“I told him… I promise you one thing: You’ll never meet another person as tough as you.
“He hasn’t and he won’t” - Earl Woods
It began and ended on the 18th green at Augusta. A comeback so seismic, so complete, from heaven to hell and back again, played out on golf’s greatest stage. Twenty-two years ago, an indomitable teen in a red faux-turtleneck produced a performance so other-worldly it would redefine golf forever.
On Sunday, as Tiger Woods screamed to the heavens and the whole world listening, spread his arms with Biblical quality and embraced his chilrdren at the fairway rope, it was as though this last decade of strife, tortured emotions and unfathomable pain were exorcised from his chest in one single unrestrained and impulsive roar.
Five Green Jackets, 15 Major championships, the “walking miracle” whose four spinal fusion surgeries left him bedridden and pleading for help to put his socks on. The humanising personal struggles and scarring humiliation which were at least in a small way reconciled as he broke into a shining white, wide and carefree smile - the type of which was always such a rare sight in itself - as he celebrated with his family. Twenty-two years, chartered in a fall of Icarus and resurrection of Lazarus, coming to a mythical close on the very same blades of grass where it began.
It was easy to forget as Woods walked Augusta with that same piercing, almost hollow gaze, tucked beneath the visor of his black baseball cap, the vulnerability that these last 11 years have left him with. While sailing unerringly through the flood that washed away his competitors at Amen Corner and silently drubbing them into submission, he had evoked all the invincibility of old. That same peerless aura that seemed as if it could even cause the grass to kowtow.
It was only then once he lifted his hat on the 18th green to reveal the tired thinning strands of hair, a large number of whom have already long made their escape to leave a balding crown, that you were reminded of quite how old Tiger Woods actually is. The receding hairline a summation of the toll taken on by his body and mind since winning that first Masters as a creaseless 21-year-old.
Will it be deemed sport’s greatest ever comeback? It surely proves that Woods is, even without surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ major record, the most talented player to ever hold a golf club in how he has adjusted his will and unbridled aggression to the limitations of his creaking body and found a way to win again.
Does the fact that much of Woods’ turmoil was self-inflicted, and that the mortifying end to his marriage unravelling so publicly, somehow lessen the gravity of what he has had to come back from? By way of morality, of course, even with genuine remorse. In a sporting context, it has only added to its weight.
Throughout history, there have always been great individual recoveries. Within golf alone, there was Ben Hogan’s (1950) return to win the US Open just 11 months after a surgeon was flown to New Orleans by US Air Force to save the golfer from near-fatal blood clots, a fractured pelvis, collar bone and ankle after hurling himself in front of his wife in a car crash. That took more heroism and valour.
There was Bert Trautmann (1956) playing in the FA Cup final with a broken neck and Niki Lauda (1976), burnt and breathless after his Formula One accident at Nurburgring before returning to the track just 43 days after slipping into a coma and winning the championship the following year. They battled through more blunt and immediate bursts of pain.
And then there was Monica Seles (1992) returning after having her career snatched from her in the most shocking scene imaginable when stabbed on court with a boning knife by a deranged Steffi Graf supporter, before returning two years later and winning her fourth Australian Open. That took greater bravery and mental fortitude.
It's easy to pinpoint these totemic, almost divine comebacks which have continued to quash the very nature of what we think possible. And, for that reason, it is almost impossible to determine which is the greatest.
So even if Tiger Woods’ is not, it has still shown the most dauntless resilience in its sheer protracted and painful length. The 22 years separating its beginning and end, the plummet from sporting deity into the latter decade of physical and emotional chaos.
In it, he experienced every tangible trial: embarrassment, guilt, shame, self-doubt, excruciating pain and desperation. The erratic swirl of feeling which plunged him into a resentful hatred of the game that he had reinvented as his own; Idolisation to derision, and then, worst of all, sympathy.
So as Woods choked back the tears in Butler’s Cabin and told of how “everything has come full-circle” - from Earl watching him win his first major all those years ago while still recovering from emergency heart surgery to the 43-year-old wearing that “comfy” Green Jacket and embracing his own children on the same green in a moment iconic and immortal.
If this is not sport’s greatest comeback, it is surely its toughest.