By David Mullen
Was it the greatest comeback in sports history? Was it the greatest surprise in sports history? Was it the greatest moment in sports history?
After Tiger Woods’ performance in winning the Masters on April 14, people are giving credit to Woods for all three.
Woods overcame a final round two-stroke deficit — and the thought that his chronic back problems could return — and won the 2019 Masters by one stroke with a brilliant back nine while other golfers faltered. It was Woods’ first Masters victory in 14 years, and his fifth overall since 1997 when he catapulted to the top of the golf, sports and social world.
His first Masters victory was game-changing. The irony of a black man winning the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, so long looked at as an exclusive club for white gentlemen, was part of the changing of the guard. The picture of Woods embracing his father after the final round that day was nearly replicated more than two decades later when he hugged his young son Charlie after he did the improbable, if not impossible.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Woods encapsulated the American sports hero. A man from a middle class, racially-mixed family was not only conquering a game considered by many as unapproachable and elitist, but he was destroying the record books.
He gained single-named status. Sinatra. Elvis. Tiger. His fame was worldwide.
Suddenly, people who had never picked up a golf club were trying to be like Tiger.
He did more for the game of golf than any single player, with the help of his confidence, panache and the Nike Swoosh on his garments.
There is no doubt golf suffered from Woods’ absence. He was stuck on 14 major championship victories.
He had four back surgeries in three years. His marriage was in shambles. He was arrested for being asleep at the wheel of his car with his body full of painkillers to relieve his aching back. He became fodder for the tabloids and the brunt of jokes. He may never win a major tournament again. And golf declined in popularity.
He tried to compete, but struggled. There were signs of the old Woods, but those were few and far between, and he just couldn’t keep everything in sync for 72 holes.
Augusta National Golf Club course is held in the highest esteem, and rightfully so. Its beauty makes it the one golf event per year that even a person with the least amount of interest in golf watches.
The television production values are incredible, but that is like giving the canvas credit for a Monet or Cézanne painting.
The golf course is breathtaking. The greens and fairways are perfect in vivid green. The azaleas are in bloom and the course is lined with dogwood trees. Plus, the other three major golf championships — the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open and the Open (British) Championship — are played on a different course each year. There is such familiarity with Augusta in April that it has become synonymous with spring.
There was no better venue for Woods to have his comeback party.
The Augusta “patrons” — as fans must be called according to the powers that be — became downright fanatical, cheering “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” as Woods approached his implausible victory. Everything seemed right again. Players competing on the course will tell you that they can hear a cheer from onlookers when someone hits a brilliant shot. But it is much different when they hear the “Tiger roar.”
Comebacks, surprises or great moments come around all too infrequently in sport. There was Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World” in the 1951 playoff game between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers.
Cassius Clay “shocked the world” when he beat Sonny Liston in 1964 to win the boxing World Championship at 22. The Joe Namath-led New York Jets surprised the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, forever changing professional football.
A year later, the haphazard New York Mets did the impossible and won the World Series in what has been dubbed “Amazin.’”
Franco Harris made the “Immaculate Reception” on the final play of the game leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory over their arch rival Oakland Raiders in the 1972 AFC playoffs.
Unheralded North Carolina State shocked Houston in the 1983 NCAA Championship game with a last second put-in.
In 1988, Kurt Gibson limped off the Los Angeles Dodgers bench to hit a game winning home run off of the unhittable Dennis Eckersley of the heavily favored Oakland A’s to spurn the Dodgers on to a World Series victory.
And at 46, Jack Nicklaus won his sixth Masters in dramatic fashion.
What Tiger Woods did in the 2019 Masters was stunning. Greatest comeback, surprise or moment? Only history will decide.
At this point, let’s call it the greatest comeback, not for the game but more for the man.