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Tiger's long road to golf recovery
This week’s US Open marks a once-inconceivable five years since Tiger Woods last won a major championship, that victory coming in a memorable Monday US Open playoff against Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines in June 2008.
It’s the longest such slump in the 14-time major winner’s career, but this year, there’s a renewed sense of hope for Woods, who enters the tournament at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia ranked No. 1 in the world and with an efficient four PGA Tour victories in eight tournaments — which makes it easy to dismiss his absolute train wreck at the Memorial two weeks ago.
The road back to the top has not been a smooth one for Woods, however. Not at all. In fact, the last five years leading up to this resurgence have represented perhaps the most tumultuous half-decade we have ever seen out of an athlete of Woods’ prominence, both on and off the course.
Between personal scandal, nagging injuries and a resulting professional collapse, Woods has been tested in seemingly every way imaginable, and while it’s easy to mock Woods for the situation he put himself in — and virtually everyone did — there were times when it was genuinely painful to watch.
Maybe this is it, though. Maybe this week is when Tiger finally gets all the way back on track and moves within three major wins of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18. Maybe by Monday, Tiger will have put everything that has dragged him down for the last five years in the rear-view mirror. Maybe this is when we finally stop talking about everything that’s gone wrong and focus, once again, on everything a competitive Tiger Woods means to the sport of golf.
But before we do — let’s take one last look at the last five years in the Life of Tiger:
TIGER’S LAST MAJOR WIN
On June 16, 2008, Tiger won his third US Open on the first sudden death playoff hole following an 18-hole Monday playoff with Mediate. He did so while clearly in pain, laboring around the golf course for much of the tournament — a side effect, most assumed, of Woods' arthroscopic surgery on his left knee two months earlier.
As we later would find out, Woods was battling a torn ACL and a double stress fracture in his left tibia, and two days after the US Open concluded, Woods announced that he would be missing the rest of the 2008 season to have surgery on the ACL and recover from those injuries.
Here are the highlights of that last major victory:
2009 PGA TOUR SEASON
After eight months away from the course, Woods returned for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Feb. 25, 2009. He would go on to lose 4-and-2 to Tim Clark in the second round, but it was the beginning of a productive year on the course for Woods.
In March, Woods would get his first post-layoff win, securing his sixth Arnold Palmer Invitational on this shot:
After that, Woods would add five more PGA Tour wins (including his fourth Memorial, third Buick Open, seventh Bridgestone Invitational and fifth BMW Championship) between June and September.
Woods finished tied for sixth at both the Masters and US Open, missed the cut at the British Open, and finished second at the PGA Championship, despite leading by two strokes after 54 holes. Woods’ final event of the year came at the Australian Masters, Nov. 12-15. He was paid a reported $3 million appearance fee to play the tournament, which he ended up winning with a score of 14-under.
Shortly thereafter, Woods’ life began to fall apart.
WOODS’ CHEATING SCANDAL AT THE FOREFRONT
On the morning of Nov. 27, 2009, the day after Thanksgiving, Woods was involved in a single-car accident outside his Orlando, Fla., home. In the days after the crash, rumors of Woods’ infidelity — and its role in the crash — would begin to swirl.
In the following weeks, several of Woods’ sponsors, including AT&T, Accenture and Gatorade, would drop him from their labels, and others, including Gillette and Tag Heuer began de-emphasizing Woods in their advertising. Nike and EA Sports, however, would continue to stand by Woods throughout the ordeal.
REHAB, RECOVERY AND RETURN
On Jan. 19, 2010, a man appearing to be Woods was photographed outside a sex rehab facility in Hattiesburg, Miss.
One month later, on Feb. 19, Woods appeared in public for the first time at a press conference at the PGA Tour headquarters, where he admitted to having been in a 45-day rehab program — though he didn’t admit specifically for what — and once again apologized to his family:
Woods made no announcement regarding when he might return to golf, but on March 16, he announced that he would be returning for the Masters in April of that year.
BACK ON THE COURSE (BUT NOT BACK TO NORMAL)
Tiger returned to golf at Augusta National on April 8, 2010, and played better than most expected. He finished the Masters at 11-under, good for a tie for fourth place, but it wasn't all good shots and warm fuzzy feelings for Woods, who was still, at that point, atop the World Golf Ranking.
Case in point:
The rest of Woods’ 2010 season would not go as well as his Masters finish suggested that it might, however. Woods missed the cut for just the sixth time in his career in his next appearance, then withdrew from May's Players Championship during the final round, citing a neck injury. Shortly after, Woods' longtime swing coach Hank Haney resigned.
After a month off, Woods finished tied for fourth at the US Open in June, but he was not a factor at the Open Championship in July, finishing tied for 23rd at 3-under. After finishing tied for 78th at the Bridgestone Invitational with a score of 18-over, Woods finished tied for 28th at the PGA Championship in August.
