Can Tiger rise again
Odds are long, but a miraculous comeback from Woods must position him in front of Nicklaus and Hogan
When Ben Hogan was ill and fading, the news of his poor health was spoken about in the kind of hushed tones heard most often at funerals.
Hogan was never one to go easily at anything, so the whispers were as much about the man as the illness.
As Blackie Sherrod wrote soon after Hogan’s passing, just three months after Tiger Woods won his first major, in 1997: “It was as though he were standing there with a withering glance, ready to sear anyone who spoke aloud of a physical weakness.”
Hogan could be frosty at times, at least as often as he was charming.
It suited him, his cold front creating a distance between him and the great unwashed that allowed the deeply private Hogan to remain comfortable.
When Woods survived his own brush with death this week, the news went worldwide, a ticker under every bulletin, which is also typical of his times.
Tiger is a worldwide brand. His dark secrets are tabloid fodder, his golf now simply one part of the man all the world has an opinion of.
There is a kind of symmetry to it all, though.
Across America, columnists stuck for an idea, wrote of the “eerie” similarity between Woods’s car accident this week and the car accident that almost ended Hogan’s career, if not his life, in 1949 when, in reality, it was simply a coincidence.
Given the narrative that followed Hogan after his accident, though, Woods is about one below-par round from being declared the greatest.
At the moment, he is jostling for position as the greatest with Jack Nicklaus, who took the crown from
Hogan and has held it in his gentle grip even as Woods edged closer, and brushed against immortality, when he won his 15th major, the US Masters in 2019.
Some still held out for Nicklaus and his 18 majors, declaring it all a numbers game.
But Woods’s triple- axel in his Genesis this week puts him in position to be a rare combination of Nicklaus and Hogan, which might end the debate once and for all.
Hogan’s legend was cemented, of course, after that horrific car accident in 1949 when he collided headfirst into a Greyhound bus whose driver thought it a good idea to overtake in fog.
Hogan was driving in the other direction, heading home to Fort Worth.
One of the rarest of men who lived life without stain, the moment he realised that the collision was inevitable, he moved to shield his wife Valerie, leaning across her, without knowing his selfless act would save his life.
The steering column punctured through the seat that moments earlier he was leaning against.
He was in the car for about half an hour before being pulled free, his body in terrible shape. He fractured a collarbone, broke an ankle, chipped a rib and had a double fracture of the pelvis. An eye was nearly swollen shut.
Hogan nearly died in hospital. Blood clots in his legs were not the problem but, when they moved to his lungs, his doctors began talking quietly in corridors.
Nobody expected Hogan to play again.
He did, though. He would have circulation problems the rest of his life and every round of golf was its own trial but he would swing a club again, and well enough to win six of his nine majors.
It was considered the greatest comeback in sport.
Woods has already made a career of returning from injury but five knee surgeries and five back surgeries are golf-inflicted.
The rod inserted in his leg this week that runs from just below his knee down through his ankle is invasive.
Screws hold his ankle together.
The internal bleeding was so severe his leg was “uncovered”, meaning the skin peeled back, to release the pressure that could cause circulation problems.
Some are hoping Woods might recover well enough to be able to continue playing rounds with his son, Charlie.
From a medical perspective the ankle injury is routine but, from a golfing standpoint, it is significant.
Ankle injuries are among the worst for a golf swing.
It now appears long odds Woods will ever reach Nicklaus’s 18 major wins.
He is 45 and the 2019 Masters is his only major since 2007.
Hogan was 36 and at the peak of his game.
Three weeks before his accident, he was on the cover of Time magazine as the best golfer in the world, the interview containing a frightening premonition.
“It isn’t the golf, it’s the travel,” he said.
“I want to die an old man, not a young one.”
Nicklaus would go on to take Hogan’s mantle as the greatest until Woods came to challenge.
He has only three-quarters of the majors Nicklaus has but such is the power of his celebrity many were already prepared to overlook that and declare Woods the greatest, citing a combination of modern competition and his powerful personality.
At that, Nicklaus fans just polish his major trophies.
Woods himself has always said the goal was Nicklaus’s 18 majors. Tournaments, weeks ranked No.1, they paled in pursuit of Nicklaus’s tally.
Will another major win by Woods be enough? Will a tour win cement his comeback and provide the polish to surpass Nicklaus?
Nicklaus won his last major, the US Masters, at 46.
Woods turns 46 in December. He might never reach Nicklaus’s magic number, but if he can return and sprinkle a little of the Hogan fairy dust over his career, on top of the 15 he already owns, the case is closed.
It isn’t the golf, it’s the travel. I want to die an old man, not a