In the spring of 2014 Tiger Woods was at work on the range around the back of his house, practising his short game like always. Days earlier he had shot a 78 on the final day of the Cadillac Championship, the worst fourth-round score of his life. His back had been spasming but he felt he had to get out and exercise. He stroked a flop shot over a bunker and the minute he had finished the swing he fell down flat on his back, overcome with a pain so severe that he could hardly breathe, let alone get back on his feet. He was out of hearing distance and he did not have his mobile phone on him, so there was nothing he could do but lie there and wait for someone to come.
It was his seven-year-old daughter, Sam, who found him.
“Daddy,” she said, what are you doing lying on the ground?”
“Sam, thank goodness you’re here,” he told her. “Can you go tell the guys inside to try to get the cart out to help me back up?”
“My back’s not doing very good.”
“Yes again, Sam, can you please go get those guys?”
There are an awful lot of Woods stories but this one, which is in the excellent biography Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian published last year, always seemed one of the most revealing because it speaks to the pain he has endured, the humiliation he has suffered and the way in which it has all been laid out for the rest of us to see. Here is Woods, the great athlete, helpless as an upturned bug; Woods, the proud champion, pleading with his kid to bring someone who can get him back on his feet; Woods, a man so intensely private that he used to refuse to tell people where he would be playing the very next month, having that helplessness picked over in minute detail by people like me in print and on TV.
There are plenty more. One could talk about those first awful moments in 2009 when he crashed his SUV into a tree or the weeks after, when he sealed over all the windows of his house with butcher’s paper to keep the paparazzi cameras out. Or the private luncheon at a Beverly Hills Country Club in 2016 when he had to walk up a flight of stairs backwards because it was the only way he could make it, or how, when he was arrested for driving under the influence in 2017, he could not even tell the police if he was in Florida or California, whether he was coming home or going from it.
On Monday morning the talk around Augusta and everywhere else they play golf was all about sweeter things, like how high this victory figured among Woods’s 15 majors and exactly where it ranked among the great sporting comebacks. Now there is no easy answer to that because one has to stack up hundreds of different achievements across dozens of separate eras, which of course was precisely why everyone was chatting about it.
How do you measure what Woods did here against, say, the way Niki Lauda finished runner-up in the F1 championship the same season he crashed at the Nürburgring? Lauda was back racing six weeks after he came out of coma. Or Mario Lemieux, who led the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first President’s Trophy in the very same season he finished his radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, while he had a back injury so severe he could not put on his own skates and nearly broke Wayne Gretzky’s scoring record while he was at it? How does it compare with Lester Piggott winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile at the age of 54, just 10 days after he finished a year in prison for tax fraud? Or Monica Seles’s victory at the Australian Open in 1996, three years after she was stabbed in the back on court in Hamburg?
And all that is before one gets to the greatest of them all, Muhammad Ali, who won back the heavyweight championship seven years after he was stripped of it and had his boxing licence suspended because he refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam.
Woods was reluctant to claim it was even the best comeback in his own sport. He points to Ben Hogan, who won the US Open a year and a half after he nearly died in a car crash. Hogan was hit by an oncoming bus. He threw himself across his wife’s lap to protect her from the impact and, while she was uninjured, he suffered a broken pelvis, collarbone, ankle and ribs. They mended again but he suffered with blood clots for the rest of his life and had to have emergency surgery. He was told he would never walk again and then he went on to win another six majors.
And yet, for all that, one can say this much: Woods’s story is unique in one important way, unlike all those others, in that he did not suffer physically or personally but physically and personally. He has been tormented in body and soul, his body broken, his back shattered and fused back together again, his reputation shredded and the bits and pieces strewn out for the rest of us to pick over. And here he was, walking off that 18th green, Masters champion, with his family around him, having put it all back together again.
“You never give up,” says Woods. “That’s a given. You always fight. Just giving up’s never in the equation.”