Tiger Woods finishes at The Masters, thankful he reached the starting line.

There was a time when Tiger Woods would have been disdainful of a lowly finish at the Masters, when his demeanor between the 18th green and the scorer’s office would have betrayed only a flinty dourness, when keyboard jockeys would have bemoaned wall-to-wall coverage of a player so distant from the top of the leaderboard. Sunday was not one of those days, and it’s unlikely any of Woods’s tomorrows will be either.

Success in professional golf is reflected in strictly numerical form, and the digits posted by Woods during the 86th Masters would not, on paper, suggest a memorable week: 13-over-par total, roughly a couple dozen strokes back of the winner; a brace of 78s on the weekend, his worst scores ever at Augusta National; six 3-putts on greens he knows as intimately as the contours of his children’s faces. The Masters doesn’t provide the granular Strokes Gained statistics that add insight on the PGA Tour, but even if it did those metrics would be woefully inadequate to explain the grandeur of a solo 47th finish by a five-time champion. Because there are no Strokes Gained measurements for heart, for determination, for sheer, bloody-minded willpower, or for gratitude.

There was evident discomfort in Woods’s gait on the walk from the 18th green to sign his scorecard, but there was a distinct pep too, one that hinted at pride in what he had just accomplished, and optimism that better days lie ahead. He was asked if the week ranked among his finest career achievements, a seemingly audacious question for a man who has enjoyed several legendary moments on this very property.

“For not winning an event, yes. Yes, without a doubt,” he replied. “To go from where I was to get to this point.”

Getting anywhere is a triumph when your starting point is the mangled wreckage of a car in a suburban Los Angeles ravine. Fourteen months ago, Woods almost lost his right leg (and damned nearly his life too), so he had no reason to believe he would be granted an opportunity to produce the finest solo 47th place finish in golf history.

“I don’t think words can really describe where I was a little over a year ago and what my prospects were at that time to end up here and be able to play in all four rounds,” he said, finally displaying—after 15 major victories and 82 PGA Tour wins—a sense of being awed by his own accomplishments. “Even a month ago I didn’t know if I could pull this off.”

We have witnessed a number of iconic walks off Augusta National’s 18th green by Woods—into a bear hug from his father, Earl, in 1997, and into the arms of his children, Sam and Charlie, in 2019. The first felt ordained, the latter improbable. He was alone on the walk this time, and that too was symbolic in its way. It’s been a lonely road back from that California ditch, through surgeries, intensive physical therapy and an exhausting regimen of ice baths to relieve aches that became more evident as the week wore on. When asked how much pain he was in, his answer revealed a great deal while saying nothing: “Uh-huh.”

A quarter-century ago, Woods announced himself with a 12-shot victory at the Masters, but his distant finish in ’22 was scarcely less impressive. In the end, we saw more than we had any right to expect—four rounds completed, a few highlights, a few too many lowlights, his every gingerly-placed footstep punctuated by thunderous appreciation from spectators.

“I wasn’t exactly playing my best, but just to have the support out there and the appreciation from all the fans,” he said, seeming genuinely touched in a manner different from the roars he heard on those many Masters Sundays when he slipped into a green jacket.

More than any other sporting event, the Masters embraces ritual and tradition, unyielding to popular whims (though this year’s Dude Perfect romp around Amen Corner with hockey sticks and tennis racquets was a nod toward a demographic for whom remote controls are alien). For four days at Augusta National, all seemed as once it was in the world of golf. Woods was again making noise at Augusta National, and the sport’s Saudi hijackers didn’t exist (except when Gary Player continued a family tradition of besmirching the honorary starter ceremony by prominently wearing a Golf Saudi logo, a year after his shiftless offspring used a wheelchair-bound Lee Elder as a prop for marketing golf balls).

Most great sports stories involve athletes crossing the finish line, but sometimes it’s no less compelling to see them simply get to the starting line. Having watched Woods almost lose it all, lose so much more than a mere career, the 86th Masters has been marked by sincere gratitude for his simple presence. “Thankful,” Woods said at the end. “I keep saying it, but I am. I really am. I truly am.”

Us too, Tiger. Us too.

Published at Goflweek.com, April 10, 2022.

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