Rozner: Tiger Woods' comeback leaves fellow players in awe

  • The Green Jacket is a good fit for Tiger Woods, who earned his fifth Sunday at Augusta National.

    The Green Jacket is a good fit for Tiger Woods, who earned his fifth Sunday at Augusta National. Associated Press

Updated 4/15/2019 5:13 PM

All in one, the Masters is the best tournament in golf, the hardest to win and the most revered event, while the course itself presents the toughest challenge.

A single mistake, a single stray shot from the tee, fairway or greenside, is enough at any moment to bring double into play and cost you the prize. Witness Brooks Koepka, Ian Poulter, Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau on No. 12 Sunday, a harsh reminder of Jordan Spieth's nightmare in 2016.


And though Sunday marked the biggest step in what has been the greatest comeback in sports history, Tiger Woods might have also stared down the finest leaderboard in the history of the tournament.

There were 11 players finishing at 10-under or better. The next-closest Masters had six players at double digits in 2011, when Charl Schwartzel slipped on the Green Jacket.

Finishing a shot behind Woods were World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 3 Koepka and No. 9 Xander Schauffele.

Major winners Jason Day and Webb Simpson -- both in the top 20 of the Official World Golf Rankings -- were 2 shots back at 11-under par, as was Molinari, the reigning Open champ and World No. 7, and No. 14 Finau, who chose golf over basketball scholarships because of -- guess who -- Tiger Woods.

At 10-under were Rickie Fowler (No. 10 in the OWGR), Jon Rahm (No. 11) and Patrick Cantlay (No. 18).

Woods is now No. 6 in the world after capturing his 15th major championship, simply staggering when you remember that he was not in the top 1,200 in the world when he was still struggling to get out of bed in the fall of 2017.

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At the beginning of 2018, he was No. 674. He had a fused spine, a new swing, new ball, new driver head and shaft, new irons and throughout 2018 changed out his wedges.

Today, he is back on the Jack Nicklaus train, and it's no small measure of how different Woods is, and what he has been through, that so many of his competitors were waiting for him with hugs and high-fives just outside the Augusta National clubhouse when he went to sign his card Sunday afternoon.

Major winners Zach Johnson, Bubba Watson, Bernhard Langer, Trevor Immelman and Justin Thomas lined up to pay tribute. Schauffele was there as well, even though minutes before he was atop the leaderboard with Woods.

Fowler, who still searches for a major, was there, as was a very dignified Ian Poulter, the Ryder Cup monster who shreds USA hopes every two years, and carried Europe at Medinah in 2012.


The way Poulter took his hat off and bowed his head is an image that will not soon disappear.

Such extraordinary respect.

One by one, they greeted him, lined up as if it were a Buckingham Palace reception.

One by one, they expressed their joy at having watched Woods survive the pain of yet another rehab and complete this impossible return to greatness.

One by one, they appreciated him.

The biggest hug came from Koepka, the linebacker who had won three of his last six major starts and threatened to win again Sunday.

Nearly every one of these players chose golf as a profession because of the man they waited to embrace Sunday.

Said Koepka postgame, "Look at the last five years and what he had to go through, to get his body back in playing shape. To have the Tiger of old back, as a fan I love it.

"It's awesome. I'm glad he's back. You want to play against the best ever."

Koepka then paused and smiled, saying, "He's just so good, man. I don't know what else to say."

While most Tour players enter about 20 events a season, Woods did not play 20 events combined for four years, from 2014-17. In 2016, he did not play at all. In 2017, he played once in January and finally settled on spinal fusion in April when three previous back surgeries did not work.

"I can't believe we're witnessing this," Fowler said, moments after greeting Woods. "I should be filming this.

"You have to appreciate what he's been through. To be at the lowest of the lows and come back and be on top, it's impressive.

"Eighteen (majors) is in play. Fifteen was gonna be the hardest. I hope I have something to say on a few of those before he gets there."

Said Immelman, "To rebuild his whole game after back surgery, to come back and win the biggest tournament on Earth at 43, is just unbelievable. It's the greatest day in golf maybe ever."

Said Schauffele, "It's like a dream. It's what I watched as a kid. I watched him growing up.

"I was on 17 when I heard the roars. I knew he was on 16 and I knew he used the ridge properly. I knew my work was cut out for me. It was an incredible experience."

Said Finau, "I played with that guy in the final group the day he won his 15th major. What he's done for the game, it's great that he's back and healthy. Now that he's got 15, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with."

The social media congratulatory posts came from every corner of the golf world, including from archenemy Sergio Garcia, and Phil Mickelson, perhaps more than anyone the victim of Woods' greatness the last 22 years.

But it is Mickelson, as well, who knows he owes his lavish lifestyle, and that of his family, to the gifts Woods has given him.

They played for a million-dollar purse -- the entire field -- when Mickelson first started. After Woods burst upon the scene, he turned golf into an international happening. Soon, every winning check was for more than a million dollars, many of them now worth almost $2 million.

Tiger Woods is responsible for that.

For those who have competed with him, against him and failed to catch him, despite personal disappointment, it's an understanding of greatness, knowledge that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see up close the best ever.

For the rest of us, and for however long it lasts, it's a gift.

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