15 surgeries. 5 years without a win. Untold emotional and physical torment, but now, he’s back. Tiger Woods is once again a winner on the PGA Tour, racking up his 80th win, a feat that only Sam Snead can claim to top with his 82 wins. Woods’ victory at East Lake cast shockwaves through the world of sport, surely no-one was expecting him, a man who could barely walk a year ago following 4 back operations in 18 months, to return to the top level of a demanding professional sport. In one of sports greatest ever comebacks, Woods went from rock-bottom to sporting hero the only way he knows how, perseverance and passion. In his worst moments, Woods admitted to another golf legend in Jack Nicklaus that he was “done”, and the extent of his ambition was getting mobile enough to play with his children. If he wasn’t already considered the G.O.A.T before, he cemented his position with his latest phenomenal performance.
Charting Tiger’s roller-coaster career makes for an entertaining read and overflows with records and spectacular statistics. Back in 1996, he turned pro after a brilliant amateur career which resulted in earning the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. Less than a year after turning professional, Tiger won his first Major, the Masters at Augusta (the youngest ever winner of the tournament) and claimed the world number 1 spot a couple of months later. In 2000, he became only the fifth player to complete the career Grand Slam, which includes winning the Masters, US Open, British Open, and the PGA Championship. In 2002, he successfully defended his 2001 Masters victory and was once again the US Open champion, adding another accolade as the youngest golfer in history to win 7 majors. In 2004, Woods dropped out of the world number 1 ranking for the first time in 264 weeks, a record only bested by Woods himself, at 281 weeks. His dominance is reflected in the stats, only 3 players have spent an entire calendar year as world number 1: Nick Faldo in 1993, Greg Norman in 1996, and Woods in two separate 4-year stints (2000-2003, 2006-2009).
Tiger would go on to push through this so-called “slump” to win his 9th and 10th Majors in 2005 to join Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win all four Majors at least twice. The first of the major turning points in Tiger’s life came when his father Earl passed away in 2005. Earl had been seen as Tiger’s guiding force and one of the biggest influencers to his career and subsequent success. Yet the strength of character that Woods possesses shone through, as Woods claimed his 11th Major just a month on from his father’s death. Woods’ previously steady career form began to fluctuate in the following years as he underwent knee surgery in 2008, won another PGA Tour event two months later, and then promptly announced he was to undergo more knee surgery and withdrew from the rest of the season’s events. After 9 months out with surgery and rehabilitation, Woods returned to action and success as he won his first tournament in Australia, was photographed with President Obama in the Oval Office, and was named by Forbes as the first athlete to earn $1 billion. But his career would fall apart with the swing of a club, just not the kind of swing he was used to. In November of 2009, Woods extra-marital exploits were unearthed and a public row with his then wife Elin Nordegren ended in spectacular fashion as Woods fled their home, crashed his car due to a mix of Ambien and Vicodin that Woods had taken to combat his insomnia, and Nordegren smashed the windows of his car with a golf club. Woods personal and professional lives were thrown into disarray as the allegations of cheating piled up, Tiger’s endorsements with Nike, Gatorade, and Gillette were cancelled and he entered rehab for a sex addiction.
Tiger’s game never recovered, and his form dipped; he won his last event in 2013 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. His body was failing him, and injuries followed by surgeries had looked to put Tiger out of the fold for good, but as the English philosopher Bernard Williams once coined: “Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.” This was certainly true of Tiger Woods’ spirit as he fought adversity to come back to the stage he is now at. Somewhere around the 2nd surgery I gave up any belief that he would make it back to the big leagues, I imagine most players and fans had long since abandoned hope of a Tiger return. It is simply one of the most astonishing stories of sports history. If you are able to separate the man from the athlete and ignore his faults and indiscretions, it cannot be denied that this man is one of the greatest athletes of our, or any generation. His success on the golf course is unparalleled and clearly his influence and charm haven’t diminished as crowds that I have never seen the like of before, galloped up that 18th fairway in screeching herds to watch golf’s biggest star do what he does best. From outside the top 1100 in the world, to reclaiming his majesty in the space of less than 10 months. An astonishing golf career just got even better.
The Ryder Cup is just around the corner (at the time of writing, please God let Europe win), and it just got a hell of a lot more interesting. It looks like Tiger is back on track and has his sights set on eclipsing Sam Snead’s 82 PGA Tour victories. Should he achieve this, Woods will undoubtedly go down as one of golf’s most unforgettable characters and sports’ most dominant performers.