Feinstein: Tiger's Win At Masters Not The Greatest Comeback

Woods' triumph is worthy of admiration, John Feinstein says, but "the greatest comeback of all time" people need a reality check

John Feinstein
April 23, 2019 - 4:34 pm
Tiger Woods Masters

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I woke up this morning to a Twitter troll who re-sent a tweet I’d written a year ago saying that I wasn’t going to join the legion of media members panting over every Tiger Woods birdie as he began yet another comeback.
         
“Until he contends in a major,” I wrote, “it’s all white noise to me.”
         
Which it was.
         
Then Woods had the lead on the back nine at the British Open and finished second at the PGA Championship. I wrote then that THIS comeback was apparently for real. He went on to win the Tour Championship in September for his first tournament win in more than five years.
         
A remarkable comeback. The greatest comeback in sports history as some of my colleagues—TV, radio and print—were screeching?
         
No.
         
It’s still no, even after his victory in the Masters. Coming back from surgery—even multiple surgeries—on one’s knees and back can’t match coming back from being hit by a bus and winning the U.S. Open 16 months later. That’s what Ben Hogan did almost 70 years ago.
         
There’s also the Erik Compton story. He had a heart transplant at 12; a heart attack at 28; a second heart transplant and came back to finish T-2 in the 2014 U.S. Open. No one in sports has ever done anything like that.
         
But that’s not the point. Woods’ comeback from honestly believing he might not play again to winning the Masters is extraordinary. It’s a great comeback story—period—without being graded or rated in any way.
         
One more time for the record—trolls please note: I have said for years that I believe Woods is the greatest golfer of all time, with all due respect to Jack Nicklaus.
         
Nicklaus still has 18 major titles to Woods’s 15, but I would make the case that in Woods’ dominant period from 1997 to 2008, he did things that no one –including Nicklaus – has ever done. It wasn’t just the 14 majors in 11-plus years or winning at least five times in NINE different years. He won a Masters by 12; a U.S. Open by 15 and a British Open by eight.
         
On the morning after Woods won the 2007 PGA—his 13th major title—Tom Watson called Nicklaus.
         
“Did you watch the kid yesterday?” Watson asked.
         
Nicklaus always insists that he doesn’t watch much golf.
         
“Yeah, I watched for a little while,” he conceded.
         
“What’d you think?” Watson asked.
         
“He’s the best player ever,” Nicklaus said.
         
This wasn’t Nicklaus being politically correct, as he always is, when speaking publicly about Woods. This was him being honest with a friend.
         
Best player ever. That’s good enough for me.
         
Of course we all know what happened after that: Woods derailed his personal life and then began to come apart physically. Most of us thought he would win about 25 majors before that Thanksgiving night when his soon-to-be ex-wife chased him out of the house and into a fire hydrant, but he stopped winning majors after that.
         
And then, two Sundays ago, he finally won that 15th major.
         
And many people reacted as if his last putt at Augusta National was the damaged Apollo 13 surviving re-entry. “Houston, this is Odyssey,” Tom Hanks says in the brilliant movie about that voyage. “It’s good to see you all again.”
         
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that movie. I can tell you that I’ve cried at that moment every single time I’ve watched it.
         
I was fortunate enough, years later, to meet Jim Lovell—the real-life captain of Apollo 13 played by Hanks. It was when I was doing Navy football games on the radio and Lovell was our halftime guest during a game.
         
Lovell was everything you’d want a genuine hero to be: modest, self-deprecating, outgoing and funny. It was an honor to meet him and to interview him.
         
To me, very few athletes are heroes. Pat Tillman, who died 15 years ago on Monday, was a hero because he gave up playing football to risk his life fighting overseas.

That’s heroic. Winning a game or a golf tournament or a tennis match isn’t heroic. The two most over-used words in sports are tragic and courageous. There are no tragedies in sports. There are losses and there’s genuine sadness, but tragedies? No. Even serious injuries—really awful ones like the one Alex Smith suffered last fall—aren’t tragic. They’re just sad and unfair, especially when they happen to a truly good guy like Smith.
         
There is courage in sports. Playing football takes courage and so does downhill skiing and race car driving. But golf? Seriously?
         
