The Augusta National Golf Club, a private club in the southern state of Georgia, is the permanent stage of the first of golf’s four annual major tournaments, the Masters Tournament, or as it is readily referred to, The Masters.
It is a place steeped in tradition, one of which is the hosting of one of the most exclusive dinners to be held anywhere, the Champions Dinner, held in honour of the previous year’s winner, who has the task of selecting the menu. Only past winners and a few select members of the Augusta National are invited, and they are required to don their famous ‘Green Jackets, which were placed on their shoulders by the previous year’s winner when they won the tournament. Only a first time winner is allowed to leave with his jacket which he is required to return to the clubhouse one year later, where it is permanently stored in a special cloakroom. Repeat winners are presented with their original jacket.
The dinner is held on the Tuesday preceding the tournament which commences on the Thursday of the first full week of April. It was at this auspicious occasion on the 4th April, 2017 that Eldrick “Tiger” Woods, informed the doyen of golf, Jack Nicklaus, winner of eighteen majors, the he “was done.”
Nicklaus, probably more than most, could have empathised with Tiger. Despite their tremendous successes on the golf course, their lives off the greens, at that similar point of time in their careers, were far from rosy. At the age of forty-five, Nicklaus had discovered that his company, Golden Bear International, through bad investments was almost bankrupt and facing liabilities of almost US$150 million. Physically, he was suffering with recurring hip and back problems.
Now, here was his heir apparent, at the age of forty-one, surrendering. Woods, the former number one ranked player in the world, having enjoyed a record of 683 weeks at the top of the rankings, including 281 consecutive weeks from June 12, 2005 to October, 30, 2010, was on a permanent slide into oblivion. He had not won a major tournament since the 2008 US Open which he had conquered whilst playing with a broken leg.
Tiger’s personal life over the previous seven years inclusive of a messy divorce is well documented. The pain of public shame was only heightened by a series of injury problems, as he endured four knee operations and a number of spinal procedures. Forced to withdraw from the PGA Tour for seventeen months, including the entire 2015-16 PGA season following the surgeries, he could hardly get out of bed or sit or stand properly, as he battled intense pain. Swinging a golf club was out of the question.
Woods began an attempted comeback in The Bahamas in December, 2016, where he finished 15th in a field of seventeen. His four over aggregate of 284 showed flashes of past brilliance, including a second round total of 65. In February 2017, he withdrew from the Dubai Desert Classic, after one round due to back spasms. Shortly after his dinner chat with Nicklaus, upon the recommendation of a Hayley Street specialist, Woods underwent anterior lumbar body fusion surgery, his fourth spinal operation, to alleviate chronic pain in his back and leg.
Slowly, ever so slowly, under medical supervision, Woods began practicing again in late August. In December, 2017, then ranked 1187th, he returned to the PGA Tour, his first tournament since Dubai, shooting a score of eight under, to finish tied for ninth. In 2018, Woods played in eighteen PGA events, the most since 2012, finishing second at the PGA, the fourth major tournament. Two weeks earlier, at the British Open, Woods’ name had adorned the top of the leaderboard of a major for the first time on a Sunday since the 2011 Masters. Albeit, he faltered over the next two holes, dropping three strokes, to finish at five under, tied for sixth, as his playing partner, Francisco Molinari received the Claret Jug. In September, he won the TOUR Championship, his 80th PGA Tour victory, his first in five years, as he ascended to thirteenth in the player rankings
Last Sunday, a year after wondering if he would ever return to the heights of yore, Woods found himself in the final trio at the start of the fourth round of this year’s Masters. Having shot 67 on Saturday, his best score at Augusta since the final round in 2011, Woods at eleven under, would play alongside the two stroke leader, Molinari, and Tony Finau, with whom he was tied for second.
Tee off times were brought forward from the traditional afternoon start to avoid the anticipated inclement weather and the final trio hit the course at 9:20 am. Woods, dressed in his traditional Sunday red shirt, was poised to pounce. As CBS enjoyed its largest television audience to view a morning broadcast in thirty-four years, the spectators in attendance witnessed a gripping round of golf. As the final trio strode to the fifteenth hole, there was a five way tie atop the leaderboard. The young guns on the PGA Tour who had lamented not getting to play alongside Tiger, were now about, (no doubt to their later regrets), to get a taste of what their predecessors had had to endure. Tiger, the Legend, the Myth, was on the loose.
Tiger pounced immediately, birdieing the fifteenth, as Molinari, dropped two strokes and out of contention. On the par three sixteenth, Tiger hit an amazing shot off the tee, almost scoring a hole in hole, as the ball settled inches from the pin. He putted to take a two shot lead, as the crowd roared in approval. Out of nowhere he had snatched a two stroke lead. He parred the seventeenth, as Brooks Koepka failed to make up ground on the eighteenth. It was over barring Tiger doing something crazy. Hardly likely.
Despite bogeying the final hole, Tiger finished on minus thirteen, a stroke better than the three young guns tied for second, Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele. Tiger Woods had grabbed his fifth Green Jacket, his fifteenth major. It was the first time he had won a major despite not having led after three rounds. His almost eleven year gap between majors is bettered by only four players who actually went eleven years between wins.
Tiger Woods has gone through a mental and physical pounding in the last nine years, the likes of which would be hard to match. He has defied logic, time, and history. Thanks to medical science and an iron will, he has clawed his way all the way back to sixth place on the players’ rankings as of Monday.
Tiger’s comeback will rank as one for the ages in all of sport. Can the man who revolutionised the game of golf take the sport to another level? The bookmakers are nervous, especially after the losses they suffered over the weekend. The fans, sponsors and advertisers can hardly wait for the next major, the PGA, (now rescheduled to be the second major), which will be played from the 16th -19th May, on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, on Long Island, New York, the scene of Woods’ second US Open victory, his eighth major championship, in 2002.
Does Tiger still have a legitimate shot at one of the most difficult records to beat in all of sport? Nicklaus, who was forty-six when he won his sixth Masters and final major, thinks he has.