Curiously, Woods wasn’t the only person whose interest in golf was contingent on his being around to play it. As he sauntered up the 18th fairway at Augusta on Sunday afternoon, the crowds packed a dozen deep, television executives were celebrating record ratings. As he tapped in for his fifth Green Jacket and 15th major championship overall, the news was already reverberating well beyond the walls of the Augusta National, well beyond the world of golf and into the world at large. One week before Easter, the resurrection of Tiger Woods was complete.
One thing this wasn’t: a shock. Stop calling it a shock. It may have seemed unlikely some years ago, amidst those four back surgeries, the precipitous drop to No 1199 in the world rankings, the footage of him being arrested at the side of the road. But the moment Woods started playing golf seriously again, there was never the slightest chance he was doing it solely for kicks. Ever since his close run at Carnoustie last summer, his near miss at Bellerive in the US PGA, his win at the Tour Championship, this had been coming. “I mean, we keep saying like it’s surprising, but it’s not,” his friend Jason Day said last year. “It’s Tiger Woods, for God’s sake.”
In fact, the only thing surprising about this triumph was the manner in which it was achieved. Not since 2005 had a player been outside the top 10 on Thursday and gone on to win. It was well documented that Woods had never come from behind after 54 holes. He didn’t even claim the lead until 66 holes, and then only fleetingly. Indeed, perhaps the only conventional aspect of Woods’s win at Augusta was his customary Sunday red.
Congratulations, Tiger! To come back and win the Masters after all the highs and lows is a testament to excellence, grit, and determination.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) 1555267490000
But then, perhaps it’s hardly surprising that Woods doesn’t win like he used to. Very little remains of the player who rewrote the rules of golf between 1997 and 2008. The swing profile has been transformed, based less on pure brute force but on an immaculate rhythm and improved alignment. The ruthless front-runner who blew tournaments apart is now just as comfortable in the chasing pack, shoulder to shoulder with the younger players who grew up watching him.
Very little remains of the man, either. The inscrutable, occasionally surly winning machine of his peak years has been replaced by a happier, more rounded individual: pain-free and seemingly carefree, at peace with himself and at peace with others. He’ll crack jokes on the course, or chat genially with his playing partners. Or, as his former coach Sean Foley put it: “He realizes the bold approach he had all those years was necessary. But now, it’s not who he is any more.”
In a way, Woods has swapped heaviness for lightness. A few weeks ago, at the Players Championship, his playing partner Kevin Na raised a smile by bending over to pick his ball out of the cup while it was still on its way to the hole. A few seconds later, to riotous laughter, Woods did the same, and as the pair walked from the green in fits and giggles, we glimpsed an athlete who, at the age of 43, had finally struck open a long-cloistered truth: that at its heart, golf is supposed to be fun. “There was a time when he was so focused on winning he lost out on some of the relationships that go on out here,” said Brandt Snedeker.
The galleries were on their feet, and like the millions watching on television you suspect they were united not simply in admiration for a great athlete, but in adoration for a changed man. Perhaps to conquer the world again, Tiger Woods first had to let it in.