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The Comeback: Tiger's journey to regaining his fear factor

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Late Sunday at the Masters, one contender after another frittered away his chance to slip on the green jacket. Finally, on the 12th hole, it was Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau’s turn to retreat, as their tee shots into the 155-yard par 3 came up short and kicked back into Rae’s Creek, all but drowning their title hopes.

As Molinari and Finau rummaged through their bags for another ball, the patrons whipped into a frenzy, there was no mistaking the whereabouts of the third member of the group.

Waiting on the left side of the green, in their peripheral vision, was Tiger Woods.

In his red shirt.

With his arms crossed.

Giving them the death stare.

Earlier in the round, Woods had employed a similar strategy, standing in front of the tee marker on the sixth hole, his intent clear: When Molinari glanced at the flag one final time, he’d catch a glimpse of that Tiger red. Whether Woods’ gamesmanship had any impact was debatable (“I didn’t see any intimidation or anything like that, to be honest,” Molinari said later), but his tactics were obvious to those who had observed the game’s biggest star over the past two decades.

“Absolutely, 100 percent, no doubt, that was intentional,” said renowned sports psychologist Dr. Gio Valiante. “He was trying to make them uncomfortable.”

Hey, it worked for so many years, when Woods’ chief competitors couldn't match the quality of his shots and also quaked in his presence. And so at the 2019 Masters, after a decade of scandal and injury and image rehabilitation, after becoming the accessible, generous mentor to so many in the younger generation, Woods once again morphed a terminator, summoning some of his old magic and completing one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports history.

To climb out of the abyss Woods has needed to overcome his brittle body and battered psyche, but one of his greatest hurdles was competing against players he hadn’t psychologically destroyed. After all, the Tiger Effect was so pronounced in the early 2000s that Woods became the subject of psychologist Jennifer Brown’s study, “Quitters Never Win: The (Adverse) Incentive Effects of Competing with Superstars.” Published in 2007, in the prime of Woods’ career, Brown analyzed data over an eight-year period and theorized that Woods’ presence was so suffocating that he made his competition wilt; that he won because of extraordinary skill, yes, but also through intimidation. As a result, Woods enjoyed the most dominant period in golf history, including a near-perfect run as a 54-hole closer.

Valiante said that part of Woods’ aura was that he could create a situation of potential embarrassment for his playing partners. It’s called the “audience effect,” which explains how an individual’s performance can vary based on the presence of others.

“The intimidation doesn’t come from the fact that Tiger is going to beat you or hurt you, per se,” Valiante said. “It comes from the fact that there’s so many more eyeballs on you, and so the embarrassment factor goes up. They don’t want to be humiliated in front of their peers, in front of their families, in front of their friends at home.

“So, what you get with Tiger is an amplification of the audience effect. There’s the potential for more embarrassment. There’s the sheer distraction of the round. And then there’s the added fun part of it for Tiger. He’s a sadist. He likes it.”

Indeed, Woods was complicit in his opponents’ demise, from his Sunday shirt color (scientists believe red implies aggression and dominance) to his calculating movements during the round. Woods would putt out first to create an annoying distraction while his playing competitor finished; he’d walk slowly with fast players and vice versa with the dawdlers, forcing them out of their routine; he often arrived at the tee box last, to elicit the loudest roar.

“Some guys play chess,” Valiante said, “and some guys play elite chess, like it’s psychological warfare. Tiger used everything in his arsenal.”

To great effect, too: During his three best years (2000, ’06, ’07), Woods was a combined 215-41-33 in head-to-head matchups against his playing partners. During those three years, someone in his group shot a better score than him on just 41 occasions – or only 14 percent of the time (this year: 38 percent).

So, what happened?

Entering the 2009 PGA Championship, it was a near-formality when Woods sniffed a title; he was 47 of 50 in converting 54-hole leads, and he hadn’t coughed up an outright lead since he was a 20-year-old rookie in 1996. His otherworldly talent and staggering success only upped the fear factor.

Then along came Y.E. Yang. At Hazeltine, the unheralded South Korean overcame the appearance of Woods crowding him. Yang matched him shot for shot on the back nine. He even stood up to a rules official when the group was told to pick up the pace. And so, after beating Woods convincingly, Yang was asked the secret. “It’s not like you’re in an octagon where you’re fighting against Tiger and he’s going to bite you or swing at you with his 9-iron,” he said. “The worst that I could do was just lose to Tiger.”

The shattering of Woods’ mystique continued three months later, when he smashed into the fire hydrant and the sordid details of his private life became tabloid fodder. Though he worked his way back to the top in 2013, he was sent to his knees in agony at the end of the year. He went under the knife for the first of four back surgeries in 2014 and managed to play only 24 events (with five missed cuts and four WDs) across the next four years, an inglorious period lowlighted by shockingly poor golf, the short-game yips, and, most seriously, a DUI arrest in 2017 in which police found him slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes, five drugs coursing through his system. Shamed into seclusion, it capped the most disgraceful demise of the internet age.

