Stage set for a Masters homecoming for Woods

A triumph at Augusta could be the crowning glory for Woods’ amazing comeback

The return of Tiger Woods to golf’s top tier seems to have caught many by surprise. First suggested at the beginning of last year, rumours of a comeback were dismissed as purely speculative and it appeared unlikely that he would ever relive his glory days. However, his win at the Tour Championship at East Lake in September is proof that such a theory may not be so implausible. Moreover, he has enjoyed a good run of form on the PGA tour so far and is currently 14/1 to win the Masters in Augusta this weekend.

In December, Jack Nicklaus admitted that, to his surprise, Woods’ comeback may be the real deal: “I think his swing is much better now than it ever was. I never dreamed that he would play quite as well as he has and that the operation actually levelled out his head and levelled out his swing.” As he collected the FedEx Cup at East Lake, Justin Rose claimed the return of Woods was “great for the sport, great for the game” and that his fellow players have “been wanting him to win”. Hardly.

Granted, Rose is correct in saying that golf has been anxiously waiting for its superstar to return to form. Woods still has the ability to capture the attention of both hardcore and casual fans; last year’s Tour Championship was the most-watched in the tournament’s history. From the player’s perspective, however, Woods’ resurgence should not come as welcome news. It was arguably his long absence from golf’s top table that facilitated the rise of many of the sport’s new stars, and the fact that none of them have truly experienced the intimidation that comes with playing against an in-form Woods may come back to bite them.

Woods’ last Major win came at the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, which he won despite a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and fractured tibia. It is cited as one of Woods’ most remarkable career victories, and exemplifies the player at his peak. He was an athlete who pushed his body to the absolute limit to achieve sporting immortality, but he also refused to listen to his physiotherapists, doctors and his swing coach Hank Haney, all of whom expressed concern at the physical toll of his relentless pursuit of glory.

“With very few hobbies or interests to help him take his mind off the agony, Woods had no choice but to carry the burden.”

In the early stages of his career, Woods’ game plan revolved around an emphasis on strength and physical dominance. Already mastering shot selection and accuracy, the young prodigy developed a much more powerful swing to negotiate difficult courses like Augusta, Pebble Beach, and the Old Course at St. Andrews. Woods began by putting more strength workouts into his gym schedule, but eventually he felt this simply wasn’t enough. Ever the perfectionist, Woods constantly made significant changes to his swing, while taking drastic measures in the pursuit of athletic perfection, including regular Navy SEAL training sessions.

All these strategies led to the rapid deterioration of Woods’ body and had huge consequences for his athletic ability. Pushing your body to the absolute physical limit is more suited to fast-paced sports like rugby or American football; golf takes a more measured, patient, and delicate approach. However, Woods would not heed the advice of his coaching staff, and insisted on his demanding playing style. Fans gazed in horror as they saw their favourite player wince and struggle every time he took a shot. Woods himself admits that by the 2010s, as he was making his comeback from injury and the scandals in his private life, he had gotten to a stage where he “equated golf to pain”. With very few hobbies or interests to help him take his mind off the agony, Woods had no choice but to carry the burden.

Suddenly in 2018, Woods’ outlook on life changed. Arrested for driving under the influence of narcotics the previous year, Woods emerged from rehabilitation with a sobering realisation of his responsibility to his two children. Having grown up during some very turbulent years in his life, Woods became aware that his children had never seen him win a Major tournament. Woods also now understood the importance of life away from the golf course and his new approach to family was demonstrated when he brought his children to see tennis player and good friend Rafael Nadal play in the US Open in 2017.

“His early performances on this year’s PGA Tour have suggested a return to his dominant best.”

Woods channelled his positive energy into his golf. Moving away from a style built on power, he now favours a more clinical driving game, getting the ball to comfortable spots on the fairway before pulling off dazzling approach shots. His generally conservative style gave him a lot more consistency, but his short game still needed improvements if he was going to turn heads. Most striking of all is his putting game, in which he has made remarkable improvements. His early performances on this year’s PGA Tour have suggested a return to his dominant best.

It is not just his playing style; Woods cuts a much more relaxed, comfortable figure now than in previous years, no doubt a result of his fresh perspective on life in general. Before the tumultuous year that was 2009, Woods was defined by his clinical, ruthless personality. Players on the tour found it difficult to play against him, not just because of his unrivalled skill inside the ropes, but also his cold demeanour. While he was adorned with praise and high fives whenever he made a brilliant shot or putt, he could not be counted on to return the favour. Even during his varsity years at Stanford, Woods was known for his unwillingness to fraternise with his playing partners. He kept a very small circle of friends and his intense training schedule left very little room for socialising. In other words, Woods was a golfer and nothing else. The sport became all that mattered to him.

Recently, Woods exhibited his composure at the WGC-Mexico Championship. Faced with an incredibly awkward bunker shot on the ninth hole in the second round, Woods beautifully curved a 132-yard shot to land 11 feet from the pin. After years in the wilderness, the magnificent Tiger Woods had returned. Socially speaking, his walls have come down too. At the Players Championship in March, he shared a joke with playing partner Kevin Na on the green at the 17th. While it seems tenuous to the uninitiated, many commentators remarked that the Woods of old would never have seemed so relaxed as to participate in friendly banter with a fellow player. He has achieved something of an inner peace and players should take note that he might not be so easily rattled as before.

At the time of publication, Woods is 14/1 to win the Masters behind bookies’ favourite Rory McIlroy and World Number One Dustin Johnson. However, Johnson has never achieved higher than fourth at Augusta National, while McIlroy has a history of falling short of expectations at the famous tournament. Moreover, Woods has already gotten the better of McIlroy this season, beating him in a thrilling last-16 tie at the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play. He has the accuracy, the killer instinct, and now the healthy attitude; if, come Sunday, he dons the Green Jacket, the world will know for sure that Tiger has rediscovered his bite.

Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill was the Sports Editor of Trinity News for Michaelmas 2018. He is a Senior Fresh English Literature and French student.