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The Comeback: Tiger's journey through injury and pain

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The champions' parking lot at Augusta National is hallowed ground and, as the celebration raged on the other side of the iconic clubhouse, Joe LaCava found refuge in solitude.

LaCava slumped onto the bumper of a black SUV with Tiger Woods’ golf bag and the flag stick from the 18th green pushed into the cargo area, the treasured spoils of a hard-fought victory. Putting real context to significant events normally takes time, but as Woods’ faithful caddie considered his boss’s most recent accomplishment, his willingness to put the moment in perspective was telling.

“You could see what this meant to him,” the normally understated LaCava said. “For him to react the way he did, you know this is very, very special.”

Whether this year’s Masters was the continuation or the conclusion of Woods’ comeback is a question that will only be settled by time. What’s not up for debate is what the victory means to Woods’ career. His 15th major triumph was, regardless of how productive his golden years might be, the high-water mark of the game’s most improbable comeback.

To fully appreciate Tiger’s last decade, we have to consider depths to which he sunk, how his career unfolded after the 2008 U.S. Open and how his life soon unraveled.

Personal issues aside, Woods’ injury list was longer than a CVS receipt:

  • 2008: Arthroscopic knee surgery; reconstructive ACL surgery; stress fractures in his left tibia
  • 2010: Inflamed facet joint in his neck
  • 2011: Sprained MCL; Achilles strain
  • 2012: More Achilles problems
  • 2013: Elbow strain
  • 2014: Lower back spasms and repeated pain; back surgery No. 1
  • 2015: Inactive glutes; back procedures Nos. 2 and 3
  • 2017: More back spasms; more back pain; back surgery No. 4

Between 2008-17, Woods played a full schedule on the PGA Tour just three times. He made 92 Tour starts in nine-and-a-half years, with none in 2016 and one in 2017.

And then, after extensive stretches of inactivity and morose news conferences, he offered a glimmer of hope. It came in the fall of 2017, when Woods, having undergone spinal fusion, served as a U.S. Presidents Cup captain.

“I didn't know if I was going to be able to be here because I couldn't ride in a cart. The bouncing just hurt too much. Driving a car still hurt,” he admitted. “That's all gone now, which is fantastic, and yeah, there were some intrepid times; not just for this golf tournament but for life going forward.”

While Woods’ attention seemed more focused on quality of life than quality of competition, he slowly eased his way back into the fray. He remained upright for 72 holes at the Hero World Challenge that December, which, at the time, was considered a victory of sorts, and began his 22nd season at Torrey Pines with a made cut, his first on Tour in 29 months.

Those around Woods celebrated this return, which was billed in some circles as a final chance, with cautious optimism.

“He remembers how to do this and his body's allowing him to do this, and there's no doubt in my mind that he'll make a little bit of noise this year,” Rory McIlroy said at the 2018 Genesis Open, where Woods missed the cut in his second start of the season.

These assessments of Woods’ chances to win again always came with a caveat: If he could remain healthy, he could be competitive. It didn’t take him long to prove the point with a runner-up finish in his fourth start at the Valspar Championship.

Each passing tournament was something of a milestone for Woods, check marks on a list that were building to something truly special. He put himself in contention late on Sunday at The Open but untimely mistakes cost him. “A little ticked off at myself for sure,” he vented at the time.

He didn’t make those mistakes at the PGA Championship, but this time he ran into Brooks Koepka on his way to a runner-up showing, his best finish in a major in nearly a decade. By the time the crowds swept in behind Woods at the Tour Championship last September the victory felt like a walk-off, an exclamation point that transformed his comeback from a success into a celebration.

In the days following that victory, however, Woods revealed the physical toll his return to competitive relevance had taken. A week later at the Ryder Cup, Woods slumped into a golf cart on his way to the first tee for a Sunday singles match he didn’t win. Pain was etched into his face. His swing, which seemed flawless just days prior, became labored.

“I was not physically prepared to play that much golf at the end of the year,” Woods, who played five events in the six weeks ahead of Paris, conceded in December. “I was exhausted by the time I got to the Ryder Cup. I was worn out mentally, physically, emotionally.”

His victory at the Masters took a similar toll. Since his emotional breakthrough at Augusta National in April he has just 17 competitive rounds on Tour, including missed cuts at the PGA Championship and Open Championship. His early exit from this month’s Northern Trust with an oblique strain ultimately proved the only absolute when it comes to Woods is that he’s not unbreakable.

Even those whose view of Woods is filtered through a cloud of nostalgia now concede that this is not the perfect comeback. It was never going to be. Spinal fusion didn’t make Woods invincible and the fairytale was always going to be flawed, which only makes what he has been able to accomplish that much more impressive.

He may have looked like the Tiger of old on his way to victories at East Lake and Augusta National, but the truth is, the rebuilt version is very much imperfect. Some days are better than others and he enjoyed relatively healthy weeks on his way to victory, but we now know how quickly that can change and how difficult it is to compete when the 43-year-old body refuses to cooperate.

“If it's not one thing, it's another. Things just pop up. That's been one of the biggest challenges coming back from last year,” Woods said last week at Medinah. “You saw I'm making tweaks and changes trying to play around this back and trying to be explosive and have enough rest time and training time. That's been the biggest challenge of it all.”

Woods’ ability to live a normal life and compete at the highest level aren’t mutually exclusive. Where some see failure and vulnerability in his weaker moments, Tiger understands how today’s worst moments are infinitely better than the best of the dark times.

“You can't compare the two,” Woods explained in July at Royal Portrush when asked to weigh his current health against how he felt in 2015. “Those were some of the lowest times of my life. This is not. This is just me not playing well and not scoring well.”

It’s impossible to appreciate what Woods accomplished without a full accounting of what he overcame. Like most things in Tiger’s life he hasn’t been forthcoming with those revelations, but what we know is that his comeback was neither perfect nor pain-free. It was neither a fairytale nor a failure.

It was something much more impressive than we ever imagined.