Tiger Roars: How Woods separated himself from a stacked leaderboard to pick up major #15

Tiger Roars: How Woods separated himself from a stacked leaderboard to pick up major #15

“The next press release Tiger Woods should release should be “I’m retiring””.

April 20, 2017 is a day that lives in infamy among golfing lore, but not for anything that occurred on any course. It was on this day that Tiger Woods underwent his fourth back surgery, this time a spinal fusion and it was also the day many fans and sports analysts such as Jemele Hill wrote off Woods’ career for good. It had been nearly four years since Woods last won and the younger generation comprised of stars such as Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson had all began finding their groove on tour. With after another visit to the surgeon’s table and the new generation taking golf to a level we’d never seen, it was difficult to find the light at the end of the tunnel for the dedicated members of Team Tiger.

While the media was willing to write off the greatest golfer of all time, this fusion surgery provided more hope than previous operations. While none of us pretended to understand what the procedure entailed, it was comforting to hear that this wasn’t just another band-aid procedure. Tiger was trying to make a permanent change to the health of his back and this is what gave his fans hope.

There were encouraging signs when he returned in 2018. Two straight top-fives at the Valspar and the Arnold Palmer and two brilliant performances at the final two majors of the year. It was remarkable to see a man who once looked like he may never be able to play golf again, comeback and not only play in these major tournaments, but compete and give the winners everything they could handle. The latter half of the season provided hopes of greatness for his fans, but the second-place result at the PGA Championship also left a sting that had a little more attached then just the loss.

-14 would have won the PGA Championship at Bellerive a lot of times in Tiger’s heyday, but the new generation that includes players such as champion Brooks Koepka didn’t bat an eye and took everything Tiger could throw at them. My concern that Tiger would not hoist another major championship had nothing to do with a decline of his game, rather the strength of his new competition. With so many killers hunting for trophies every time out, it was going to be difficult for Tiger to beat every single one of them over four rounds of golf. Tiger no longer has the distance and putting advantage he once enjoyed on tour and in the new age of the PGA Tour, you better find an advantage if you want to have success.

It wasn’t until his season-ending win at the Tour Championship where we saw that advantage and it once again gave me hope that Tiger would hoist another major championship.

Everyone always talks about the mental side of golf and the importance of being able to keep a level head. Watching Tiger work his way around East Lake, it was apparent that while he might not have the distance of Koepka and Johnson, or the putting of Justin Rose or Xander Schauffele, no one can compete with his mental game. The mental game doesn’t just include being able block out pressure and respond to adversity. In the case of Woods, his mental game was maneuvering his golf ball around the course, putting his golf ball in the correct position to achieve success. Tiger used to be able to overpower his competition and go out and attack aggressively. While we still the aggressiveness from time-to-time, he picks his places to be aggressive and only does so when he put himself in the proper positions. His game isn’t perfect, but it’s become all about minimizing mistakes. We saw him do that at East Lake brilliantly, only making one double bogey on the week. Even on his stretch of six birdies in his first seven holes on Saturday at East Lake, Tiger didn’t try to do too much with what he was given, he played the course that was in front of him, took on challenges only when his positions dictated he should and ultimately came out with his first win in six years at the Tour Championship.

All of Tiger’s experience and intelligence having played these golf courses for over twenty years gave me faith that he had his new advantage, knowing when to take on challenges versus when to play it safe, and knowing where to put his golf ball when doing so. There’s no place in the world where this data would be more beneficial than Augusta National, one of the most challenging tracks on the planet. Coming in hot after a solid final 27 holes at THE PLAYERS and a great performance at the WGC Matchplay, there was no question that his game was there, it came down to whether or not he could use his mental game and knowledge of Augusta to set him apart from his competition.

In one of the greatest Masters tournaments of all-time, Woods was able to set himself apart from the charging pack based on his knowledge of the course, his patience and his ability to avoid catastrophic mistakes. On day four, he didn’t find himself outdriving Tony Finau or outputting Francesco Molinari, but he avoided costly mistakes that ended up being his playing partner’s downfalls.

The 12th hole ended up being the turning point in the round for more groups than one. Molinari held a two-stroke lead standing on the famous tee block and inexplicably took an unnecessary risk trying to go at the flagstick on the right side of the green. He ended up short and watched helplessly as his ball rolled back into the water. In the last two groups, there were four people who had a legitimate chance to win the golf tournament. Three of them (Molinari, Koepka and Finau) went for the flagstick and all ended up short and in the water. The one person who played it safe and to the centre of the green? Tiger Woods.

Molinari was broken by the mistake and was never going to be able to recover, making a second double-bogey on his way to a final round 74. There were a number of players who had an opportunity to take the tournament by the horns and win a green jacket. Schauffele, Koepka and Johnson all had chances to put their mark on the tournament, but they all made mistakes. The one person who didn’t make any mistakes coming down the final stretch? Tiger Woods.

He continued to play smart and reasonable shots, only taking risks when he had the opportunity to do so, such as his near hole-in-one on 16. He hit safe spots on the green on every hole and made sure he hit putts that gave the ball a chance, but also didn’t risk three-putts. He found the right plateaus and fairway positions to give him good angles and looks at the hole, ensuring he wouldn’t make a mistake. All of it left Tiger with a relatively pressure-free walk up to the 18th green, knowing a bogey would still ensure victory. After his one-foot tap-in on the 18th green, Tiger and the golfing community screamed out in excitement and relief.

It’s the greatest comeback any athlete has ever experienced and it set the sporting world on fire. This was a moment 11 years in the making and there was nothing that was going to spoil the spectacle. After hugging his father after so many major victories, it was incredible to see Tiger hugging his own children after Sunday’s victory. The Masters is one of the most traditional golf tournaments in the world and with such an untraditional Sunday with the early start and threesomes, it was fitting to see Tiger on the 18th green with his fifth green jacket, a staple of the game returning to success in one of the most unconventional ways, four back surgeries later.

While his first fourteen majors were won because he was a significantly more talented golfer than the rest of the world, fifteen was won because of his experience and his stronger mental game then the rest of the field. Here’s to sixteen and beyond, because golf is better with Tiger Woods on top.

It’s a good thing Woods didn’t take Hill’s advice, because we would have been denied one of the greatest moments and stories in sports history. From all of us that have longed for this day to come, welcome back to the major winner’s circle, Tiger. May the Big Cat keep roaring.

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