Can We Talk About the Asterisk on the Tiger Woods Comeback Story?

Tiger's redemption is complete. But let's not forget where it started.

Tiger Woods at the Masters. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Tiger Woods at the Masters. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The headlines were being written before Tiger Woods was even done putting in from two feet on 18 to finish at -13 at Augusta National and win the Masters for the fifth time, his first major win since George W. Bush was president.

The New York Times proclaimed, “Tiger Woods’s Masters Win Joins the Ranks of Great Sports Comebacks”; while the Guardian asked: “Was Tiger Woods’s Masters win the greatest comeback in sporting history?”Sports Illustrated went with: “Tiger Roars Again: Golf’s Greatest Comeback Is Complete.” Calling the event live on the radio for Westwood One, Mike Tirico billed Woods’s win as “one of the great comeback stories in American sports history.”

Muhammad Ali recapturing his heavyweight title in 1974 from George Foreman after being stripped of it seven years before for refusing to serve in Vietnam — “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” — is a great American comeback story. Top draft pick Shaun Livingston gruesomely tearing up his left knee and then returning to the NBA 18 months later to bounce around the league for years before landing with the Warriors and winning a trio of titles is a great American comeback story. Nine-time Grand Slam singles winner Monica Seles returning to the court to win the Australian Open after more than two years away from the game following an on-court stabbing by a crazed fan is a great Hungarian — and American (she received citizenship in 1994) — comeback story.

All due respect to Tirico et al., but given what Woods was actually coming back from, his redemption story is not quite on the same level.

Consider: the first major issue Woods is coming back from is being exposed as a serial philanderer by his ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, before Thanksgiving in 2009. The second is his oft-ignored link to PEDs, thanks to Woods’s repeated meetings with an HGH-carrying Canadian doctor who also had Alex Rodriguez as a client, as well as his ties to a Canadian chiropractor with deep connections to the BALCO steroid lab. The third is a 2017 Memorial Day DUI arrest when Woods was found passed out in his Mercedes-Benz with Vicodin, Dilaudid, Xanax, Ambien and THC in his system.

The reason why Woods’s comeback falls short of the all-time pantheon isn’t because he didn’t overcome long odds or do something worth celebrating. By winning Sunday, he was able to overcome the personal demons that destroyed his marriage, the public humiliation of falling out of the top 1,000 in the world golf rankings at one point and the physical toll of having four back surgeries in three years between 2014-2017.

But whereas the obstacles Ali, Livingston, Seles and plenty of others were able to battle back from were forced upon them, the adversity that plagued Woods was largely self-inflicted.

Woods was the one who chose to sleep around and get lazy about hiding it. Woods is the one who bulked up in an odd enough way that 25 percent of his peers said in 2010 that they believed he took PEDs (which could have contributed to his back problems). And Woods is the one who took a cocktail of prescription drugs, topped it off with some weed and then got behind the wheel of his Benz in Florida a little more than two years ago.

None of this is to say that what Woods did on Sunday wasn’t captivating or inspiring. It was and he unquestionably deserves credit for working to get back into shape and having the guts to keep playing when he could have easily walked away from the game forever and kept living like a king off his royalty checks from Nike.

And to his credit, he didn’t take the easy route.

He stuck it out, battled back and got rewarded on the 18th green at Augusta. Having his children, 11-year-old daughter Sam and 10-year-old son Charlie, there to see it likely made it all the sweeter because they were infants when everything for Woods fell apart.

Now he’s got his life together: Woods, the odds-on favorite to win the PGA Championship next month at 8-1, has officially come all the way back, and it’s a great story for the game of golf and him personally. Let’s just not forget that the main nadir Woods was coming back from was his former self.

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