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PLEASE TELL TIGER WOODS THAT HE DOESN’T HAVE TO WIN THE MASTERS
He already has triumphed by breathing, walking and surviving a horrific SUV crash, and miraculous as it is to play competitive golf again, his aim shouldn’t be contending as much as finishing the walk
He’ll never let the universe tell him no. It has been his mantra from the day he emerged in Milwaukee, of all places, and said, “Hello, world.’’ He refused to submit 25 years ago, when he crashed a racist party at Augusta National, just as he refused 14 years ago, when he dragged a broken leg around Torrey Pines to win the U.S. Open, and just as he refused three years ago, when he left behind a decade of scandals and surgeries to win his fifth green jacket.
So, though he won’t be delivering the supernatural feat, shaking off the SUV accident that should have killed him and winning the Masters this weekend — sorry, world — Tiger Woods won’t let the new hardware in his body say he can’t try. The smarter play wouldn’t have involved the rolling hills of east Georgia, only 14 months after a horrific rollover that almost led to his right leg being amputated. He could have waited for a tournament that yielded an easier walk, a less painful and potentially excruciating experience.
But he has chosen to ignore rationality, at least as mere mortals define it. Why accept no for an answer when he never has before? It’s why we’ve been fixated on this man through all his triumphs and travails, and why 30,000 people formed a human wave as he played a practice round on a normally tranquil Monday. The love-in only has expanded in magnitude as he grows older, as he becomes more human and relatable, as Woods deals with life’s obstacles like the rest of us. So what if he struggles, or misses the cut, or hobbles off the course in the middle of a round?
He already has won by surviving months of immobilized recovery in bed, overcoming extensive therapy that would have drained most of us, learning to walk with a rod in his tibia and screws and pins in his ankle and foot. He has won by reclaiming Tiger Woods, ignoring assumptions he’d never play again, dismissing cries he should have been charged with a crime for driving about 85 mph in a 45 zone on a winding backroad not far from the southern California courses of his youth.
The only person on Earth who thinks Tiger Woods has to win Sunday is Tiger Woods. Does he think he can? “I do,’’ he said Tuesday.
And that’s why his journey continues to grip us like no other in sports, in my lifetime anyway. Is he going to embarrass us again for ever doubting his comeback? Hasn’t he shamed us by merely showing up, able to swing as usual and rip drives as always? In his mind, that’s what he does for a living — proving doubters wrong — and it’s why he has returned to Magnolia Lane for what he hopes will be a good walk unspoiled.
“I can hit it just fine,’’ he said. “I don’t have any qualms about what I can do physically from a golf standpoint. It’s now, walking is the hard part. This is not an easy walk to begin with. Now, given the condition that my leg is in, it gets a little more difficult. And 72 holes is a long road. It’s going to be a tough challenge — and a challenge I’m up for.’’
He won’t lie to himself about a realistic future workload. At 46, with son Charlie perhaps ready to embark on his own golf career, he won’t be putting in the work and logging a busy tournament schedule as he once did. This is a lab experiment, a chance to see if he still can compete on the highest level. If so, he’ll keep playing in the big ones, still three shy of Jack Nicklaus’ record for most major championships. It was only 3 1/2 months ago when he said, “I can’t compete against these guys right now, no. It’s going to take a lot of work to get to where I feel like I can compete and be at a high level.’’ He’ll know quickly this week if his whim is a pipedream, but his itch to try — albeit, amid different circumstances — is what drives Tom Brady and what drove Michael Jordan.
“I love competing,’’ Woods said. “I feel like if I can still compete at the highest level, I’m going to. And I feel like I can still win, I’m going to play. But if I feel like I can’t, then you won’t see me out here. I won’t show up at an event unless I feel I can win it. There will be a day when that will happen. I’ll know. For now, I don’t have to worry about the ballstriking. It’s the hills. It’s the challenge of a major marathon.
“When I decide to hang it up and can’t win anymore, that’ll be it. But I still feel I can do it. I still feel I have I have the hands to do it, and the body is good enough. I’m trying to walk and endure. Will I start to feel better? Yes, I will get stronger, the whole limb will get stronger. But as far as movement, there won’t be much more, as far as the hardware in there.’’
There is precedent in golf, of course, for a miraculous return from one’s last rites. Rewind to Ben Hogan in 1949, when a Greyhound bus struck his car head-on and left the legend in a mangled heap. Like Woods, he suffered multiple injuries, including a broken collarbone, a smashed rib, a broken ankle and a fractured pelvis. To prevent a blood clot from entering his heart, doctors tied veins in his legs. Hogan wasn’t supposed to play again, either. Sixteen months later, he won the U.S. Open, one of his six major titles after the accident. “People have always been telling me what I can't do," he said. “I guess I have wanted to show them. That's been one of my driving forces all my life.”
Tiger knows the Hogan story better than anyone. It’s guiding him. “What he went through, he didn’t have the technology we have now,” Woods said. “There were a lot of hot tubs he had to take — pre-round, post-round, middle of the night. To get up and swing a club the next day, I certainly appreciate that. The treatments are much better today. If I had to go through my accident in his era, I wouldn’t be playing this week. That’s for sure.’’
He also wants us to know he’d be fine without another victory. His legacy is intact — as the author of the greatest golf ever played, if not the winner of the most majors, and as the singular athlete who has had the most impact on his sport. “The surgeons gave me a chance and said I could do this again. It’s up to me to endure the pain and all that. I don’t know how many years I can do this, but, yeah, 82 is a pretty good number and 15 isn’t bad, either,’’ he said, referring to his total PGA Tour victories and major titles.
In a week when college basketball produced a memorable Final Four, and Major League Baseball feebly attempts to redeem itself with an Opening Day delayed by a labor impasse, the eyes of sport are on a man with a receding hairline and a slight limp. His colleagues are amazed, yet not surprised.
“Shoot, coming back off that injury, we’ve had some conversations, and man, I don’t know how he’s done it,’’ Bryson DeChambeau said. “Tiger is Tiger, and you can never count him out. He is one that may shock a lot of people if he does tee it up this week.’’
“Just epic,’’ Adam Scott said. “I’ve learned long ago to never doubt the guy. If he can get around, you can’t doubt his golf.’’
“We need him. The game needs him. Everybody needs him. The fans need him, all that stuff,’’ Brooks Koepka said.
There are realists in the locker room, too. “In an ideal world you wouldn’t want to come back at this golf course,” Lee Westwood said. “You’d want somewhere a bit flatter, maybe a little bit shorter. This is a long, hilly test of stamina now, and if you haven’t played, then it just makes it a little bit harder. I would imagine he would like, in an ideal world, if you talked to a doctor or a physio or someone who really knew what they were talking about, they wouldn’t go for a hilly test like this.’’
But what is topography when you view the photos of a demolished SUV from Feb. 23, 2021, the morning Eldrick Woods — he of the opioid history, he of the wee-hours DUI arrest in 2017 — flirted with death? There is a hint of religious fervor in this story, in the Deep South, where galleries are staring as if he’s a god with multiple lives. First, the question was whether he’d survive. Then, it was whether he’d walk again. Then, it was whether he’d play competitive golf again.
“I’m focusing on position,’’ he said, “and getting myself to the back nine on Sunday with a chance.’’
To win the Masters, he means. He won’t, but who’s going to tell him no?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.