Late in the Masters broadcast on Friday afternoon, ESPN ran a montage of players testifying about their favorite Tiger Woods moments at Augusta National. The segment closed with Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy nominating their two Tiger memories, which both came during his 2005 win. The segment ended, the audience returned to their happy hour beers, and the live golf continued.
The live golf, 17 years after those nostalgic clips, resumed with back-to-back Woods birdies at the 13th and 14th holes. It put him ahead of both McIlroy and Thomas on the leaderboard at the time, the kind of younger, powerful superstars that were supposed to hasten the sunset of Tiger’s career.
One of the challenges in contextualizing golf, and understanding its history, is how we comprehend success beyond wins and majors on the résumé. Wins are weighted, and they should be. But it oversimplifies things and can obscure the many other ways in which a talent might be something more than his contemporaries, or anyone who’s ever done it.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 8, 2022
Tiger does not seem in prime position to win this Masters, but what he’s done through 36 holes is a reminder of one of the remarkable standards he’s set. Woods is now 46, making his 22nd Masters start as a professional. He’s never missed a cut as a pro. He did not miss when he was playing the best golf the world has ever seen. He did not miss when he got a bad draw on the tee sheet. He did not miss after four months in the exile of a public sex scandal. He did not miss after a reclusive few months trying to cure the chipping yips. He did not miss when he was the favorite or as a 40-something with a decrepit back. And now he has not missed after 18 months away from competitive golf rehabilitating a diminished leg that was once up for amputation.
There are 15 majors and 82 PGA Tour wins and mountains of earnings that are brighter and bolder signals of his ability and legacy. But these two days have been another reminder of how he is a talent that we’ve not seen before and may never see again. Tiger is the living embodiment of a now-parodied phrase “built different.”
McIlroy was 15 and Thomas was 11 when Woods was doing the things they fondly recalled for the ESPN montage. Rory has missed two cuts in half the starts of Woods, including last April. Thomas is six-for-six, but with only one top 10 in his Masters career. Brooks Koepka, a four-time major winner and widely regarded as a favorite this week, missed the cut for the second year in a row. Bryson DeChambeau, once hailed as revolutionizing the sport was also playing injured—but, as far as we know, not with an appendage once considered for amputation—missed the cut by miles.
A few hours before Tiger’s finish, Jordan Spieth putted out for double bogey at the 18th and tumbled below the cut line. Augusta is Spieth’s happy place, a course where he thrives no matter his form coming into the first week of April. He had never missed a cut in eight previous starts. This underwhelming showing will be no great shame in Spieth’s career. It happens—you miss a cut no matter how talented you are and how well-suited your game may be to a particular tournament.
But it was hard not to think about Spieth’s sloppy finish and early exit as Tiger hobbled home on the second nine. Hailing intangibles can be a pretty fraught exercise in golf, but with Tiger, as a golf competitor, there is clearly something different from and superior to anything else we’ve witnessed. He seems to be relishing the chance just to play another Masters, regardless of his physical abilities. These 36 holes, even just the attempt to play, add to that impression, and confirm that his greatness is of a different order.
There is little to say about Tiger that is new or profound. But what’s happened through two days at this Masters, against younger and far more physically abled competitors, adds to the measure of something that cannot be precisely measured: a brilliance and determination that will never be reflected in some career totals.
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