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The Greatest - Sporting Comebacks: Tiger Woods

The story of Tiger Woods isn’t one of a heroic comeback, but rather several heroic comebacks.

Even before turning pro, Woods came from 5 down with 12 to play against Trip Kuehne, going on to win the US Amateur.

The man who dominated golf for a decade would see his career - and life - spiral out of control, taking another decade to return to his peak.

Cast your mind back to 10th April 2005, and one of the most iconic lines in sporting history:

"Here it comes... Oh, my goodness! OH, WOW! In your LIFE, have you seen anything like that?!"

It was a line befitting the moment. Verne Lundquist had usurped his own “Yes, sir!” from 1986, as Jack Nicklaus was completing a comeback of his own to win an 18th major, with a line so good, Nike simply used the raw, unedited footage for one of their best commercials: the ball trickling towards the hole, stopping agonisingly short, before eventually taking one more revolution, revealing the Nike Swoosh.

Tiger Woods started that final round three shots clear of Chris DiMarco, in what had long been established as a two-horse race for the Green Jacket. At the turn, Woods had maintained his three-shot lead, but had seen that cut to a more precarious one when arriving at the 16th tee.

DiMarco’s tee shot had safely found the green, but Woods had gone long and left to leave a perilous pitch to try and save par and remain in the lead.

But as we’d seen countless times throughout his career, Woods pulled off the impossible. A pitch to the top of the hill, hoping to leave himself a makeable putt, turned into perhaps the greatest shot ever seen at Augusta.

His now-two-shot lead was vanquished with two closing bogeys, meaning Woods would require a play-off to win his fourth Green Jacket.

That Sunday saw Woods throw a four-shot lead away; it saw him throw a two-shot lead with two holes to play away; and of course it saw the most unbelievable chip. But none of those things are remotely as surprising as the fact that it would be the final time Woods would ever win at Augusta.

Or so we were starting to believe.

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There are about as many of us who thought that another major was simply beyond the great Tiger Woods as who believed he still had one more in him.

We’ll call the first group ‘realists’ and the second group ‘optimists’, for when you consider everything that Woods went through between April 2005 and April 2019, another major seemed impossible.

But, to quote a major competitor of perhaps Tiger Woods’s best-known sponsor, impossible is nothing.

In the three-and-a-bit years after that fourth Green Jacket win, Woods would win The Open and PGA Championship two more times. Despite playing with two stress fractures in his leg and a torn ACL, Woods would somehow win the 2008 US Open. He’d win another 17 PGA Tour events, topping the money list in three years, coming second in 2008, where he played just six events.

It looking like the 32-year-old Woods would cruise past Jack Nicklaus’s total of 18 majors. But that most inspirational win at Torrey Pines in 2008 was the beginning of the end.

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Not since turning pro had Woods played in more than 10 majors without winning one. There had been a total of five back-to-back successes and in only three of his 12 years as a pro had Woods gone a calendar year without a major.

The second half of 2008 was spent recovering from surgery, and the end of 2009 after a successful - albeit majorless - comeback season, would change Woods’s life forever.

Woods’s infidelity scandal saw him take an extended break from golf, and across 2010 and 2011, he failed to win any of the 21 PGA Tour events he entered.

Woods’s longest winless streak since turning pro was 16; by the end of 2011, his winless streak was 22 and counting.

But the story of Tiger Woods isn’t one of a heroic comeback, but rather several heroic comebacks.

After working with new coach Hank Haney and getting back to winning ways in 2012, Woods won two PGA Tour events, two WGCs and the Players Championship in 2013 and was world number 1 again after falling to a low of 58th two years prior.

But that in itself would be the beginning of another end for Woods.

After climbing back to the summit, 2014 was the start of a litany of injuries that would not only threaten Woods’ career as an elite golfer, but his ability to play altogether.

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In 2014, Woods appeared in just seven tournaments, completing two, with two injury-forced withdrawals.

2015 was perhaps worse still. Woods appeared at all four majors, but missed the cut at three. He managed just one top-10 finish, and suffered another withdrawal, this time in the Farmers Insurance Open, which came just a week after Woods posted a career-worst 82 at the Phoenix Open, where he’d apparently been struck by the chipping yips - yet another obstacle to overcome.

