last quarter to give Swans a one point lead. My second favourite game of the last 10 years (sorry Phil).

  7. Great story PB. I’m not a golf fan, loath it, but as a human these examples of overcoming adversity are worth celebrating. However there are many who returned to their chosen field, only to blemish their records, or whose bodies could not stand up no matter how hard they tried.

    Jimmy Carruthers retired in 1954. He’d been undefeated, the world bantamweight champion. Due to financial difficulties he returned to the ring in 1961. He lost 4 of his subsequent 6 bouts, the only losses in his career.

    Enough said about ‘Pluggers’ comeback.

    Peter McNamara was the worlds number 7 ranked singles player when he did his knee. Sadly his comebacks never allowed him to reach those once lofty heights as his mobility was so restricted. Another whose knee thwarted his career and comebacks was Neal Daniher. How good could he have been ?

    I hope ‘Tiger’, does well. Good on him.

    Glen!

    PS: Though he wasn’t human, Tulloch made a great return after a life threatening illness.

  8. Marcus Holt says

    I seem to be in the minority as a lover of golf, watching that is. I retired as a player after concluding that despite playing regularly for years, I would never be very good and at times could be bloody awful. I venture out a couple of times a year with me son, but I have always enjoyed the Majors, and like many Aussie sports fans, watched in hope and despair as the Great White Shark found ever new ways to lose, the collapse in the play-off with Nick Faldo being the worst.
    I like Tiger Woods, though not necessarily his misdeeds and indiscretions. That said, I wouldn’t like my sins and weaknesses to be exposed to anyone, let alone the whole world. The fact he has endured such public humiliation, and repeated major back operations etc, makes his achievement all the more remarkable.
    I hope he wins more majors, and I will be hoping to see him in action at The President’s Cup in Melbourne in December.

    Two final thoughts.
    I scanned the crowds at the Masters and saw ONE black face in the galleries apart from Tiger’s. Golf in America is such a rich white man’s sport! The history of Augusta National does not make pleasant reading when it comes to racial discrimination.

    Secondly, How good must Jack Nicklaus have been? 18 majors!! There may not have been quite the level of competition when he played but there was still Palmer and Player to contend with. I doubt Tiger can catch the Golden Bear, but, he wasn’t expected to win the Masters at 43 either, so who knows?

  9. citrus bob says

    PB – totally disagree with Bradman’s comeback. First of all he had it pretty easy during the war and his performances after the war were no better than Morris, Barnes et al. Remember too that they played against a shell shocked English team in 1947-47 and 48 that had been ravaged by the war and in particular the loss of Hedley Verity and an Indian cricket team that had only three class players V.J.Hazare, Lala Armanath and Vinoo Mankad. Keith Miller new the score when the Australians played Essex and scored over 700 runs. The war ace deliberately gave his wicket away for o when he saw what Bradman wanted. “Invincibles”? Certainly not and comeback – blah!

  10. citrus bob says

    should read 1946 – 47

  11. Fair points Citrus. I mentioned Bradman because of the long time between Tests, but he was understandably not the same player at 40 years of age. Would you have “white feathered” him during WW2?
    I meant to include Dennis Lillee on the comeback list because of the similarities to Tiger around back injuries. DK had 21 months between Tests from 1973 to late 74 as he recovered from surgery and remodelled his action. A more complete craftsman and no longer just a tearaway after the surgery.
    Tiger has had 4 back operations with only the final fusion seeming to work. Also remodelled his swing and adopted a more patient game style. Finesse and strategy now that he is #38 on the PGA Tour for distance.

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