Few in any sport have exerted the gravitational pull of red-shirted Tiger Woods on championship Sundays. For twelve years he dominated the landscape, shooting eighteen under par to demolish the field in his first professional Masters, inventing the Tiger Slam, an unprecedented four straight majors over two seasons, and seizing fourteen majors and dozens of other tournaments. A succession of injuries then derailed him. Don’t try to remember all the maladies. Find a long list online and print it.
In the 2008 U.S. Open, on a left knee that had to be rebuilt immediately afterward, he limped around the course, cringing after shots, and still tied Rocco Mediate before beating him the next day in an eighteen-hole playoff plus one of sudden death. Tiger was then thirty-two, still young for a golfer, and I projected he’d win at least twenty majors and perhaps twenty-five. He played like Paul Bunyan off the tee and Mozart on the greens. He’d rehab and come back splendid as ever.
In 2009 he won six tournaments, more than most pros in a career, but captured no major titles, finishing second once and sixth twice. On a late November night that year his wife Elin, learning of his infidelities, attacked him with a golf club and Tiger fled in his car, hitting a fire hydrant and tree and spraining his neck. He didn’t win any tournaments in 2010 nor did he finish in the top three. His neck forced withdrawal from one tournament and one assumes he was also humiliated not because he accepted sensual opportunities most men would have but due to loss of privacy. The following year he injured his left Achilles heel, the pivot of a powerful golf swing, and sprained the reconstructed left knee, and again failed to win any titles or place in the top three. Imagine Babe Ruth going homerless for two seasons. Envision Tom Brady throwing only interceptions. Meet chronically injured Tiger Woods.
In 2012 he again strained his left Achilles heel and, ominously, felt stiffness in his back, causing him to withdraw from a tournament. He still won three titles but for the fourth straight season was shut out at the majors. Jack Nicklaus, whose eighteen victories had once been doomed, became more relaxed about historical rankings and asked why he would want Tiger to win the big ones. The Golden Bear didn’t mind Tiger taking six regular tournaments in 2013 and earning PGA player of the year: in majors, his best finishes were fourth in the Masters and sixth in the British Open. He again reported tightness in his back and another time fell to his knees after an attack of spasms.
The back of Tiger Woods was becoming a regular topic on the news. In March 2014 he withdrew from a tournament due to pain. A week later, his back still aflame, he shot seventy-eight, the worst final-round score of his career. Ten days later he abandoned another tournament. In less than two weeks he had back surgery and announced he couldn’t play in the Masters, which he’d won four times, but would return to the links that summer. After missing the U.S. Open, he finished sixty-ninth in the British Open and missed the cut in the PGA. For the season, he teed it up only seven times and had but one top twenty-five finish.
Maybe Tiger’s through, many fans said and fellow players whispered. Those who still believed in the Tiger phenomenon probably reconsidered when he had his second back surgery, another micro-discectomy, in September 2015 and a third operation that October. In eleven tournaments that season he made only six cuts, won no titles, and placed in the top ten once. He didn’t play any tournament golf in 2016 and last year entered only one event before undergoing his fourth back surgery, a spinal fusion. This surely wasn’t the timeline of a man with championships in his future.
It’s now been more than ten years, an athletic eternity, since Tiger’s captured a major and five since he’s won anything, but his name isn’t appearing in medical bulletins and he’s competing in tournaments and usually making cuts, several times finishing in the top ten including a tie for sixth in the British Open, and now it’s time for the final major of 2018, the PGA. He’s even par after the first round and eight under after the third, trailing muscular Brooks Koepka by four. That’s a lot of strokes against a young man who hits the ball long and straight, plays likes he’s relaxed, and makes lots of big putts.
On Sunday Tiger’s wild off the tee, missing every fairway on the front nine. Doesn’t that mean disaster? Today, he’s three under par and bombarding pins with his irons and sinking short putts. On the back nine he’s less inaccurate from the tee and moves within one of implacable Koepka, who’s won the last two U.S. Opens. Fans line every Tiger fairway and encircle all his greens. Birdies bring volcanic cheers. Bogies elicit groans. At home I’m engrossed as the fans. Tiger can win this thing. He’s forty-two and half but hot in his red shirt and within a single stroke. Two holes away, brawny Brooks Koepka hears what’s happening.
Tiger’s on seventeen now, a long par five, the kind he used to manhandle but he’s wild again, way right beyond the rough and a stream, under trees, and must hit a short shot into the fairway, leaving him almost two hundred forty yards to the green. He can’t get on in regulation and bogies the hole. If he knows what Brooks Koepka’s doing he understands he’s two strokes down and the granitic leader probably isn’t going to break. It doesn’t matter. This is Tiger Sunday and on the final green he sinks another putt, carding a sixty-four, and the roar and his signature fist pump feel like victory. Technically, he finishes two strokes behind but he’s back, second in the PGA, and his fans now expect more birdies and great shots and a prompt return to victory circle. In 2019 he’ll be forty-three and facing eleven years since that last big one, limping around Torrey Pines in the U.S. Open, but we’ll be thinking: Hale Irwin won the U.S. Open at age forty-five, Jack Nicklaus the Masters at forty-six, Julius Boros the PGA at forty-eight. Tiger’s got time.