In years to come, linguists may well need to reword the old adage, “rising from the ashes like a phoenix”, if golf legend Tiger Woods puts an exclamation point to an amazing 2019 by leading the United States team to victory at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Golf Club this month.
Turning 44 on December 30, Woods plans to head into the holiday season on another high note by becoming only the second playing captain to triumph in the prestigious biennial competition against the International team, led by Woods’ old foe, Ernie Els.
In the past 12 months, Woods has defied his detractors where his battle with career-threatening injuries has seen him producing two remarkable wins for the ages – first a 15th Major victory at the Masters Tournament in April and then a record-tying 82nd PGA Tour triumph at the inaugural Zozo Championship in Japan in late October.
They say good things come in threes and, after unsurprisingly picking himself for the Presidents Cup, Woods now has a golden opportunity to put the cherry on the cake to conclude a stirring 2019.
Interestingly, the latest narrative which has golf fans gasping in sheer admiration could not have been better scripted. It was during the 2017 Presidents Cup that Woods, then a captain’s assistant, painted a bleak scenario of him potentially never playing competitive golf again following a fourth back surgery which included spinal fusion.
“I don’t know what my future holds for me,” he told a stunned audience comprising the world’s media at Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey.
But like all great sporting comebacks, Woods first claimed a sensational victory at the 2018 Tour Championship and, riding the wave of his new-found confidence, he produced an improbable triumph at Augusta National a few months later that many had thought would never happen again.
“I had serious doubts after what transpired a couple years ago. I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit. Couldn’t lay down. Luckily I had the procedure on my back, which gave me a chance at having a normal life. But then all of a sudden, I realised I could actually swing a golf club again. I felt if I could somehow piece this together that I still had the hands to do it. The body’s not the same as it was a long time ago, but I still have good hands,” said Woods.
Woods limited himself to six more tournaments after his Masters win and when he failed to progress into the FedExCup season-finale, the Tour Championship, he announced from out of the blue that he had undergone a fifth knee surgery to repair minor cartilage damage in his left knee.
Some wondered if this was yet another setback for him but in his first tournament back, Woods returned to his prowling best, rewriting history along the way at the Zozo Championship where he won by three strokes from Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama.
“It’s a big number,” said Woods after achieving his 82nd win on a glorious Monday morning following a weather-hit week. “I’ve been very fortunate to have had the career I’ve had so far. To have won this tournament in Japan, it’s just so ironic because I’ve always been a global player. I didn’t really know that I would come back and play at this level. Swing-wise, my speed started coming back. Ironically, my back has been less sore because of it. I’ve been able to rotate better, but still, it’s always going to be sore but it’s just less sore.”
U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, who had a front row seat playing alongside Woods in the final two rounds in Japan, tipped his cap to the game’s icon and predicted the world will see more wins by Woods.
“Eight-two’s just a crazy number. You look at the guys who have won 10 times and it’s pretty special, let alone to come out here and win 82 times. To battle through the injuries he’s dealt with, gosh, he’s young and he’s playing unbelievable. The ball-striking exhibition I’ve seen the last two days is a joke. I don’t see him stopping anytime soon. I think there’s a lot more in store,” said Woodland, who will make his debut in the Presidents Cup.
Next up for Woods is to extend the U.S. dominance in the Presidents Cup which the team has won the last seven editions. At Royal Melbourne, site of the lone American defeat in 1998, Woods will be assisted by Fred Couples, Zach Johnson and Steve Stricker.
Woods acknowledged that leading as a playing captain will present different challenges, but he is confident of emulating Hale Irwin’s victorious feat in 1994. “It’s an honour and a tremendous responsibility to be able to be captain and represent our country. We’re going to have a pretty solid team going down there against the Internationals,” said Woods.
“I’m going to be getting ready as at the same time, it’s going to be a lot of work … but something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. On paper, we certainly have the advantage in the world rankings. When it comes right down to it, like I told the guys, when you start out on Thursday, it’s 0-0. We have to go out and win this Cup … doesn’t matter what the world ranking is. You have to go and beat the other guys, and that’s what we’re going to try and do.”
And should Woods go on to rewrite another piece of golf history in Australia, it may well be time to change the old saying to: ‘Rising from the ashes like a Tiger’.
By Chuah Choo Chiang