Niyo: Roar restored, Tiger Woods looks capable of chasing down Jack Nicklaus' record
A “maybe” will do for now.
And as he tried to process all the churning emotions following what was arguably his most satisfying golfing achievement, Tiger Woods admitted he’ll “probably” give it some thought before too long.
But it had been so long since he’d felt like this — and since he’d made everyone feel like that — it’s understandable that Woods wasn’t ready to go there just yet.
"I'm sure that I'll probably think of it going down the road,” Woods told reporters Sunday, when asked about resuming his chase of Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18 major championships victories. “Maybe, maybe not. But right now, it's a little soon, and I'm just enjoying 15."
Savoring it, really. And who could blame him?
Two years ago, when Woods returned for the annual Champions Dinner at Augusta National Golf Club, he needed a nerve block just to get through dessert. He told some of his peers he was “done” with the game he'd helped redefine.
“I could barely walk,” he said. “I couldn't sit. Couldn't lay down. I really couldn't do much of anything.”
Certainly nothing like what he’d done for most of his life, dominating a sport so thoroughly that by the time his first child was born — daughter Sam in 2006 — Tiger seemed destined to catch the Golden Bear one day and end the greatest-ever debate once and for all. By the time his son, Charlie, arrived a few years later, it still seemed possible, if not likely. Woods won his last major title in 2008 playing with a broken leg and a torn ACL, then came back and won six PGA Tour events in 2009.
But with his body beginning to break down, his personal life soon followed suit that year. And though Woods remained in contention — a handful of top-five finishes at the majors from 2010-13 — a new generation of young champions began to assert themselves: Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and others.
The less he won, the more people seemed to resent the outsized attention he drew, too. Tiger had stopped roaring, but the media wouldn’t stop talking about him. And for a guy who’d never really endeared himself to anyone outside his tight inner circle, it was hard to cut a sympathetic figure out of all that red-and-black mystique. Even when Woods started falling to his knees in the middle of a round, crippled by back and neck pain in recent years.
In the middle of a miserable 2015 season that saw him miss the cut at the final three majors, Golf Digest ran an opinion piece headlined, “Tiger Woods is totally, completely, unequivocally, and utterly done.” So there was that. And then a couple years later, there was Woods himself essentially saying the same thing just before a DUI arrest and another rehab stint — this time for addiction to pain medicine — and a desperate, last-straw spinal fusion surgery that finally allowed him to escape “some really dark times.”
“Luckily I had the procedure on my back, which gave me a chance at having a normal life,” Woods recalled Sunday. “But then all of a sudden, I realized I could actually swing a golf club again. I felt if I could somehow piece this together, that I still had the hands to do it. The body's not the same as it was a long time ago, but I still have good hands.”
And a mind that’s as good as any the game has ever known. One that was on display again over the weekend at Augusta, where Woods played his way into Sunday’s final pairing and then started plotting. Actually, as he described it, the final-round strategy was to “keep plodding along” and avoid the mistakes others inevitably would when they hit Amen Corner and the wind started to blow.
It did, and they did, too. The usually unflappable Italian, Francesco Molinari, who’d fended off a resurgent Woods last summer to the win the British Open, watched his tee shot at No. 12 roll back into Rae’s Creek. Brooks Koepka, who’d won three of the last seven majors, including a two-shot win over Woods at last year’s PGA, had done the same in the group in front. In fact, four of the final six golfers all found the water at the 12th, and among those watching on TV was Nicklaus, who’d cut short a morning of bonefishing in the Bahamas to see for himself.
“After seeing Molinari hit the ball in the water at 12, and Tiger put it on the green, I said, 'Tournament's over,'’ Nicklaus told the Golf Channel in a Sunday interview. “It doesn't make any difference what anyone else is going to do. Somebody is going to make enough mistakes, and Tiger won't make any, and he didn't."
Woods insists he wasn’t so sure. The leaderboard was packed, and the names were all too familiar.
“You couldn't have had more drama than we all had out there, and now I know why I'm balding,” Woods laughed. “This stuff is hard.”
But in the end, Nicklaus was right, just as he usually is when it comes to the game of golf. And if Woods’ triumphant win at Augusta brought back memories of a 46-year-old Nicklaus charging to victory in 1986, it also reminded the Golden Bear of what’s yet to come.
"I felt for a long time he was going to win (a major) again," Nicklaus said.
18 within reach
And with the next two majors on the schedule being held at courses where he’s won major titles before — next month’s PGA Championship is at Bethpage Black, where Woods won the 2002 U.S. Open, and July’s U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach, where he lapped the field in 2000 — Nicklaus says he has another feeling: “He's got me shaking in my boots, guys.”
He has his competitors applauding, too. Woods remains the game’s biggest draw, as Sunday’s TV ratings and those final-group galleries will attest.
He’s also a more approachable star now than he was a decade ago, actually acknowledging fans on the course and showing everyone he can walk and chew gum at the same time. ("I'm chomping on this gum because I usually get hungry," he explained Sunday, "and it curbs my appetite a little bit, which is nice.") And after all he has been through in the years since — self-inflicted damage, most of it — there’s a better appreciation from everyone, Tiger included, for what this all means. The comeback. The win. The roars, even.
“I mean, I've heard it,” Koepka said. “I heard it at the PGA. You hear it here. You know any time he does something good, the fans are going to get excited and they are going to be loud, and that's the following that he's created.
“It's fun. I mean, you watch him walk down after he won on 18 there, it's just a monsoon of people. It's incredible.”
And now that Woods has given himself another chance at catching Nicklaus on the back nine of his career, it’s a chase everyone’s eager to follow.
“I think 18 is a whole lot closer than people think,” Koepka said. “I would say that's probably what all fans are thinking, and what we're thinking. That he's definitely back, and 18's not far.”