Athletes deal with injuries all the time—at every level. I had major shoulder surgery 14 years ago and open heart surgery 10 years ago. I was able to come back and compete in Masters swim meets not because I was courageous but because I wanted to and I was willing to put in the rehab work.
         
Bill Belichick best described athletes (real ones, not people like me) coming back from injury when I approached him early in 2009 with an idea to write a book about Tom Brady’s return from the ACL injury that cost him the 2008 season. I wanted to chronicle what Brady went through: the surgery, the pain of not being able to play, the rehab, the notion of getting his football legs under him again and how all of it affected the team as the season went on.
         
“John, when someone gets hurt like that, they have the surgery, go through rehab and come back and do what they do,” Belichick said. “That’s not a book.”
         
I disagreed. “If it was just another quarterback with just another team and just another coach, I hear you,” I said. “But Brady’s not just another quarterback and you’re not just another coach.”
         
Tiger Woods isn’t just another golfer. Which is why there’s no doubt that his comeback after multiple surgeries to win a major after an 11-year drought, is a huge story.
         
I get that. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. Hogan wasn’t exactly Mr. Warmth but you had to be amazed by his comeback after his car collided with a bus and he almost died.
         
What I didn’t get—and probably never will get—was the emotion so many people seemed to pour into his victory as if he was the Boston Red Sox or the Chicago Cubs finally breaking their World Series droughts.
         
I remember having similar feelings in 1991 while Jimmy Connors was miraculously winning match after match at the U.S. Open to reach the semifinals at the age of 39. It was a great story—Connors had last won a major title in 1983—and the fans went crazy every time Connors hit a winner.
         
I always got along with Connors, but I’d seen the churlish side of him too. So had most of those fans.
         
As I watched Woods on Sunday, I thought about Connors and all those people who had gotten so caught up in seeing him make that last run 28 years ago. And then I thought about something John McEnroe—never exactly a pal of Connors’—had said to me years earlier.
         
It was when McEnroe was at the pinnacle of his career. He had played that historic Wimbledon final against Bjorn Borg in 1980 and then had come back to beat Borg a couple months later in an almost as riveting U.S. Open final.
         
McEnroe won the first two sets, Borg the next two. When Borg won the fourth set, it felt as if everyone in Louis Armstrong Stadium was on their feet screaming for Borg.
         
This was about 15 miles from where McEnroe grew up in Douglaston, New York and about 4,000 miles from where Borg grew up in Sweden. It hurt McEnroe to have the whole crowd against him in his hometown but he understood it: Borg was “teen angel” (when he was younger) and McEnroe was “McBrat.”
       
“I know it’ll change when I’m older and I’m not winning as much,” he said to me that night. “Fans love you when you’re young and they love you when you’re old. You watch, it’ll happen.”
         
It happened with Connors and it happened with McEnroe. When he played a young Pete Sampras and a young Andre Agassi late in his career, the crowd was solidly behind him.
         
And now it is Woods’ turn. He’d older—43—and he’s more vulnerable because of the injuries and the 11-year drought and the questions about whether he’d play again.
         
It’s ironic in a sense because once he was loved for his ability to dominate; now he’s loved because he’s vulnerable.
         
I was never one of those people who wrote him off completely, not because I’m smart but because if there’s one thing I’ve learned it is that you never count out the elite of the elite.
         
Am I weeping for joy like some or declaring Woods’ victory the greatest comeback or the most amazing event I’ve ever seen?
         
No. I sincerely doubt anything will ever touch the Lake Placid Olympics in my lifetime, and the Miracle Mets and Jets of 1969 will always rank ahead of any golf tournament. Yes, I’m that old.
         
But let’s not make coming back from surgery to play golf into an act of courage or heroism. It is an act of extraordinary ability and competitiveness. It is worthy of our admiration.
         
But tears? I’ll save them for Erik Compton winning a golf tournament. Or the next time I watch Apollo 13
 
John Feinstein’s most recent work of fiction is, ‘The Prodigy,’—the story of a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters and all the pressures he faces on and off the golf course. His latest non-fiction book is, ‘Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League.’ John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com