“As if he never went away,” Butch Harmon proclaimed late on Sunday, the one-time architect of arguably golf’s greatest player captivated in his current role as television analyst.
But that’s just it, he did go away. Some ways away, too.
From the sport’s summit, a space that once constituted his sole property. From winning regular golf tournaments, let alone major titles. From competing or even swinging a club, incapacitated by personal shame, the subsequent and debilitating fall from grace, the numerous back surgeries.
Not long ago, he confided to those close to him that he was done. On the eve of the 81st US Masters, he required a nerve block to take his place at the pre-tournament Champions Dinner.
But then Tiger Woods won the 83rd US Masters. He held off the reigning British Open champion and the winner of the past two US Opens, keeping his cool when those around them lost theirs in the mid-April Augustan angst. Incredibly, he captured a first major in nearly 11 years and a 15th overall.
Slipping into a fifth Green Jacket, Woods completed one of the greatest comebacks in all of sport. Hogan, Ali, Lauda, Seles and the like have company. Perhaps Tiger’s transcendent status, and the glare that induces in this celebrity-obsessed 21st century, elevates his achievement above all else. The debate will rage.
What is clear, though, is that after the sex scandal, the excruciating mea culpa, the public divorce, the loss of sponsors and his aura, the spinal surgeries and the times he lay stricken in front of his daughter unable to get to his feet, the 2017 police arrest and the mug-shot humiliation, the catharsis feels complete.
If the troubles humanised Woods, the turnaround only amplifies his appeal.
“It fits,” Woods beamed in green in Butler Cabin as Jim Nantz tempted the tears to provide a Hollywood script its Hollywood ending. Didn’t it just?
Twenty-two years on from the most dominant display Augusta National had witnessed, Woods was back again, not in that prime, but Masters champion all the same, the game’s latter-day lightning rod its darling once more. Outside, the typically contained Augusta gallery carolled his name.
Barack Obama offered his congratulations. Ditto Serena Williams, Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady. Contemporaries and competitors cheered golf’s latest champion, celebrating possibly golf’s most remarkable resurgence.
They had often lamented an inability to challenge Woods in his pomp. How they should be careful what they wish for.
Woods’ principal victory?
He beat into submission his opponents at Augusta in 1997 to seal a first major title, aged 21. He triumphed there again four years later to hold at once all four of the sport’s premier prizes, somehow remaining resolute as the "Tiger Slam" tension reached its crescendo. At the 2008 US Open, Woods emerged, barely, from a Monday play-off with arms clasping the trophy. He did so despite a double-stress fracture of the leg.
But Sunday’s success, the first major crown since Torrey Pines, must rank as his finest professional accomplishment to date. Woods overcame the doubt and the deterioration, forging forward on the foundation of recent close runs at the Open and the PGA Championship. On last September’s Tour Championship, as well, when he rose above the other 29 best players on that season’s PGA Tour to secure a first win in more than five years.
The first since the back issues took hold and the naysayers nestled.
Irrespective of a career spent pushing the boundaries, and the sheer bloody-mindedness that demanded, Woods had already conceded privately that he was spent. Anything else, he offered in public, would be “gravy”.
Yet following Sunday, he has now the appetite, and patently the aptitude, for more. Jack Nicklaus’ 18-major haul has returned to within view, no longer far beyond the horizon.
Next month, the PGA Championship sets in at Bethpage Black, the scene of Woods’ 2002 US Open victory. Four weeks later, the US Open returns to Pebble Beach, the devilish coastline course recognised for its contribution to the “Tiger Slam”.
Most probably previously convinced his major record was secure, on Sunday Nicklaus chirped of Woods: “He’s got me shaking in my boots.”
The rest of golf quivers with excitement.
Woods is back, from the brink and looming large again. Gripped by an undeniably compelling storyline, enchanted by his former pupil’s repertoire, execution, control and steel in his eye, Harmon declared that those at Augusta and the millions glued to screens worldwide were witnessing “vintage Tiger”.
At 43, he is some way from that – no one will likely ever match his early-millennium mastery – and the game today traverses a different landscape. But, reinstated as a major winner, Woods gleams with a rekindled spirit.
So, too, does golf.