Keeping Score

Woods’ comeback pales next to Hogan’s

For obvious reasons, the campaign quickly has cratered.

Tiger Woods, the man whose name this week appeared on more betting slips in Las Vegas, and with more money wagered on his Masters fate than any other player, isn’t going to win at Augusta National today, after spending parts of Saturday trying to avoid last place on the leaderboard. He was tied for 40th entering the final round (scores).

In a way, it should come as a relief to anybody who cares about the battle between historical perspective and context, versus hype, hysteria and knee-jerk proclamations.

In a media era when anybody with a cellphone camera or social-media account seemingly claims expertise in something, it’s disappointing when the paid professionals make a fast grab at the low-hanging fruit. For instance, earlier this week, a longtime sports columnist at the Los Angeles Times wrote a story that described Woods’ comeback this spring as one of the greatest in the annals of sports.

On the eve of the Masters, he upped the ante on Twitter by removing any disclaimers: “It would be greatest personal and professional comeback in American sports history.”

Nobody is diminishing the magnitude of Woods’ attempt to resuscitate a career that seemingly had detonated multiple times on the launch pad because of physical issues. But in the pantheon of comebacks, it isn’t No. 1, not even in golf circles, and to suggest as much proves that a history lesson is very much in order.

Recharge those iPads, especially you millennials. Wipe clean the lenses on your Tiger love goggles. Herein begins the lesson.

As far as rising from scorched earth, nothing in golf touches the Ben Hogan story. Although the ending of Woods’ comeback bid remains unwritten, observers might want to choose their words more carefully when slinging around absolutes and declaratives. No question that what Woods has overcome to get himself back in the mix is as incomprehensible as it is jaw-dropping.

But Hogan all but climbed out of the grave, and just because it happened before the TV, Internet and smart-phone eras is no excuse for a contagion of viral ignorance spread by the unenlightened. So, in the interest of balance, allow us to compare and contrast their somewhat parallel tales, and why any description of “heroic” as it relates to Woods’ determined comeback effort should be avoided at all cost.

In early 1949, while driving in his sedan across a bridge with his wife seated beside him, Hogan was hit head-on in traffic, leaving him in critical condition. A moment before the accident, as the headlights of a bus loomed ahead, Hogan dived across the front seat to protect his wife. To summarize, Hogan threw his body across his wife to save her. Woods, on the other hand, figuratively threw his then-wife under a bus. 

Much has been written, including in the unauthorized biography “Tiger Woods,” which was released two weeks ago, about the corruptive influence of the late Earl Woods on his son’s life (“ ‘Tiger Woods’ biography plays it down middle,” April 3). Fair enough. At least his dad was around. According to multiple resources, Hogan was 9 years old when he discovered the body of his father in the family home, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Hogan grew up without a dad in hardscrabble Texas, selling newspapers to help the family buy food, while dealing with abandonment and feelings of inferiority.

Woods has endured four back surgeries, including spinal fusion last year that left his future so much in doubt that he called PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan six months ago to ask for a job as the Presidents Cup captain in 2019. When Woods calls the surgical procedure “a miracle,” he’s not stretching the truth by much. But when Hogan was rushed to the hospital after the ’49 crash, he was told that he might never again walk. His pelvis was crushed, a rib was chipped, and his collarbone and left ankle were broken. Doctors tied off an artery because they feared blood clots might kill him or result in a catastrophic stroke. He was hospitalized for 59 days, and didn’t play for more than a year. Then with his legs heavily bandaged, he hobbled through 36 holes on Saturday to win the 1950 U.S. Open.

Woods’ dalliances with the Navy SEALs and special-forces types have been the subject of great interest, as well as a good bit of ridicule, and rightly so in both regards. Yet Hogan’s career suffered when he served in the U.S. Army Air Forces from March 1943 to June 1945, while at the peak of his powers. This wasn’t a wannabe weekend warrior running around in mock drills, either. It was World War II. In 1943 and ’44, he made three starts after winning the tour money titles in 1940, ’41 and ’42. He wasn’t drafted. He enlisted.

Hogan’s near-fatal crash happened because of limited visibility and hazy conditions on a dark night. Both of Woods’ career-denting roadside incidents transpired because he was in a self-induced pharmacological fog. He was fortunate that nobody else was injured.

Hollywood made a feature-length movie about the improbable comeback of Hogan called “Follow the Sun.” Filmmakers created at least three pornos about Woods and his trysts (after a while, it became difficult to keep track).

The circumstances of Woods’ comeback to this point aren’t remotely comparable on the course, either. After the accident, Hogan returned to win six of his nine career major championships, and he authored what many observers have called the greatest season in PGA Tour history. In 1953, he won five of his seven starts, including all three majors in which he entered. He was 40 years old.

We could continue, but the evidence seems pretty clear. Besides, a fairly key figure is in total agreement. On Tuesday at Augusta National, a certain former No. 1 was asked where his comeback ranks in the annals of the game. Some weren’t listening to the response, apparently. With no prompting, Woods immediately dropped Hogan’s name on the scribes in attendance.

“I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won major championships,” Woods said. “The pain he had to endure, the things he had to do just to play, the wrapping of the leg, all the hot tubs and just how hard it was for him to walk, period.”

Racked with pain, Woods played on a shredded leg throughout his last major victory, at the 2008 U.S. Open. He understands the suffering and sacrifices involved. Woods also has a grasp of the game’s history that few others, inside or outside the media center, possess.

“He ended up walking 36 holes and winning a U.S. Open,” Woods said of Hogan’s 1950 effort. “That's one of the greatest comebacks there is, and it happens to be in our sport.”

Sure, Hogan lived in a simpler time, when athletes weren’t forced to suffer the indignities of social media and 24-hour news networks when things went sideways. But Woods dug most of his personal potholes himself, and he knows it, so showering him with glory for overcoming those bad decisions seems pretty silly.

So, if and when Woods lifts another major-championship trophy – and hopefully it’ll happen soon – feel free to give me a nudge on Twitter. Only then would Woods’ comeback deserve to be discussed in the same timbre with Hogan’s.

Maybe.

Steve Elling has first reported from the Masters in 2001, and has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling


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