It was at the 16th hole, nestled in one of the little valleys at Augusta National where the pine trees provide shade from the sun and their needles lie thick on the ground around the green, that what may yet become the greatest comeback in the history of sport took another dramatic leap towards fulfilment on Saturday.
As Tiger Woods stood over a seven foot putt for birdie, he knew that if he holed it, he would move into a share of the lead of the US Masters close to the end of its third day. It would not just be a milestone in a career that seemed be over two years ago, it would be a landmark in a life that was being lived out in police mugshots, supermarket magazines and the fog of painkilling drugs.
The fans knew what they were watching here. One of the greatest sportsmen in the world was back. He was really back. He was challenging for a fifth Green Jacket. He was making people dream that he might yet win the 15th Major that everyone had assumed was now beyond him. Watching at home in Florida, former US Open champion Graeme McDowell wrote a simple Tweet. ‘Kinda surreal,’ it said.
Tiger Woods has rediscovered his old self at the 2019 Masters tournament and is in fine form
On 16th hole, Woods took another step towards the greatest comeback in the history of sport
Woods stood over a seven foot putt for birdie knowing if he holed it he’d take a share of lead
There was a time when a form of redemption was the most anyone could hope for after Woods’ fall from grace a decade ago amid a blaze of lurid revelations and his subsequent injury woes. But this was more than redemption. This was a resurrection.
Woods had his game face on but even he could not ignore the emotion that was pouring down from the stands. The huge rolling galleries that were following him around this hallowed course that has often provided him with a refuge from his life these past few years, desperately willed him on as his quest gathered pace.
Even Woods must have remembered what had happened here in this same valley on Friday evening after the loud speaker announcements signalled the end of a weather delay and sent battalions of fans streaming back on to the course, marching in a long column towards the grandstands grouped around the 15th and 16th to witness another episode in the return of their hero.
They gathered there under the brooding sky as the rain fell in sheets and waited patiently as Tommy Fleetwood, Xander Schauffele and Gary Woodland appeared over the crest of the hill on the fairway and played their approach shots. There was not long to wait now. Woods was in the next group.
A view of the 16th hole at Augusta National as Woods prepared to play it on Saturday
Wherever he goes, Woods always attracts hundreds of fans who fill the fairway edges
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Fleetwood and his playing companions were on the green circling their putts when it happened. Out of the hush came a huge roar from the stands that startled those who had not seen its source: on the leaderboard behind the green, between the names of ‘Harding’ and ‘Johnson D’, a new nameplate had been inserted. It was ‘Woods’. He was on the charge.
The crowds at the 15th did not know it then but the circus around Woods had moved into full swing at the 14th when a security guard had rushed over to shepherd spectators away from the 14-time Major winner, slipped on the damp grass and clipped Woods’ ankle as he fell. Woods hopped away in pain but avoided injury. The galleries, and the security guard, breathed a sigh of relief. Woods birdied the hole.
After Fleetwood and his partners had left the 15th green, Woods strode over the hill and down the left hand side of the fairway through the trees to where his ball lay. He pitched it high into the air and it fell in a graceful arc about 20 feet from the pin and came to rest. He made the putt and the roar that greeted it rent the skies.
Now, on Saturday evening, he found himself on the same position at the 16th, except this time, it was to move into a share of the lead with Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau.
It is only two years ago that Woods could barely walk because of back pain, let alone challenge
There was a smile on the American’s face following his impressive performance on Saturday
Two years ago, that seemed impossible. It is only two years ago that Woods could barely walk because of back pain, let alone fashion a challenge to win his first Major since he won the US Open in 2008. Even when he had spinal fusion surgery in the spring of 2017, most thought there was no way back.
His career was over: most observers seemed certain of that. Many commentators said openly they wished he would retire. They said his struggles to play on were harming his legacy. Nobody wanted to remember him this way. They wanted to remember the glory years instead, the years when he was the most dominant athlete in the world.
It is less than two years ago, too, that Woods was found slumped asleep at the wheel of his Mercedes on a road near his home in Jupiter, Florida. He had been knocked out by the cocktail of drugs he was taking to try to manage his back pain. He was so disoriented that he told police officers he had been playing golf in California. It felt as if we were watching a tragedy unfold.
And yet now, he stood over the seven foot putt on the 16th as a contender again. He hit it to the left of the hole and watched it curve gracefully to the right and sink below the surface of the green. When the ball disappeared, the sight was met by another almighty roar from the patrons. Tiger Woods was leading the Masters.
He parred the last two holes and finished the day two shots behind Molinari but because the tournament will finish early on Sunday to try to beat an approaching storm, Woods will go out in the final group with the Italian and Finau. What a day it promises to be.
On day two of the competition Woods was firing on all cylinders with trademark fist-pumps
To be in Augusta this week has been to feel as if you are at the court of a returning king. In the old days, they talked about Arnie’s Army, the loyal legions who followed Arnold Palmer around from hole to hole. Now golf has Tiger’s Army. He is, by some considerable distance, the biggest draw in town.
These must have been sobering times for players like Rory McIlroy. There was a time when he was regarded as the heir to Woods and that time may yet come to pass but he has seemed like a forgotten man this weekend. He is the ghost at Tiger’s feast. Once, it seemed Woods had ceded him the stage but now McIlroy, like the rest of us, is part of Tiger’s audience again.
The homage to Woods was everywhere. When he began his third round on Saturday afternoon. Jon Rahm was standing on the first tee, preparing to begin his round, when Woods emerged from the clubhouse and made his way to the putting green. A murmur of excitement quickly grew into shouts of encouragement and roars of support. Rahm had to back away from his tee shot.
The crowd seemed to recognise their discourtesy. They acknowledged they had got carried away by suddenly cheering Rahm, who smiled at the melodrama of it all. But it was still all about Woods. When he walked on to the tee, his stern game-face on, one man in the crowd could barely contain his certainty. ‘Oh, he’s winning,’ he said to his friend.
Woods managed a brief smile when he chatted to his playing partner, Ian Poulter, on the tee. Maybe they were discussing old boasts or half-forgotten insults. Both men struck their tee-shots down the centre of the fairway and as they walked away, Tiger’s Army, Augusta’s mass of humanity, set off in pursuit. It was like watching a royal procession. Whatever the result here, Woods is the king of golf again.
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