It was the comeback so many had yearned for, and in truth for the story to be as significant as it was, it couldn’t have happened anywhere else but Augusta.
But the question has to be 18 months on from Tiger Woods’ cathartic victory in the 2019 Masters: Was it just lightning in a bottle?
It was certainly a spectacular storm, if it was just that. 10 years of toil, scandal, surgeries, some near-things, so much promise, more than enough disappointment, culminating in the long-awaited 15th major title, and holding off a genuinely stellar leaderboard to do it at Augusta, of all places.
It also seemed like something that would grow. All those who said he’d never reach Jack Nicklaus’ unassailable pinnacle of 18 majors won had to reconsider, surely.
‘Relentless drive restored’
He’d contended at Carnoustie in the 2018 Open and made a couple of mistakes while playing partner Francesco Molinari made none, but he’d been close. Woods then contended in the PGA Championship later that year at Bellerive and made a late mistake that allowed Brooks Koepka to coast to victory.
It seemed almost symmetrical. Not only did he to make any errors down the stretch at the Masters – he made a few on the first 10 or 11 holes but wriggled free – it was Molinari and Koepka who made the big mistakes to put him in position.
As he punched the air with joy – and not a little defiance – at the moment of victory it seemed the old Tiger was back, energised, dynamic and with that relentless drive restored.
Two and a half months later, huddled under an awning and wrapped in four or five layers against the cool of an Antrim July, we saw a very different man.
By the Open Championship at Portrush, the narrative had altered. The effort to victory at Augusta and the emotional output had taken more out of him than he anticipated, he admitted, and a missed cut at the PGA followed. Even on his “home” course at Pebble Beach, he never really contended at the US Open.
At Portrush, after a dispiriting 78 when he didn’t look remotely fit or even properly warmed up, he talked about his fused back and the other injuries, the wear and tear of competition, and how he was playing on borrowed time.
A day later, he shot 70, and it was the old Tiger again, positive he had a chance for more majors. It wouldn’t be at Portrush, and it was also clear that in those conditions – pretty standard for the Open – regaining the Claret Jug was not really among his priorities.
In the humidity of an Asian autumn, Woods won the ZOZO Championship in Japan, shooting matching 64s for the first two rounds, ahead of one of the strongest non-major fields of the year. It seemed when the conditions suited, he would be as great as ever.
But without that win – which counted for 2020 – he wouldn’t have even made the PGA Tour playoffs in August. Although he was impressive at the President’s Cup, his already reduced schedule was decimated further by lockdown.
Still, Tiger would be well-rested and raring to go after lockdown, right? Instead, he hardly played. Tied for 37th at the PGA (when he was first out on Sunday) is his best performance in just four events since golf re-started.
‘A competitive golfer needs to compete’
It seems Woods is caught in his own Catch-22 – he needs the “reps” to get tournament ready, but he’s unable or unwilling to put them in.
Augusta is the place where Tiger has his best chance to win more majors. The weather will always suit, he has the most knowledge of the course of anyone left playing competitively, and he’s done it four times already.
That makes you wary of writing him off completely. But a competitive golfer needs to compete, and Woods hasn’t done that for too long now.