As Tiger Woods prepared to hit the putt that would cement his return to the top, a par that would give him a two-shot victory at the PGA Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta, NBC’s Dan Hicks said the win would represent “the most improbable comeback in sports history.”
There have been some great comebacks in sports. Kurt Warner was thought to be finished when he was released by the Rams and the New York Giants, and led the Arizona Cardinals on an unprecedented Super Bowl run. Peyton Manning missed the 2011 NFL season with a neck injury and was released by the Colts, only to throw a record 55 touchdown passes for Denver in 2013.
Mario Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1996 and ultimately retired for three years before returning and dominating once again. And of course, long before Woods, Ben Hogan suffered near fatal injuries in a February 1949 car accident, but returned to the tour in 1950 and played at an extraordinary level for three more years, winning six majors in that time.
All of those guys had one injury or incident that kept them away from the top of their game. Woods has had many. For him to win a tournament after all he’s been through is great theater…but probably wouldn’t be accepted by a Hollywood studio.
Tiger’s injuries led him to believe he might never play again. In addition to the knee injury before the 2008 U.S. Open that derailed his 2009 season and subsequent Achilles injuries, he missed time with neck and elbow ailments, too. And that was before the bad stuff.
You’ll recall that after missing time with those injuries and the scandal that cost him his marriage, Woods game went way south. Golf Channel reported in February of 2014 that at Isleworth, he flubbed numerous shots around the green. It was alarming, but not totally unexpected: It was Woods’ first tournament in four months, he was in the early stages of his work with new swing consultant Chris Como, and he was one of several players who struggled to pinch pitch shots off the tight, into-the-grain Bermuda grass.
But then it got worse. He started playing like most of us amateur duffers. “in Phoenix, though, the issue seemed even more widespread,”Golf Channel wrote. “There was a shanked shot out of the bunker, multiple chunked pitches and bladed chips. Indeed, it was a stunning development: One of the game’s greatest short-game magicians seemed gripped by fear and indecision, even while faced with straightforward shots.”
Woods said to Time Magazine, “I had never seen myself going through a spell that bad. I’ve never lost my short game my entire life. I’ve lost other parts of my game, but I’ve never lost my short game. My short game’s always been my buddy. I’ve always been able to chip and putt. Granted, I’ve had stretches where I don’t putt well. But I’ve always felt like I’m a good putter. My short game has always been, I think, on the top end, better than the tour average, and it’s saved me and won me countless tournaments. Now take that away, the game of golf becomes a lot harder. I have to hit the ball a little bit better. I can’t afford to miss a green because my chipping’s not there.”
He’d had numerous injuries, and now…according to his former swing coach Hank Haney…Tiger had “the yips” in his short game.
The next month, Woods underwent the first of four back surgeries. That one didn’t do the job, so in September and October of 2015, he underwent two more.
In December of 2015, in an interview with Time just before his 40th Birthday, this was part of the exchange…
Time: Where are you right now with your recovery?
TW: I have just started walking. That’s it.
Time: You were just sitting all day at home?
Time: What’s a day of rehab like for you now?
TW: I walk 10 minutes on the beach. That’s it. Then I come back home and lie back down on the couch, or a bed.
Four months later, the back didn’t seem to be improving. As Nick Faldo told Dan Patrick on The Dan Patrick Show last month, at the 2016 Masters champions dinner, he told another player “‘I’m done. I won’t play golf again.” Faldo wouldn’t say who it was, but did share, “he’s a Masters champion. (Tiger) said ‘I’m done, my back is done.’ He was in agony, he was in pain, the pain down his legs, there was nothing enjoyable. He couldn’t move.”
Tiger had told Time about when that thought hit him. “I’ll never forget when I really hurt my back and it was close to being done, I was practicing out back at my house. I hit a flop shot over the bunker, and it just hit the nerve. And I was down. I didn’t bring my cell phone. I was out there practicing, and I end up on the ground and I couldn’t call anybody, and I couldn’t move. Well, thank God my daughter’s a daddy’s girl and she always wants to hang out. She came out and said, “Daddy, what are you doing lying on the ground?” I said, “Sam, thank goodness you’re here. Can you go tell the guys inside to try and get the cart out, to help me back up?” She says, “What’s wrong?” I said, “My back’s not doing very good.” She says, “Again?” I say, “Yes, again, Sam. Can you please go get those guys?”
The last of the four back surgeries occurred in April of last year, but on May 29, Tiger was arrested for DUI. Painkillers and marijuana were discovered in his system, but no alcohol. On June 11, 2017, he checked in to a rehab clinic for addiction to painkillers
It seemed for all the world as if Tiger was done. By December 2017 his World Golf Ranking was 1,199.
Then magically his back started to improve. He started working on his swing. He was able to play eighteen holes four days in a row. He tied for ninth at the Hero World Challenge, and rocketed up to number 668. He played some early season tournaments, and came out fine physically. He made the cut at the Masters and fired a 69 on Sunday. After missing the cut at the U.S. Open, Tiger led the British Open after nine holes on Sunday. And of course, as we saw here in St. Louis at Bellerive, he was in the hunt until the very end.
He remained strong in the four golf playoffs, until getting the payoff Sunday. After all the injuries, all the surgeries, the scandal and addiction, Tiger found his way back to the top. His last win had come at the 2013 Bridgestone Invitational.
I’m trying to sell myself on other stories, but right now I’m with Dan Hicks. Tiger’s comeback is the greatest, most improbable, in the history of sports. It’s unbelievable. And next week at the Ryder Cup in Paris, it could get even better.
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