Woods, arguably the greatest golfer of all time, was suddenly chipping like a mid-handicapper. Had his long game gone awry, you could suggest that his injuries had simply got the better of him. But this wasn’t a case of injuries limiting his swing; his game seemed to have totally collapsed.

Woods would miss the entirety of 2016, and completed just one full tournament in 2017, and even that was a missed cut.

Despite his best efforts, it was over. Tiger Woods was finished.

Woods himself said so. At a Masters dinner, long before the world knew, Woods privately declared: “I’m done. I won’t play golf again. My back is done.”

Forget playing golf, by 2017, even walking had become problematic for Woods, resulting in having his lower back fused.

Shortly after, he was arrested having been found asleep at the wheel, such were the effects of the pain medication he’d taken, with his dazed mugshot beamed all over the world. The discourse was not of a cynical nature, but one of sympathy, and of course curiosity - would Tiger Woods ever appear on a golf course again?

Well, the story of Tiger Woods isn’t one of a heroic comeback, but rather several heroic comebacks.

Suddenly, Woods became competitive once again. The spinal fusion had seemingly worked wonders, and after a rehabilitative process, Woods returned to the PGA Tour and competitive golf early in 2018.

After a T23 finish and a MC, Woods finished 12-T2-T5 across his next three tournaments in the build-up to the Masters.

Sure enough, Woods was installed as one of the favourites for the tournament, where he’d finish a disappointing 32nd. A missed cut at the US Open followed, but those who’d always believed Woods had one more major in his locker were given a boost at The Open.

In contention at a major once again, Woods held the lead on the back nine on Sunday. He would ultimately fall three strokes short in a tie for sixth, but this takeaway was this: Tiger Woods could compete at major championships once again.

The PGA Championship that year proved it was no fluke. Woods got within a shot of big-game hunter Brooks Koepka, but was unable to reel him in, and settled for second, his best finish at a major since 2009, when his world imploded.

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While Woods had got back to fitness and was back contending for golf tournaments once again, a win still eluded him.

Until the culmination of the 2018 FedEx Cup play-offs.

It was actually Justin Rose who came out on top, netting himself the $10,000,000 bonus, while Woods picked up $1,620,000 for winning the Tour Championship.

But there was only one number that mattered to Woods: 80. While Nicklaus’s 18 majors would likely elude Woods, Sam Snead’s 82 PGA Tour wins was very much in his sights once again.

Come the start of 2019, Woods had contended in majors and got himself back in the winners’ circle. But there was still one mountain left to climb: a major win.

Woods was again amongst the favourites for the Masters after another decent start to the year, and remained in contention throughout the first three rounds.

Leader Francesco Molinari, as so many mortals have throughout the tournament’s history, found water on 13, and Woods found himself in a five-way tie for the lead on 15.

After picking up two strokes on 15 and 16, Woods needed a bogey on the last to win, which he duly provided.

With a tap-in bogey, Woods threw his arms in the air. His father Earl was no longer with him as he was when he first won at Augusta in 1997, but mother Kultida was, as, this time, were his kids Sam and Charlie. It was perhaps the most ecstatic and euphoric Woods had been after a major victory. The impossible had been achieved.

Woods wouldn’t maintain that same level of form in the aftermath of the Masters, and would be forced to overcome yet more adversity after breaking his leg in a serious car accident. The road to recovery has been a long one, and the theory is that Woods will do all he can to save himself for the majors for as long as he can.

Woods still doesn’t look 100% when walking these days, which will likely have been behind the new TGL golf league and its abbreviated format, to prevent Woods walking 18 holes.

It is likely that after all the personal issues, the surgeries, the spinal fusions, the injuries, the highs and the lows, that Woods really doesn’t have any more in him; that we’ve already seen the last dance, and that incredible evening at Augusta in 2019 was the bookend to the most remarkable career.

But the story of Tiger Woods isn’t one of a heroic comeback, but rather several heroic comebacks.

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