Woods’ come­back at Masters named AP Sports Story of the Year

The Saline Courier - - SPORTS - As­so­ci­ated Press

A green jacket. A heart­melt­ing em­brace. A stir­ring re­turn to the top of golf by one of the sport’s all-time greats.

In choos­ing Tiger Woods’ vic­tory at the Masters as The As­so­ci­ated Press sports story of the year, vot­ers went with the up­lift­ing es­cape of a great come­back over op­tions that were as much about sports as the is­sues that en­veloped them in 2019: pol­i­tics, money and the grow­ing push for equal pay and equal rights for women.

The bal­lot­ers, a mix of AP mem­ber sports ed­i­tors and AP beat writ­ers, el­e­vated Woods’ rous­ing vic­tory at Au­gusta Na­tional over the run­ner-up en­try: the U.S. women’s soc­cer team’s vic­tory at the World Cup. That month­long com­pe­ti­tion was punc­tu­ated by star Me­gan Rapi­noe’s push for pay equal­ity for the women’s team and an on­go­ing war of words with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Rapi­noe’s ef­forts to use sports as a plat­form to dis­cuss big­ger is­sues was hardly a one-off in 2019. Of the top 12 sto­ries in the bal­lot­ing, only three — ti­tles won by the Toronto Rap­tors, Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als and Univer­sity of Vir­ginia bas­ket­ball team — stuck mainly to what hap­pened be­tween the lines.

All the rest — in­clud­ing the blown call that cost the Saints a chance at the Su­per Bowl, a Cal­i­for­nia law that threat­ens to up­end the NCAA and Si­mone Biles’ dom­i­nance at gym­nas­tics’ world cham­pi­onships, set against the back­drop of the sex­abuse cri­sis con­sum­ing the sport in the U.S. — were long-run­ning sagas that went be­yond a sin­gle day or event. They painted sports not as an es­cape from the world’s prob­lems but merely an­other win­dow into them.

It’s no stretch to say that the whole of the Woods saga — namely, the sor­did, pain-rid­dled, decade­long pre­lude to his vic­tory at Au­gusta Na­tional in April — would fit into that cat­e­gory, as well.

His down­fall be­gan in the wee hours the day af­ter Thanks­giv­ing in

2009, when he ran over a fire hy­drant out­side his house in Florida, trig­ger­ing an avalanche of sto­ries about in­fi­delity that would lead to the breakup of his mar­riage and play into the near-de­struc­tion of his ca­reer.

Part 2 was the in­juries. Woods came close but did not re­turn to his dom­i­nant form af­ter his re­turn to golf fol­low­ing his breakup with his wife. And as time went on, his phys­i­cal con­di­tion de­te­ri­o­rated. He didn’t play in 2016 or 2017, and at the end of

‘17, he con­ceded his back was so bad that his days of com­pet­i­tive golf might be be­hind him.

There were four risky back surg­eries. Woods also re­quired a good deal of in­ner heal­ing af­ter a mor­ti­fy­ing DUI ar­rest in 2017 that ex­posed his reliance on painkiller­s.

Through it all, Woods some­how kept nur­tur­ing his love for golf. And even­tu­ally, he found his game again. He climbed his way back to the top. He had close calls at two ma­jors in 2018 — the Bri­tish Open and PGA Cham­pi­onship — and then won the sea­son-end­ing Tour Cham­pi­onship, as good a sign as any that, at 43, he could take on the best and win.

But reg­u­lar tour­na­ments are not the ma­jors, and no ma­jor is the Masters.

It was on those hal­lowed grounds at Au­gusta Na­tional where Woods set the marker, start­ing a decade of dom­i­nance that would re­de­fine the game. He blew away the field by 12 strokes in 1997 to win the first of what has be­come five green jack­ets and 15 ma­jor ti­tles.

On that day, Woods came off the 18th green and wrapped him­self in a warm em­brace with his fa­ther, Earl, whose death in 2006 left an un­de­ni­able void in the player’s life.

Though there had been a handful of close calls be­tween his U.S. Open vic­tory in 2008 and the start of 2019, it was clear that if there was a sin­gle course where Woods could conjure the old magic and end a ma­jor drought, it would be Au­gusta Na­tional. As a four-time cham­pion, Woods built a ca­reer on study­ing ev­ery inch of the lay­out, know­ing ev­ery fault line and ev­ery sneaky twist and turn of the slick­est greens on earth.

But where, at one time, he might have over­pow­ered the course and in­tim­i­dated the com­pe­ti­tion, in 2019, he sim­ply out­lasted them both. He avoided mis­takes while ev­ery­one else was mak­ing them. In­stead of tak­ing a lead into the last day, then never giv­ing any­one a whiff of hope, this was a come­back. He started the day two shots be­hind.

As AP Golf Writer Doug Fer­gu­son wrote in his wrapup of the fi­nal day: “Woods never missed a shot that mat­tered over the fi­nal seven holes, tak­ing the lead with a 5-iron to the fat of the green on the par-5 15th for a twop­utt birdie, de­liv­er­ing the knock­out with an 8-iron that rode down the ridge by the cup and set­tled 2 feet away for birdie on the par-3 16th.”

When it was over, Woods came to the same spot where he’d met

Earl 22 years be­fore. He scooped up his son, Char­lie, and held him in a long em­brace, then did the same with his 11-yearold daugh­ter, Sam, and mother, Tilda.

“For them to see what it’s like to have their dad win a ma­jor cham­pi­onship,

I hope that’s some­thing they will never for­get,” Woods said.

Very few golf fans will. And in a sports year dom­i­nated by weight­ier top­ics, Woods at the Masters stood out — a come­back story that left peo­ple smil­ing at the end.

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