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As a student of the world’s most maddening game, Tiger Woods always appreciated the ferocity of Ben Hogan, and how his unbreakable will inspired the mother of all comebacks.
“I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won major championships,” Woods once said.
That’s right. Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open only 16 months after a Greyhound bus emerged from a Texas fog and plowed head-on into his Cadillac, nearly killing him.
“The pain he had to endure,” Woods would say many years later, “the things he had to do just to play, the wrapping of the leg, all the hot tubs, and how hard it was for him to walk … and he ended up walking 36 holes and winning a U.S. Open.”
Not even 14 months after nearly losing his right leg as a result of crashing his SUV south of Los Angeles, Woods is apparently attempting to out-Hogan the late, great Hogan. He practiced Tuesday at Augusta National with his son, Charlie, and good bud Justin Thomas, according to SI.com’s Bob Harig, in a test drive for his surgically altered body to see if he can tee it up for real next week at the Masters.
This was a staggering development on a surreal day, when social media detectives tracked Tiger’s private jet as it traveled from Stuart, Fla., to Augusta, his home away from home. Nobody was sure in the weeks after his accident if or when the 46-year-old Woods would ever again walk a full 18 holes. Nobody was sure in the weeks after his accident if Woods would be ready for the 2023 Masters.
Now he’s going to be ready for the 2022 Masters? Like, in nine days?
And if the five-time Masters winner shows up a week from Thursday, that likely means one clear-cut thing: He thinks there’s at least an outside shot he can leave the grounds Sunday evening as a six-time Masters winner.
Tiger Woods never enters a tournament unless he thinks there’s a chance he can win it.
When he returned from spinal fusion surgery in 2018, Tiger called himself “a walking miracle.” Before he would win the 2019 Masters in the most compelling performance, he said his children looked at him as “a YouTube golfer,” a champion only in the highlight packages. “They only knew that golf caused me a lot of pain,” Woods said.
If he decides he’s ready for the Masters, he will surely feel the pain. Augusta National’s hills make for one of the most forbidding walks in golf even for a pro who didn’t suffer what doctors called “open fractures affecting both the upper and lower portion of the tibia and fibula bones” in February 2021, leaving Woods in a hospital for three weeks and in a hospital bed at home for three months. This will not be anything like that cute little father-son outing at the PNC Championship in December, when Woods pounded 350-yard drives and hit precise, Tiger-of-old approaches, but benefitted greatly from the use of a cart, the flat course, and 12-year-old Charlie’s own shotmaking in the scramble format.
Told back then that Matt Kuchar had declared his game ready for Tour competition, Woods responded, “No, I totally disagree. I’m not at that level. I can’t compete against these guys right now.” Tiger would distinguish this latest attempted comeback from his 2018 comeback by saying this one “was whether I would have a prosthetic or not, and I don’t.”
In November, during his first press conference since his crash, Woods called himself “lucky to be alive and still have the limb.” He admitted that a full-time return to the PGA Tour wasn’t plausible.
“I don’t foresee this leg ever being what it used to be,” he said. “The clock is ticking. I’m getting older. … All that combined means a full schedule — and the recovery it would take to do that — no, I don’t have any desire to do that. But to ramp up for a few events a year … like Mr. Hogan did, and he did a pretty good job of it, there’s no reason I can’t do that.”
Hogan was 37 when he endured 90 holes and won a U.S. Open playoff at Merion in what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called the next day “the most remarkable comeback in the history of sports.” Woods is 9 years older, so if he can somehow compete next week, and somehow contend on Sunday, and somehow match Jack Nicklaus’s record of six green jackets, well, it would make his stirring 2019 Masters triumph feel kind of small. It might even knock Hogan off the top of the leaderboard.
But first things first: Tiger Woods still has to make it to the first tee at Augusta National on April 7.
We’ve already learned that it’s a bad idea to bet against him.