News & Opinion

Woods’ biggest win? No, but it’s up there

Amid the euphoria, hyperbole and deification of a man whom so many have felt qualified to demonize over the last 10 years, Tiger Woods reigns supreme once again. The comeback is complete, no matter where the road of resurgence leads from here. Woods’ 15th major title means the climb up Mount Nicklaus has resumed after a lengthy hiatus, and a look at the upcoming major sites suggests that Jack’s all-time record of 18 such victories suddenly seems quite attainable.

The primary goal here isn’t to predict the future, but to reflect on the past in an attempt to reconcile the here and now. Woods’ fifth Masters triumph this past weekend obviously generated enormous public approval, and for many reasons (“Woods pads legend with ‘greatest victory’,” April 15). The implication that “this is what everybody wanted,” however, is to ignore the feelings of many serious golf fans unwilling simply to forgive and forget Tiger’s myriad transgressions on and off the course for much of his career.

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What’s red and green and back on the scene at Augusta National? Why, Tiger Woods, of course, with his 5th green jacket. It might not have been as culturally significant as his 1997 Masters title or as dominating as his 2000 U.S. Open victory, but it ranks among Woods’ greatest hits.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
What’s red and green and back on the scene at Augusta National? Why, Tiger Woods, of course, with his 5th green jacket. It might not have been as culturally significant as his 1997 Masters title or as dominating as his 2000 U.S. Open victory, but it ranks among Woods’ greatest hits.

Richard Nixon referred to those who supported America’s involvement in the Vietnam War as the “silent majority.” I’m not sure anyone could accurately determine if the number of people who root against Woods is larger than those who root for him, but he remains one of the most polarizing athletes of our time. That won’t change because he won another Masters.

Nor does that make fools of those who consider him to be a hero or view his successful return to competitive golf as a storyline sent from heaven. From one of the most dominant sportsmen in American history to an unfaithful husband whose fame and marital indiscretions led to public disgrace, from a chronically injured golfer whose career appeared to be over to a guy whose tireless rehabilitation made him a major champion once again, there is an endearing, common-man theme to the resurrection of the Dude in the Red Shirt.

Everyone knows someone like Tiger Woods: a lost soul who picked himself up, dusted himself off and successfully turned his life around. Besides, everybody loves a winner – at least, a lot of people do – and when the journey back to glory is a long and bumpy one, people tend to disregard (or conveniently forget) those sordid events of the past.

With all that in mind, there’s a lot of outrageous stuff being said in the wake of Woods’ latest feat, a landmark victory by any estimation but one that Tiger himself declined to categorize as his greatest accomplishment during the post-round interview in Butler Cabin. There are lots of ways to size up brilliance, which only makes the value of perspective even more essential.

Was this the biggest win of Woods’ career?

It’s way up there, but ranking the 2019 Masters ahead of Woods’ utter destruction of Augusta National (and the field) in 1997 is a telltale sign that one is suffering from Latest Greatest Syndrome. The kid was 21 when he won his first major, by 12 shots. Not only was it the most dominant performance the game had ever seen, it sparked a wave of popularity that carried golf to new heights well into the 2000s.

Tiger by a Dozen single-handedly ushered the PGA Tour into America’s sporting mainstream and had a huge positive impact on golf’s recreational profile. Need more? Woods’ short-iron second shots into the back-nine par 5s in ’97 was the first indication to tournament brass that Augusta National needed to be modernized. In other words, Woods changed the course, changed the game and completely reconfigured the competitive landscape.

Jeff Rude, my longtime friend/podcast partner, and I don’t agree on much, but we came up with identical top 5s when ranking the most significant victories of Woods’ career:

  • 1997 Masters
  • 2000 U.S. Open
  • 2019 Masters
  • 2008 U.S. Open
  • 2001 Masters

Was this bigger than Nicklaus’ victory at the 1986 Masters?

Bigger than a fading, 46-year-old icon beating a who’s-who cast of superstars for his 18th major title, 5½ years after the previous one? I can’t even rank Tiger ’97 ahead of Jack ’86, despite the seismic social shift. The preposterous back-nine rally from a supposedly washed-up Olden Bear; the excruciating suspense; the twists and turns in a plot that remained fluid until Greg Norman’s miss for par on the 18th finally made it official.

One other factor worth noting: Woods came close at last year’s British Open and even closer at the PGA Championship. We could see this coming, which in no way dims the magnitude of the accomplishment. Nicklaus came out of nowhere and left with one of the most astounding triumphs in sports history. The crowning achievement in a life defined by an abundance of crowns.

Does this make Woods’ comeback the greatest ever?

Admirable? You betcha. Incredible? It’s getting there. The greatest ever?

Uh, Ben Hogan got hit by a bus. In a head-on collision that should have killed him. I’d list all the injuries if I had more space, or if he didn’t win the U.S. Open 16 months after the accident, or if he didn’t win five more majors after that. Hogan basically retired any argument as to the greatest comeback in sports history, much less in golf. If Woods wins the Grand Slam this year, we can revive the discussion.

This was the biggest triumph in sports since …?

Nothing over the past two calendar years surpasses Woods’ 15th major title, although I’m thinking even diehard golf fans in Philadelphia would claim the Eagles’ victory over New England in Super Bowl 52 was a bigger deal. We’re talking about a national scale, however, or in some cases an international stage, which takes me back to 2016.

Lebron James rallies the Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, bringing the city of Cleveland its first championship in 52 years? That was rather large.

Peyton Manning leads the Denver Broncos to victory in Super Bowl 50, his final NFL game? Talk about comebacks.

Leicester City FC captures soccer’s Premier League title as perhaps the biggest underdog since the inception of the bookie? We’re talking about 5,000-to-1 odds here.

How about the Chicago Cubs, who ended the longest drought in North American professional sports history in one of the most exciting World Series ever played?

All were memorable, as was the 2019 Masters. Regardless of what you make of it, Woods’ latest triumph is one of the biggest events in sports over the past few years.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com