AUGUSTA, Ga. — The way Tiger Woods is going, one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best lines is dead. “There are no second acts in American lives” takes no account of Woods’s comeback from multiple surgeries and an opioid-fuelled brush with the law. Golf’s fallen star is a 10-1 favourite in some bookmaking lists to win the Masters.
That price is absurd. To place Woods ahead of Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy or Justin Spieth is a colossal leap of faith — a lurch into the past. But the second act in Woods’s life is being enthusiastically packaged here at Augusta, with one American media outlet emoting about a possible victory for the world’s most famous golfer: “That would complete the greatest athlete comeback in sports history, and it’s not even close.”
For those with longer memories, Muhammad Ali’s return from exile imposed on him for refusing the Vietnam draft to reclaim the world heavyweight title would take some shifting in the redemption charts. A fifth Masters win for Woods, though, 13 years after his last, would shake the sporting world.
Much is made of the emotional turmoil in Woods’s story: an arc stretching from the fire-hydrant crash and infidelity firestorm of 2009 to his arrest last year in Florida for driving under the influence (police say he had THC, the active ingredient for marijuana, the painkillers Vicodin and Dilaudid, the anxiety and sleep drug Xanax, and the anti-insomnia drug Ambien in his system when he was found unconscious at the wheel of his Mercedes).
Those details sent the celebrity-downfall industry into overdrive. Wrapped inside the rise-and-fall narrative was a salient fact about Woods’s chance of returning to the top. The heavy drug use stemmed largely from his fourth back operation, in April: the gruesome “spinal fusion surgery” that sounded like the last rites on a spectacular career. This was his fourth back operation since March 2014.
No wonder he says: “I got a second chance on life. I am a walking miracle.” And that miracle strode on to the range after lunch on the first practice day in grey trousers and pink shirt, with Fred Couples, another golf survivor. The excitement in the small crowd around the range was a foretaste of the curiosity deluge that will meet Woods’s first round in the Masters in 1,090 days.
He has played five tournaments in 2018, with a second-place (at the Valspar Championship in March) and two top-10 finishes. In that time he has surged from 656th in the world rankings at the end of 2017 to 104th now.
For three of the last four years — and both of the last two — Woods has been at Augusta only to attend the champions’ dinner, to eat and reminisce. The old star of that ritual is Jack Nicklaus, and Nick Faldo has said in the build-up to this year’s event: “You should ask Jack Nicklaus what Tiger said to Jack a year ago (at the dinner). I believe it’s not a secret, I think it’s out there. He said, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ Tiger was that negative.” Twelve months ago, Woods was unable to swing a club. “I was debilitated,” he confessed last week on his website.
Faldo, a three-time Masters winner, also says of Woods: “He’s going to threaten. He has the potential. His game is amazing. I think he’s ahead of schedule. He’s been in there competing for the last couple of events.
“That’s the most important thing — you’ve got to climb that ladder and scare yourself. How he’s found five more miles per hour in club-head speed in his 40s after a fused back is unbelievable.”
Nicklaus, meanwhile, is central to the melodrama, from early brilliance to improbable comeback now. Ever since Woods destroyed the Augusta National course to win by 12 strokes in 1997, sport has obsessed about him beating Nicklaus’ record of 18 major wins. As Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian point out in their new biography, Tiger Woods, their subject watched Nicklaus win the 1986 Masters and later wrote: “Jack was 46, and I was only 10, and I couldn’t put it into words then. But I wanted to be where he was, and doing what he was doing.”
The book’s authors say: “After the 1986 Masters, Golf Digest published a list of Nicklaus’s career accomplishments. It included his age at the time of each significant achievement. Tiger tacked the list to his bedroom wall.
“From that moment on, each morning when he woke up and each night when he went to bed, Nicklaus was there.”
The Nicklaus renaissance win in 1986 — one of Augusta’s greatest victories — could yet be an inspiration for Woods, 42, who is only four years younger than Nicklaus back then. “There are a few guys that can do it late in their career,” Woods said at the weekend, as fellow pros lined up to welcome his return.
Gratitude is obligatory. As Benedict and Keteyian remind us, Woods’s 1997 Masters win was the most watched golf broadcast in American history: 43 million, or 15 per cent of U.S. households. As his reign unfolded, PGA tour purses rose from $67 million in 1996, his first year as a pro, to $363 million in 2017-18, with the average soaring from $1.5 million to $7.4 million.
As Woods says, “the narrative has completely flipped,” and the cautionary tale of his downfall has carried him back up Magnolia Lane for another try.
A second act — however fragile, however long it lasts.