He would finish the year without a victory, and on Oct. 31, 2010, Woods dropped to No. 2 in the World Golf Ranking for the first time since May 2005, a span of 281 weeks at No. 1.
TIGER AND ELIN DIVORCE
On Aug. 23, 2010, just over a week after Woods’ final major of the year, Woods and his wife, Elin Nordegren, officially filed for divorce. According to court documents, the couple described the marriage as “irretrievably broken” and had already agreed on a settlement nearly two months earlier, on July 3.
Even before the divorce was made official, rumors of a $100 million settlement began to circulate, and after the split made headlines, Elin chatted with People Magazine and Tiger talked with reporters in advance of a tournament in New Jersey.
When asked whether he felt relieved after the divorce was finalized, Woods reportedly replied: “I don't think that's the word. I think it's more sadness. Because I don't think you ever ... go into a marriage looking to get divorced. That's the thing. That's why it is sad."
2011: ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK
Whatever progress Woods was making on the course in 2011 was derailed, at least in part, by another round of leg injuries.
After failing to contend during the first part of the 2011 season, Woods finished in a tie for fourth at the Masters — and nearly won after a huge rally tied him for the lead earlier in Sunday’s final round. After a month off, Woods returned at the Players Championship, but withdrew after nine holes (he was six over par to that point), citing knee and Achilles injuries.
The injuries ended up sidelining Woods for 11 weeks, causing him to miss both the US Open and the British Open. During that time, Woods fired his longtime caddy, Steve Williams, after 12 years, 72 professional wins and 13 major championships. Tiger would return to the course in early August, when he finished tied for 37th at the Bridgestone Invitational. The winner of that tournament? Adam Scott — caddied by Woods’ former bag man Williams.
Tiger missed the cut at the PGA Championship in Atlanta one week after being bested by his former caddie at the Bridgestone, and after finishing in a tie for 30th at the Frys.com Open. Woods dropped to as low as 58th in the World Golf Ranking on Nov. 6, 2011, two days after Williams referred to Woods using a racial slur during an awards event in China.
Toward the end of 2011, Woods showed signs that he might be finding a groove. He clinched the winning point in the President’s Cup in late November after making the team as a widely-criticized captain’s pick by Fred Couples. Then in his final event of the year, Woods took first place in the Chevron World Challenge, his fifth career win in the 18-man tournament and first win of any kind in more than two years, dating back to before the cheating scandal broke.
A RETURN TO FORM
In 2012, Tiger’s play at least began to resemble the Tiger of old, as Woods won three tournaments — each of them events he had won in the past.
At the Honda Classic in March, Woods used a birdie-eagle finish to earn second place, and after a brief Achilles scare caused Woods to withdraw from the final round of the Cadillac Championship, Woods earned his first official PGA Tour win since September 2009’s BMW Championship, shooting 13-under at Bay Hill for his seventh Arnold Palmer Invitational win.
Woods shot 5-over at the Masters and finished in a tie for 40th — setting off a T40, CUT, T40 stretch, arguably the worst of his career — and after going into the weekend tied for the lead at the US Open, Tiger fell out of contention and finished tied for 21st. Woods was in the hunt in the final round at the British Open, but a triple-bogey on the sixth hole derailed him, and he finished tied for third, three back of winner Ernie Els.
Much like the US Open, Woods entered Saturday of the PGA Championship in a tie for first, but another poor weekend performance dropped Woods to a tie for 11th, 11 shots off the lead. The major finishes were disappointing, but at least by this point, Tiger was once again a regular contender and a constant threat to win, and at the end of 2012, he was back up to third in the World Golf Ranking.
TIGER’S NEW GIRL — AND A RETURN TO DOMINANCE
The 2013 season so far has seen Woods playing like the Woods of old — and maybe his new girlfriend has something to do with it.
Woods cruised to a four-shot win at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines — the site of his last major win — in January, then held off Steve Stricker at the Cadillac Championship at Doral for his second win of the season. Then on March 18, Woods announced that he and Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn had begun dating.
(They have since been spotted at the Met Gala — where Tiger was maybe, probably drunk — and bringing Woods’ kids to school, much to the delight or ire of Woods' ex-wife, depending on whom you believe.)
STILL SEARCHING FOR A MAJOR
Though he’s back playing at a level where he’s always a contender, and he’s generally considered the favorite in every tournament he enters, Woods still won’t be back until he secures his first major win since the scandal that nearly ruined his career.
In the first major of 2013, Woods hovered around the top of the leaderboard and finished in a tie for fourth — and may very well have won had it not been for an unlucky bounce off a flagstick that led to an illegal drop (and two-stroke penalty) during the third round at the Masters.
This week, Tiger takes the course at Merion, a course he’s never played, looking to end that five-year streak. He's got the Sergio feud behind him and he’ll be the prohibitive favorite going in, starting with his first round. He'll play alongside Scott and Rory McIlroy on Thursday, and maybe this will finally be the week that Woods gets back over the hump.
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