For most of his career, Tiger Woods has been so much better at golf than the rest of the world that his biggest opponent has been his own body.
But as Woods showed at Torrey Pines in 2008, then 11 years later when he rose again at the 2019 Masters after multiple back surgeries: his mind and his talent have always been stronger.
The 15-time Major winner will return to the biggest stage at Augusta National this week, despite a horrific car accident that nearly cost him his leg 14 months ago.
Not only is Woods going to play, the five-time winner wants a sixth Green Jacket. When asked if he expects to win, he said: “I do.
“I can hit it just fine. I don’t have any qualms about what I can do physically from a golf standpoint.
“Walking’s the hard part. This is normally not an easy walk to begin with. Now given the condition my leg is in it gets a little more difficult.
“72 holes is a long road and it’s going to be a tough challenge and a challenge that I’m up for.”
Unless you count the 36-hole, father/son PNC Championship in December 2021, where Woods was driven around in a cart – he hasn’t hit a shot in anger since the 2020 Masters, 17 months ago.
Some may scoff at the thought of the 46-year-old winning on Sunday, but this man is built differently. His pain barrier isn’t fit for purpose.
“I still feel I have the hands to win it,” he said. “My body is good enough.
“I haven’t been in situations where I have to walk and endure like here – it will be a different challenge. Like the 2008 US Open. Those are times I can draw upon when I was successful.”
It was clear for most of the 2008 US Open that Woods was in a great deal of pain.
As it turned out, he was playing with two stress fractures in his tibia and a knee which required surgical reconstruction a week later.
His former swing coach Hank Haney said: “I knew that he was determined to win the U.S. Open. I didn’t really see how it was logically possible that he would have a chance, but I kept thinking to myself that Tiger said he was going to win, so he must believe somehow he can pull it off.”
After grimacing his way through the first 48 holes, Woods found some magic on the back nine in the third round.
“That was the freakiest round I’ve ever seen,” said Robert Karlsson, who went round with Woods that day.
From three shots back, Woods made eagle at the 13th, then bogeyed the 14th, before some classic Tiger magic.
Call it luck, destiny, or divine intervention – but there was a force which pulled his ball towards the hole more than others that week.
He knifed a terrible shot into the hole for birdie on 17, although there was nothing fluky about his eagle on 18.
Woods holed a 60-foot putt to take the 54-hole lead going into the final day, a position from which he notoriously never loses at the Majors.
But he nearly did. A messy final round, which included three dropped shots on the opening two holes and two more on the back nine, left him needing birdie on the 72nd hole to tie Rocco Mediate.
If Woods didn’t make it, this piece would probably remember Mediate’s astonishing achievement. He was ranked 158th in the world going into the tournament.
Or if Lee Westwood made his birdie putt on 18, we might look back on the day he finally ended his Major drought.
But there’s a reason why Westwood and Mediate both parred the last and Woods made birdie.
It certainly wasn’t the tee shot. Woods hooked his into the bunker. It definitely wasn’t the lay-up either. Woods overcooked it into the rough, seemingly handing the title to Mediate or Westwood.
Somehow, he got his third to within 15-feet, hacking a wedge out of the long stuff and getting it to stop pin-high.
Mediate, who had already posted his 283, watched on as Westwood and Woods lined up lengthy putts to take him to a play-off.
Westwood missed, and up stepped Woods. This was nothing to do with ability. Every casual golfer occasionally holes one from that distance.
This was all about resolve. His father, Earl, once told him: “I promise you’ll never meet anyone as mentally tough as you in your whole entire life. He hasn’t, and he never will.”
Woods was taught to block everything out from a frighteningly young age. In any given moment, no matter the stakes, Woods could create internal silence.
Like Michael Jordan on the buzzer, or Serena Williams up against Championship point, the all-time great athletes are decided by their ability to endure what others can’t.
Think Didier Drogba in cup finals, or Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. When the pressure rises, so do they.
Their minds aren’t wired the same. As others freeze, suddenly rendered powerless by tension, they get better.
Woods’ extraordinary ability to focus and stay calm under pressure helped. While Westwood left his putt short, Woods made a pure stroke. But that lips out for any golfer other than him.
“I knew he’d make it,” Mediate said immediately afterwards. Everyone did.
Mediate held his own in the 18-hole play-off. They both shot 71, but Woods edged his opponent on the first hole of sudden death to seal one of the most astonishing victories in golf history. Until now? Surely not.
That’s why hundreds of people turned up just to watch him practice at Augusta on Monday. To watch Woods is to watch logic be defied.
He’s already returned to glory once at the Masters, despite his back and his life in tatters little more than four years ago.
And if anyone needs hope he can do it again now, look no further than Torrey Pines.
Ahead of this week’s event, Rory McIlroy summed it up best: “Would I be surprised? No.
“I’m not surprised by anything he does anymore.”