It was here at Augusta National that he became the sport’s transformative figure at 21, half his lifetime ago. From that moment in 1997 when he slipped the winner’s green jacket over his willowy frame after a staggering 12-stroke victory, Woods was the high-performance engine that drove golf forward financially, demographically and, possibly to his eventual detriment, athletically.
This week, Woods acknowledged his history of coming back too soon from surgeries.
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” said Woods, who noted the pattern. He had knee surgery in December 2002 and won the first tournament he played less than two months later. He had his first back surgery in 2014 and played two competitive rounds less than two months later. He had two more back operations in the fall of 2015 and, 14 months after the second one, he returned for the event in the Bahamas that he hosts.
“We’re pushing the boundaries of our bodies and minds and, unfortunately, a lot of times we go over the edge and we break down,” Woods said. “But thank God there’s modern science to fix us and put us back together again.”
No one can know for sure whether Woods overdid his training, which began when he was 2 years old, but his vulnerability and medical odyssey over the last few years have made a case for restraint, for appreciating the longer potential career arc that differentiates golf from other professional sports like football.
After winning 79 tour titles in his first 18 years as a pro, Woods has not had a victory since August 2013. His last major title came in 2008. He has spent much of the last three and a half years struggling to make the cut or recovering from surgery.
Woods is still lean, fit and powerful, as measurements of his club-head speed attest, yet the supple 21-year-old Masters champion has given way to a brittle 42-year-old locked in battle with an undefeated opponent: time. “Is anybody in here who is in their 40s ever going to feel like they did in their 20s?” Woods asked a roomful of reporters last fall, before he began what figures to be a proud champion’s last stand.
Woods’s decision last spring to have spinal fusion surgery, which he called “a last resort” after three less complex operations, seems to have restored him, at least for the moment. “I got a second chance on life,” Woods said on his website last week. “I am a walking miracle.”
After everything Woods has put his body through, it’s reasonable to wonder if, in retrospect, he wishes he had done anything differently. But regret is not in Woods’s repertoire, as he demonstrated when I addressed that direct question to him. He answered as if he had followed the only path that was clear to him.
“As an athlete, we’re always pushing ourselves,” he said. “The best ones push themselves beyond human limits. And that’s what separates them. They go through pain; they go through different things that most people are unwilling to do.”
He mentioned the toughness of two Hall of Fame athletes, the basketball player Michael Jordan and the hockey player Wayne Gretzky, who told me later that he played in the 1993 Stanley Cup finals with a broken rib that he had never publicly disclosed.
“I happen to be one of those guys,” Woods said. “I pushed my body and pushed my mind to accomplish the things that I knew I could, and I was able to do it.”
‘I Can Outrun Them’
Davis Love III, the son of a teaching pro, grew up in the company of elite players. But he did a double take when he glanced out the car window on a ride from the suburban course to the team hotel in downtown Boston during the 1999 Ryder Cup. Jogging on the side of the road toward the city was a 23-year-old Woods, the youngest United States team member by four years.
At the hotel, Love said, he asked Woods: Why run? Why not rest?
“I have to run,” he recalled Woods saying. Love persisted: “Everybody in Brookline knows you’re here. Can’t you just run on a treadmill?”
Woods replied, “I can outrun them.”
In his 20s, Woods obsessively ran about 30 miles a week. His motivation, he said, was to improve his endurance, but he also found the rhythmic footfalls calming. “I just find it peaceful,” he said in a 2007 interview with Men’s Fitness.
Woods also lifted heavy weights, an activity players before him had avoided in the belief that big muscles would restrict flexibility and impede their swings. Woods made it his mission to change the perception that golfers were not real athletes.
With his collared shirts barely containing his muscles, Woods routinely clobbered courses — and the competition. His athleticism and dominance increased golf’s appeal to younger players like Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, who were proficient at multiple sports.
“Tiger’s is the last generation that went through high school and got laughed at for playing golf,” said Arron Oberholser, a Golf Channel analyst who played for San Jose State against Stanford when Woods was there.
The work that Woods put in to make golf look cool and effortless was on display even before he entered high school. The summer before his freshman year, he was at the Navy Golf Course near his Cypress, Calif., home from sunup till sundown. He would hit a bucket of balls for every club in his bag and then play the course.
As a freshman, Woods was always the first player on the practice range, which rubbed off on his older teammates, who had been more inclined to dig into a basket of fries than a bucket of range balls.
“He changed high school golf,” said Don Crosby, who coached Woods at Western in Anaheim, Calif. He added, “When the other kids saw him out on the range hitting balls, they stopped going to the snack bar.”
Woods began chiseling his body — and golf’s image — soon after he arrived at Stanford. The authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, in their new unauthorized biography “Tiger Woods,” wrote that the freshman Woods obtained his own key to the weight room from the football coach, Bill Walsh, who had guided the 49ers to three Super Bowl titles.
The key was his golden ticket, allowing him to lift whenever he wanted. Once Woods turned pro, it wasn’t long before he filled out the sweaters that once hung loosely on him.
In 2005, Luke List was an amateur playing at the United States Open in Pinehurst, N.C. One morning in the weight room of the hotel where he was staying, List stumbled upon Woods running on a treadmill.
“He was in there for an hour and a half, and he was doing some pretty impressive lifting,” List recalled, adding, “I ended up spending longer watching what he was doing than working out.”
As Woods is well aware, the game can strain bodies all by itself. He has been swinging a club since he was a toddler and competing in tournaments since he was 4 years old.
“We put a lot of shearing on our spines, a lot of rotation,” Woods said of golfers in general. “On top of that, we hit hundreds of thousands of shots and so it’s the cumulative effect. And I’ve been playing tournament golf for 38 years, so it’s a lot of shearing.”
Brandt Snedeker, an eight-time tour winner, has noticed that after all those years of dedication to the game, Woods’s right pinkie is misshapen.
“It’s hooked like it’s meant to be on a golf club,” Snedeker said.
On the final nine of the 2013 Barclays, Woods was stalking what could have been his sixth PGA Tour victory of the year when a week of back spasms caught up with him. After hitting a shot from the 13th fairway, he fell to his knees as if struck by lightning.
Woods did not withdraw. Somehow he kept going and even birdied two of his last three holes to finish one stroke behind the winner, Adam Scott. Still ailing, Woods completed 12 competitive rounds over the next four weeks.
It was a familiar script. He had always played through injuries, sometimes in defiance of medical advice. Two weeks before the 2008 United States Open, a doctor told Woods that the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee required him to use crutches for a few weeks, stay off his feet for three more weeks and then begin physical therapy.