AUGUSTA, Ga. – Even for a man who famously doesn’t sleep much this was grueling. Awake at 4 a.m. each day to poke and prod his 44-year-old frame into shape. Tiger Woods was exhausted, and he still had work to do.
“I hit a few too many shots than I wanted to today, and I will not have the chairman be putting the green jacket on me,” sighed Woods, who had more than an hour to wait before he slipped a green jacket over a new champion’s shoulders. “I'll be passing it on.”
Like that, Tiger’s 19 odd months as reigning Masters champion were over, his final nine holes at Augusta National a flawless dichotomy of that chapter, complete with devastating lows and emotionally charged highs.
The physical toll was unmistakable. The slow walk, the delicate move to pluck his golf ball from the hole, the deliberate swing motions, this was not Tiger at his best - but then, that’s a moving target these days. And then there was the emotional cost of his return.
He began the week on a rare poignant note when asked to revisit his 2019 triumph. “I'm still getting chills just thinking about it,” he said on Tuesday.
In the year and a half since that hallmark moment Tiger covered a lot of ground. He tied Sam Snead last fall for the all-time victories mark on the PGA Tour and led the U.S. team to a resounding victory at the Presidents Cup as a captain and player.
Tiger was poised to pass Snead and with his 15th major triumph he was suddenly back in the game to catch Jack Nicklaus and his benchmark of 18 major championships, but a new year brought a new narrative. When he did play the results were less than inspired and he missed traditional starts in the spring with an assortment of aches and pains. He wasn’t much better after the Tour’s restart, with a tie for 37th at the PGA Championship being his post-quarantine highwater mark.
Tiger is no stranger to the emotional rollercoaster and maybe the ebb and flow of the last 19 months was inevitable, much like his wild finish on Sunday, in which he made the turn at 1 over and promptly bogeyed the 10th hole.
Things got worse, so much worse, from there.
Tiger’s first septuple-bogey 10 – no typo, he made a T-E-N – in his Tour career at the par-3 12th hole:
Shot 1: Tee shot hits bank and rolls back into Rae’s Creek (penalty stroke)
Shot 3: Reaches green and spins back into creek (penalty stroke)
Shot 5: Bounces into bunker behind green
Shot 6: Rockets sand shot across green and into creek (penalty stroke)
Shot 8: Trundles onto the fringe
Shot 9: Lag putt drifts past the hole on the left
Shot 10: Tap in
He wasn’t finished. In keeping with a theme that has now defined his career, he birdied five of the remaining six holes for a 76 and a tie for 38th place.
As a referendum of the times that we live in, Tiger’s finish can be viewed through two vastly different lens – the inexplicable competitive lapse that led to the highest single-hole score in his career or a gritty effort to salvage something from a lost week.
“This sport is awfully lonely sometimes,” he reasoned in a moment of refreshing clarity. “You have to fight it. No one is going to bring you off the mound or call in a sub. You have to fight through it. That's what makes this game so unique and so difficult mentally. We've all been there, unfortunately.”
In the water, in the rough, in trouble. Tiger has spent a good portion of the last few years shouldering through pain and injury and poor play and bad decisions, like the tee shot on No. 12 that began his implosion. It really doesn’t matter which side of the scale is leaned on because the two views lead back to the same image – a slightly broken man with an astounding will to carry on.
Unlike during his prime, Tiger is willing to offer a glimpse into his health and he conceded this week that a 26-hole day like on Saturday at Augusta National is a recipe for disaster. Even in good times there is only so much his rebuilt back can take and the drive to keep improving is not what it used to be.
“There are days when mentally it's harder to push than others, just because physically my body just has moments where it just doesn't work like it used to,” he said. “No matter how hard I try, things just don't work the way they used to, and no matter how much I push and ask of this body, it just doesn't work at times.”
Tiger’s tone is important here. Following four long days on a demanding course he couldn’t hide his weariness, but it wasn’t defeat in his voice so much as it was a realistic examination of an aging process that remains undefeated. His body isn’t cooperating like it once did and it’s becoming more challenging with every twist and turn.
“Yes, it is more difficult than others to be motivated at times. Yes, because things just ache and have to deal with things that I've never had to deal with before,” he said.
And yes, he needed to rest after wrapping up 19 strange months as the reigning Masters champions with nine equally strange holes.