“It’s embarrassing for Tiger,” Notah Begay III, Woods’ close confidant, said at the time. “These are the types of situations that can make a person realize that there needs to be a new direction that’s formed here.”

And by all accounts, Woods did indeed forge a new path, if only out of necessity. Out of the spotlight for the first time in his adult life, Woods looked inward and found a 40-something searching for purpose and companionship. He quietly planned for life after the Tour. He became a willing mentor for players like Jason Day and Justin Thomas. He dove headlong into his assistant-captain duties at the 2016 Ryder Cup and 2017 Presidents Cup, even laughing at himself when Zach Johnson presented Woods and the team with “Make Tiger Great Again” T-shirts. It was then, in Woods’ lowest moments, that he formed a bond that wasn’t possible when he was the Tour’s alpha. After all, how intimidating can you be when you’re fetching extra towels and sandwiches for guys 20 years younger?

“I know I’m not afraid of T,” Patrick Reed said. “A lot of us younger guys, we’ve met Tiger, we’ve gotten to know Tiger. Back in 1999 and 2000, we’d heard that he didn’t really talk to anybody, that he just went in and minded his own business and dominated. But with how friendly he’s been, with the teams, we know Tiger as the fun, smiling, great guy that he is on and off the course.”

When Woods ramped up for his comeback season in 2018, he did so with the encouragement of South Florida buddies Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Thomas. When Woods posted a few optimistic results early in the year, his peers longed to impress their boyhood idol and openly rooted for his return to greatness – remarks that were deeply disturbing to those whose careers were stunted by Woods’ dominance. “The hell you do,” warned former world No. 1 David Duval.

But there was ample reason for their eagerness. Woods had shown the world his fallibility. “When you’ve seen somebody who was superhuman and there was no crack in the armor, it’s easy to take a defeatist attitude going into it. Because Tiger ruined a lot of careers. He ran a lot of people out of golf,” Valiante said. “But what happens when you see somebody as beatable, as flawed, it gives you an opening and gives you confidence – it amplifies the quality of your game.

“Tiger was not only beating people – it was the manner in which he was doing it. I’d have guys tell me privately: ‘But for the grace of God, I don’t know that I want that moment with him.’ They’d seriously say that to me. Nowadays, not so much. You’ve got the confidence of youth and guys who are too young to know any better.”

And so perhaps it was naivety that led Rory McIlroy to answer as bluntly as he did at the 2018 Open Championship, when Woods surged into the lead during the final round. When asked if Woods, at age 42, was once again someone to be reckoned with, McIlroy scoffed: “Not that Tiger, that Phil (Mickelson) and Ernie (Els) and those guys had to deal with. It’s a different version. ... I wouldn’t say we’re worried about him, but he’s one of those guys that’s always in with a shot.”

If that smack talk was ringing in Woods’ ears when the two were paired together a few months later at the Tour Championship, Woods wouldn’t say, but their play that final round, head to head, was revealing enough. Starting the day with a three-shot lead, Woods blew McIlroy away with his tactical precision and exposed the young star’s mental frailties.

All that remained was for Woods to test his mettle in a major, and the opportunity arose at Augusta National. The Masters, more than any other event, offers Woods a protective cocoon, shielding him from the patrons, the media and myriad responsibilities that come with being the game’s preeminent star; inside the ropes it’s just him and caddie Joe LaCava, his playing partners and their caddies, and a cameraman and spotter. In that confined arena, on that course, Woods has always thrived.

With a dire final-round forecast, Masters officials made the unprecedented decision to move up start times and play threesomes off split tees, giving Woods his first final group in a major since he was Yang’d in 2009. That, Valiante said, was significant. “He could look at the leaders, eye to eye,” he said.

One of the statistical oddities of Woods’ legendary career was that he had never come from behind on the final day to win a major, but the pieces started to fall into place that Sunday. Waiting on the 11th green, Woods watched as Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter rinsed their tee shots on No. 12. A few moments later, so did the leader, Molinari. Finau did, too. Four players in a 17-minute span found the water, crumbling under the weight of history and clearing the way for Woods to climb into a share of the lead for the first time.

So, did Woods simply hit the proper shot at an opportune time ... or did his competition once again blink against him in crunch time, in front of millions of fans, just like they used to?

Today’s prideful pros would never admit that they shrunk in the moment, that they succumbed to the Tiger Effect. Koepka blamed the wind. Molinari chalked it up to poor execution. Finau claimed he wasn’t rattled playing with his hero.

In victory all Woods would offer was this: “It’s a tough hole.”

It was as cold-blooded as ever.