HARTFORD, Conn. – Tiger Woods received an early 44th birthday present this week. With his memorable Masters victory in April and stirring return as one of golf’s all-time greats, The Associated Press selected his unexpected win as the 2019 sports story of the year.
And who’s about to argue with possibly the greatest escape/comeback in the history of sports? After battling a litany of physical ailments amidst a personal meltdown in his marriage and stature in the world, Woods ended an eight-year victory drought and 11th in major championships with his fifth Masters title. He capped his 2019 with a come-from-behind victory in the ZOZO Championship, tying Sam Snead’s record 82 PGA Tour wins, and being the playing captain of the victorious United States team in the Presidents Cup in December.
The victory at Augusta National Golf Club ended much as it had 22 years earlier when a 21-year-old Woods shot a tournament-record 18-under-par 270 to win by a record 12 strokes and become the first African-American to don a green jacket after bear-hugging his ailing father, Earl, behind the 18th green. Eight months ago and after fusion surgery on his back, Woods was duplicating that memorable scene when he hugged his son, daughter, mother and girlfriend after what most considered an improbable victory that included his first final-round comeback in a major championship.
In-between, President Donald Trump awarded Woods the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in a White House Rose Garden ceremony that included Joe LaCava, his longtime caddie from Newtown, and his wife. Trump called Woods “a true legend” who transformed golf and then fought through years of injury to return to the sport’s summit. Woods joined World Golf Hall of Fame members Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and 1967 Greater Hartford Open champion Charlie Sifford as the only golfers to earn the distinctive award and was by the far the youngest. Woods has often acknowledged how much his career was influenced by Sifford, the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour and often referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of golf.”
“Tiger was back on top,” said Trump, who has played several rounds and done some business deals with Woods.
Despite his infamous and messy missteps and misadventures, Woods authored an amazing full-circle-of-life story of perseverance, redemption and inspiration for even those who had never been part of his legion of fans.
“I’m not even a Tiger guy,” one person tweeted, “but I was screaming and cheering for him like crazy! Possibly the best story in the history of sports!”
While that might be a bit of hyperbole, Tiger’s 2019 is certainly in the finals for No. 1. AP voters chose Woods’ uplifting comeback over options that were as much about sports as the issues that enveloped them: politics, money and the growing push for equal pay and equal rights for women.
A mix of AP member sports editors and beat writers elevated Woods’ rousing victory over the runner-up, the U.S. women’s soccer team’s victory in the World Cup. The month-long competition was punctuated by captain Megan Rapinoe’s push for pay equality for the women’s team, an ongoing war of words with Trump and sadly her kneeling during the national anthem while teammates stood with their hand over their heart.
Rapinoe’s often unpatriotic efforts to use sports as a platform to discuss bigger issues was hardly a one-off in 2019. Of the top 12 stories in the balloting, only titles won by the Toronto Raptors, Washington Nationals and University of Virginia basketball team stuck mainly to what happened between the lines. It’s no stretch to say the whole of the Woods saga – namely, the sordid, pain-riddled, decade-long prelude to his Masters victory – would also fit into that category.
Woods’ downfall began early on the day after Thanksgiving in 2009 when he ran over a fire hydrant outside his house in Florida, triggering countless stories about infidelity that led to the breakup of his marriage and nearly the destruction of his career.
Then there was Woods’ litany of injuries, most notably four knee surgeries and three back operations. Woods came close but did not return to his dominant form after his return to golf after his breakup with his wife. And as time went on, his physical condition deteriorated. He didn’t play in 2016 or 2017, and he conceded at the end of ’17 that his back was so bad that his days of competitive golf might be behind him.
Besides the knee and back surgeries, Woods required a lot of inner healing after a DUI arrest in 2017 exposed his reliance on painkillers. Through it all, he somehow kept nurturing his love for golf and eventually found his game again and climbed back to the top. He had close calls at two major championships in 2018, the British Open and PGA Championship, and then won the season-ending Tour Championship, as good a sign as any that he could take on the best and win.
But regular tournaments are not the majors, and he ended an 11-year-old drought in the game’s most important championships where he made his initial major mark in 1997, kickstarting a decade of unmatched dominance in the game. On that day, Woods came off the 18th green and wrapped himself in a warm embrace with his father, whose death in 2006 left an undeniable void in Tiger’s life and, some said, led to his personal trials and tribulations.
Though there had been several close calls between his U.S. Open victory in 2008 and the start of 2019, it was clear that if there was a course where Woods could elicit the old magic and end a major winless streak, it would be at Augusta National. But where he once might have overpowered the course and intimidated the competition, he simply outlasted both in 2019. He avoided mistakes while others were making them. Instead of taking a lead into the last day, then never giving anyone a whiff of hope, this was a comeback after starting two strokes behind.
As AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson wrote in his wrap-up: “Woods never missed a shot that mattered over the final seven holes, taking the lead with a 5-iron to the fat of the green on the par-5 15th for a two-putt birdie, delivering the knockout with an 8-iron that rode down the ridge by the cup and settled 2 feet away for birdie on the par-3 16th.”
When it was over, Woods arrived at the same spot where he had met his father 22 years earlier. He scooped up his son, Charlie, and held him in a long embrace, then did the same with his 11-year-old daughter, Sam, and mother, Tilda.
“For them to see what it’s like to have their dad win a major championship, I hope that’s something they will never forget,” Woods said.
No one who follows any sport from any corner of the world is likely to forget those four days in April at Augusta National.