But was Tiger Woods ever really gone?
I certainly thought so, as stated in a column, “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger Woods Y’All,” I wrote a little while back when Woods was playing, as the Irish would say, as if he was “drinking from an empty glass.”
I stated: The Tiger Woods we once knew is gone, vanished, checked out, on leave, pink-slipped, vamoosed, on waivers, and eliminated.
The Tiger, who stuck fear in the hearts of opponents—obsolete. The Tiger, whose name was already inscribed on trophies before he even competed—evaporated. The Tiger, who ate par-5s at Augusta for breakfast and asked for seconds—deceased.
In other words, Tiger has turned into Tigger.
Okay, I admit I might have been a little harsh in my statements, but the fact of the matter was that Tiger’s new swing was about as helpful as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for Colin Farrell.
Woods has maintained the changes he was making to his game were important to his future, but it was obvious he was not comfortable for much of last season as he won just once on the PGA tour.
But then towards the end of the season, Woods saw it come around. He won a tournament in Japan and his own Target World Challenge—both were unofficial titles, but they meant something to Woods.
The work was paying off.
“Well, any time you make changes in your game, it’s not going to be an immediate success,” Woods said on his website.
Then he opened this season with a tie for third at the Mercedes, a victory at the Buick Invitational, and later a heart-palpitating win over Phil Mickelson at Doral.
And then came the Masters.
The “Big Four” in Woods, Mickelson, Vijay Singh, and Ernie Els (sorry, Mike Weir, but you’re just a little short from that list) were the ones to watch, but not Woods after an indifferent 74 to open the tournament.
But he then roared back with a 66-65 that included seven-straight birdies in the third round. And even though he finished the round with two-consecutive bogeys, he still finished with a three-stroke advantage heading into the final 18 holes.
But this is where the difference between the Old Tiger and New Tiger lies. Old Tiger was the greatest front-runner this game has ever known—give him a three-shot lead and suddenly it would be a baker’s dozen.
This Tiger, though, was almost too busy beating himself to beat a guy who could barely hit it out of Tiger’s shadow.
During Tiger’s three-year reign at the turn of the century, he would have snacked on a Chris DiMarco in Tiger’s lair—a.k.a Augusta National.
This is the tournament Tiger was born to dominate. This was where he announced his arrival with the first of his four Masters victories—his win in ’97 was by 12 shots.
But at this year’s Masters two weeks ago, Tiger was lucky. Then again, was Tiger ever good when he absolutely had to be.
Like on the 16th hole, where Tiger found himself leading by only one stroke to a charging DiMarco, 36, and a three-time winner on the PGA Tour, and standing over a ball that was wedged against the collar of the deep grass behind the green.
It was an impossible shot, and to add to the pressure, DiMarco had a 15-foot birdie putt and the momentum, but then . . . the ball looked as if it came out too hot, but it bit hard, died, caught the break, and picked up steam down the slope, finding the perfect right-to-left line.
But on its final revolution, Tiger’s ball went New Tiger. It did not believe. It came to a complete halt on the lip of the cup.
This is when golf legend Bobby Jones cleared his throat from above and said, “Gentlemen, let’s give the young man a break,” and then proceeded to heave just enough of a sigh that an imperceptible gust blew the ball over the edge.
“Are you kidding me?!” I shouted to my friend, Paul, who also bore witness to the miraculous shot I (along with millions others) had just seen.
Tiger, who is Nike’s biggest endorser at $20 million and had not won a major for three years, has had many synapse-firing shots over his 29-year-old life, and the Masters has seen just as many dramatic shots (such as Jack Nicklaus’ putt in ’75 and Larry Mize’s 11th hole playoff chip-in in ’87).
But this one was so stunning because it was so unexpected.
And you’ve never seen Woods so excited (a glimpse of Old Tiger), but then he tallied two bogeys on the 17th and 18th (New Tiger was back). Then came the first playoff hole, which was the 18th, and this is where Tiger won his ninth major—now tied with Ben Hogan and Gary Player behind Walter Hagen (11) and Nacklaus (18)—by displaying his best drive of the day, followed by his best iron shot, then concluded with his best putt.
But afterwards you’ve never seen him so isolated.
You see, Tiger’s father, Earl, could not be on the 18th green to give his son a congratulatory hug. He was in Augusta, but due to his recent chemotherapy treatments, he didn’t have the energy to leave Tiger’s rental house and come to the course.
“Every year my dad’s been right there [he pointed toward the back of the 18th green] to give me a big hug, and [voice cracking] wasn’t there today,” Woods said at the press conference.
“He’s hanging in there, and that’s why it meant so much for me to be able to win this tournament with him kind of struggling. Maybe give him a little hope, a little more fire to keep fighting.”
I would wager my first-born that Tiger will win another major, but no one knows how many more championship ceremonies Earl will see. So one gets the sense that Tiger wants to thank his Pop by creating something truly special for him.
“I can’t wait to get home and give him a big bear hug.”
I’m sure he couldn’t wait to receive it.
Welcome back, Tiger. Welcome back.
But was Tiger Woods ever really gone?