These next three weeks are going to be an eternity.
That’s how it feels, anyway, now that Tiger Woods is back to being Tiger Woods. After his thrilling run at the Valspar Open erased any doubts about whether he can win again with a rebuilt back, I want the Masters to start today, not 24 agonizingly long days from now.
Yes, he’s playing this week at Bay Hill, where he’s won a record eight times. But it’s not the same.
The Masters and Augusta National have always been the best measure of Woods. It’s where he’s had his greatest success, shattering the record books on his way to his first major title in 1997 and winning three times after that. He has 13 top-10 finishes in 20 starts at Augusta, and was still four months away from turning pro the one and only time he failed to make the cut there.
Even after the green jackets “Tiger-proofed” Augusta National, no course suited him better. With his length off the tee and crisp short game, Woods could tame even the most diabolical of Augusta National’s holes. (Talking about you, No. 10. And No. 4. And No. 11.) As one of the best putters in the game, he was an equal match for Augusta’s slick and deceptive greens.
“This tournament is so special to me for so many reasons,” Woods said in 2015, the last time he played the Masters. “There’s no other tournament like it.”
When the expectations on him were being sharply curtailed after his last back surgery – “He’ll never beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.” “He’ll never win another major.” “He might never win another tournament.” – the Masters was always the asterisk. So long as his back could tolerate it and his putting was solid, he could never be counted out.
While it’s true he hasn’t won at Augusta since 2005, or in any major since 2008, he’s been in the top four six times since he last won his green jacket. Given how he looked last week on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Golf Resort, where his tie for second was his best finish since The Barclays in 2013, there’s no reason to think he won’t be a factor at the Masters.
And what a story that would be.
There have been athletes who’ve made extraordinary comebacks before. Eleven months after a near-fatal collision with a bus, Ben Hogan returned to the PGA Tour at the Los Angeles Open and lost in a playoff. He would win the U.S. Open at Merion later that year. In the first 20 games after his return from treatment for Hodgkin’s disease, Mario Lemieux scored 30 goals.
There are athletes who’ve excelled in their 40s before. Nicklaus won the Masters, his final major, when he was 46. You might have heard of a guy named Tom Brady.
But to be both? Staging an impressive return when you’re at the back end of a career? It just isn’t done. And certainly not when you’re 42 with a back that’s more like 62. It was, mind you, only a year ago that he was bedridden with pain, hoping for enough of a recovery that he could spend quality time with his kids.
Woods, though, has been defying expectations and convention his entire career. After what he did last weekend, I fully expect Amen Corner to echo with the thunderous roars only Tiger can produce. The year’s first major will be buzzing with a level of energy and excitement not seen since 2010.
Tiger’s back, and Masters week cannot come soon enough.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.