Neil Tappin looks back over the last 18 months of Tiger's life on and off the golf course to explain why this was Tiger's greatest ever win
Why this was Tiger’s greatest ever win
It’s Tuesday January 31st 2017 and Tiger Woods has made an unexpected appearance on the practice range at the Dubai Desert Classic. Having just missed the cut at Torrey Pines the week before, Tiger’s latest return was off to a rocky start. With camera phones following his every step, Woods started his practice session and I could hardly believe what I was watching. The greatest ball-striker of his generation was hitting fat shots, sweeping hooks and sideways blocks. The array of different contacts was more akin to what you’d see at your local World Of Golf than a leading professional tournament. At this moment I learned it was possible to feel sympathy for one of the greatest sportsmen of all time. It was a golfing breakdown that was taking place in front of a captivated audience.
Tiger Woods teed it up in the 2017 Dubai Desert Classic, shot 77 in the opening round and withdrew from the event the following day. In boxing terms, Woods was on the canvass, flat on his back and seeing stars.
I, like many others who had seen him in person that week, was convinced this was the end. No more would Tiger Woods grace golf’s world stage. It was an open and shut case, or so I thought.
What very few people, myself included, failed to comprehend at this stage was just how bad his physical condition had become. After all, he was competing in a professional golf tournament, how bad could it be? Behind the scenes, the situation was desperate. When Woods returned to golf at the end of 2017 he spoke of how he’d spent much of the previous two years in bed. At his press conference ahead of the Hero World Challenge he said, “’I didn’t realise the slow, degrading nature of my back and how bad it had gotten to. It was a slow process and I just didn’t truly understand how far I’d fallen in that regard.”
“It’s just hard to imagine that I was living the way I was living,” he continued. “Foot not working, leg not working, the hours of not being able to sleep at all because of the pain. I was trying to go away from the pain, trying to sleep, which I hadn’t done in a very long time because of the things I had been dealing with.”
This explains one of the lowest moments of this period. In May 2017, Woods was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of a concoction of pain-killers and sleeping drugs. The dashcam footage that was released by the police showed him unable to follow basic instructions or even to walk in a straight line. He was given 50 hours of community service and spent a year on probation. At this point, Tiger’s former glory was a distant memory.
However, things were soon to improve. The medical procedure that changed everything was spinal fusion surgery. Effectively, this involves taking two painful bones in the spine and fusing them together to make one stronger, pain-free bone. As he told the press in November last year, “The surgery was about quality of life – I didn’t really have much.”
“The neatest thing for me is to get out of bed, grab a club and not have to use it as a crutch.”
When he teed up at that Hero World Challenge, his first event of the 2018 eason, Tiger’s world ranking had plummeted to 1,199.
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Fast forward to the present and Woods is now ranked 13th in the world. It has been a staggering resurgence that has seen him make 16 of 18 cuts and record seven top 10 finishes on the PGA Tour this season. He also had two realistic chances to win majors including a second place finish at the final major of the year.
His triumph at the PGA Tour’s season-ending event, the Tour Championship, was the final piece of the jigsaw, an exclamation mark at the end of one of sport’s greatest fight-backs. Even with 14 major wins to his name including the 2008 US Open, won on a broken leg, this, the 80th win of his career, is surely his best.
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Less than 18 months ago, Woods was barely able to walk and his golf game that was in tatters. He’d been barely competitive for four years during which time a new wave of hungry, talented and devoutly professional golfers had emerged winning majors and writing their own chapter in golf’s history book. The batten, it seemed, had been well and truly passed on.
To win one of the biggest events of year aged 42 against the 29 highest ranked players on the PGA Tour is an astonishing achievement. Now all those questions about whether Tiger can eclipse the major record of Jack Nicklaus are being asked again and discussed in earnest. The Ryder Cup too has another enthralling story-line. For now, we should all revel in his most recent achievement, one that has defied all logic. Another chapter in the story of a true legend has been written.