Tiger is Back at Augusta with a Green Jacket in Mind
WORDS I thought I would never write again – Tiger Woods will be a contender at The Masters. And it will surprise nobody if the 42-year-old 14-time major champion narrows the gap on Jack Nicklaus, who was 46 when he took his place in the sport’s folklore by winning the Green Jacket for the sixth time thanks to a wondrous final round of 65 in 1986.
When Woods was arrested last summer for being in charge of a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or drink, anybody who dared to suggest that he would ever again contend in any golf tournament, far less a major, would have found themselves being approached by men in white coats. As it transpired, that turned out to be Tiger’s nadir, and a significant turning point in his life.
He was recovering from a fourth back surgery and had become addicted to the painkillers he was forced to take in order to get through his day-to-day life without feeling crippling pain. He was a shadow of the man we had watched bestriding the fairways with a justified arrogance that told us he knew he was the best in the business. All that work in the gym, hitting golf balls with a ferocious power had finally caught up with him. His body finallly told him that it had had enough.
As recently as the Presidents Cup in September last year, Woods told us that we may never see him playing in a professional tournament again. Weeks later, he announced that he would be playing in his own tournament, the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in December. Astonishingly, he shot three rounds in the 60s, hit a succession of wonderful shots and then informed the world that, finally, he was pain-free. He had sought help for his addiction to painkillers and was playing golf with a smile on his face.
But could his battered back possibly stand up to the strain of a return to tournament play? Breaking 70 for fun with your buddies is one thing, doing so four times in four days under tournament conditions is something entirely different. However, he has come back, and he has confounded all the critics, all the know-it-alls who said he was a busted flush.
Week by week he has got steadily better. He almost won the Valspar Championship, for goodness sake. And before he had returned home, some bookmakers were installing him as joint favourite with Dustin Johnson to win The Masters. It is ridiculous, of course, and Woods has been the first to urge us all to manage our expectations of him. It has been a sheer delight to see him playing golf again. It has been better still to see him doing it well – very well. And it has been heartwarming to see him smiling, laughing and talking to his fellow pros, something we never saw when he was in his prime.
It is obvious that Tiger is finally feeling the love and that he has chosen to embrace it and feed off it. Can you imagine the reaction should he actually be able to find a way to win again at Augusta? Can you?
It has to be said that nobody is frightened of his presence on leaderboards now, but all of his rivals most certainly want to see his name on those leaderboards because they know that it will lead to a huge surge in interest in the game. Attendance and TV viewing figures have been shattered at every event in which he has competed during 2018, which tells you everything you need too know about his standing in the game. And that is because everybody believes that this comeback just might be the real deal.
It has to be said that serious back injuries are incredibly unforgiving. Woods has endured four back surgeries – all of them serious. And he will know, deep down, that it could let him down again at any time. But the most encouraging thing is that he has been able to rediscover the sort of clubhead speed that he was delivering in his prime, and has obviously been told by his medical team that he can go after the ball. We haven’t seen him wince once, and Woods being Woods, he has had to play recovery shots from some pretty horrible places. He is walking free and easy, with no sign of a limp.
So can he really win The Masters? Of course he can. Will he win? Probably not. He retains a wonderful touch on and around the greens and if you are looking for an each-way bet then Woods is your man, apart from the fact that his odds are now prohibitive.
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