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Tiger Woods‘s face was creased in such pain on Saturday night it was hardly surprising that much of the social media chatter centred on whether he should withdraw before the final round of the 86th Masters.
It was all well-meaning, naturally, but has that ever been the Tiger way? Of course he showed up for the final round. It was as much a given as the fact he would walk to the first tee dressed in red.
A year after being immobile in a hospital bed, with his prospects of walking again rated slim, much less playing golf here he was, making it up the 18th hole on Sunday at Augusta National.
Tiger Woods made it up to the 18th hold on Sunday at the Masters, a year on from his accident
It completed his week for the ages, one recognized by the patrons who delivered the most heartfelt reception. His face bathed in smiles, Tiger expressed his appreciation and then confirmed that this was just the start of the comeback of comebacks.
‘Aw, come on, give me a hug,’ he said to his two kids Charlie and Sam, away from the cameras. By this stage, he really was struggling to walk.
Whatever the pain, it was important that he made it to the finish line. Woods needs to know he can play 72 holes to make all the rehab and the ice baths before and after a round worthwhile. If he can make it here, he can make it at the other three majors this year, all staged on courses far less punishing than this one.
His performance capped off a week for the ages, and patrons gave him a heartfelt reception
While that was the biggest bonus, there were plenty of others. After a shaky performance from the tee on day one, he drove it well thereafter, and his ball speed of around 173 mph was remarkable given all that he has been through. You’re not going to be playing your second shots from alongside Rory McIlroy, but you can certainly compete off the tee if you can swing it at that speed.
We know he’ll get it done with the irons. No-one ever hit iron shots better than Tiger. His chipping was good too for a man who hadn’t played competitively for over 500 days.
The one area he really struggled, apart from the physicality of the test, was on the greens, but isn’t that understandable? His third round 78 sounds awful, but he had 36 putts, including just the second four-putt of his entire Masters career. Even if he’d 30 putts, therefore, he’d have been one of the few to match the par of 72 in Saturday’s numbing cold.
If someone had said to Tiger before the first round that he would be playing on Sunday with the reigning US Open Champion and the second ranked golfer in the world, he’d have surely taken that. As turned out, it was a much earlier tee-time than either man would have wished, as Tiger raised himself off the canvas following his worst score at Augusta, and Jon Rahm still seeking his way out of the middle gear he’s been in all year.
Woods raised himself off the canvas following his worst score at Augusta to bow out on a high
Rahm had spoken in the build-up about seeking advice from Woods regarding playing at Augusta, only to be rebuffed. ‘I think the only golfer who can tap in to that supply line is Justin Thomas,’ said Rahm, smiling. ‘I asked once how to chip in to the grain and he said you’ve got to make your action shallow. Ok. Then, half an hour later, I looked over and he was giving JT a dissertation.’
Here Rahm had a ringside seat and four hours to pick Tiger’s brain that he can surely use to his benefit in Masters to come. The pair chatted away happily on any number of holes. By the time they got to the 17th they were on such friendly teams, Tiger was shouting out: ‘Hey, Rahmbo? I’ll play.’
The vast army of patrons stayed with him to the end. They didn’t care what he was shooting by the close, that he followed Saturday’s 78 with another. After all the ‘let’s go Tiger’ chants and the ‘come on, Tiger’ roars, a different refrain was the recurring one as he made his tired and weary way up the steep 18th fairway, and that unforgettable standing ovation. ‘Thanks, Tiger,’ they shouted. Thanks, indeed.
The best thing of all? The giddy knowledge there will be more to come, leading to a rousing, emotional occasion at the 150th Open at St Andrews, and his favourite course of all.
The giddy confirmation that he will play at the 150th Open at St Andrews had soon followed
What about the leaders, could they deliver a suitable encore? Didn’t they just. After a week of decidedly mixed weather the best day had suitably been saved for last, and one of those classic Augusta Sundays played in warm sunshine.
As the returning hero embraced his family, the generation of golfers that, to a man, were inspired by Tiger were putting on a show worthy of his example. There was McIlroy, going for everything and making exciting progress up the leaderboard. He played the front nine in 32 shots to leap up into a tie for third. McIlroy began with a birdie and then chipped in at the 7th, before birdieing the par five eighth as well. At the 10th he chipped in once more.
There were the two men in the final group, who were still some way out in the distance. How fitting they should happen to be comfortably the two best players in the game this year.
Between then, Scottie Scheffler and Cam Smith had won five of the eight events they had contested this season. Scheffler began with a three stroke lead but also the memory of that poor drive at the 18th on Saturday, where he hooked the ball into the trees. Sure enough, he followed it with another nervous blow in a similar direction on the first.
Rory McIlroy made exciting progress up the leaderboard and even leaped up into a tie for third
It would be a pattern early on but time and again his unbelievable touch around the greens saved him. It rescued a vital par at the opening hole, as Smith made an early move with a birdie.
What followed at the third was barely credible. Another terrible hook from Scheffler left him in an awful spot. He did well to find the front of the green on this driveable par four. He then chipped in from 30 yards for the most unlikely of birdies.
As if that was not enough of a bonus, Smith bogeyed the hole and now the lead was three once more. Scheffler increased it to four with another smart up and down at the fourth following another poor tee shot, as the 28 year old from Brisbane took another bogey.
With seven holes played the lead remained four, with McIlroy and Korean Im Sungjae seven behind. It was all set up for an epic duel over the fabled back nine.