By Steve Wilson
He couldn’t, could he?
A 42-year-old with a back fused from four separate operations, who last won a golf tournament five years ago and, as recently as last year, was publicly questioning if he would ever return to the professional game, has this week been installed as the bookies’ favourite to win The Masters.
It sounds improbable, but the Tiger Woods bandwagon is rolling. And gathering pace.
Whether it’s being propelled by nostalgic clinging to the past or a cold-eyed assessment of present form is open to debate.
PGA Tour tweet: A tip of the cap. And a BIG smile. Tiger’s 71-footer from multiple angles.
The truth is almost certainly a mesh of the two — the romantics willing an ageing champion to win one last battle are being offered just enough evidence to allow them to justify that optimism.
After a second placed finish at last week’s US PGA Tour event in Tampa and an opening round 68 at the Arnold Palmer Classic, Woods is a shorter price than defending champion Sergio Garcia, world number one Dustin Johnson and the rest to claim a fifth green jacket at Augusta.
His most recent 18 holes included a 71-foot putt that spoke to another era, a golden time for Woods long clouded by time and controversy.
There was the broad, ice-white grin. The fist pump. The delirious fans willing the ball in the hole.
“I played with Tiger at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas [in December] and I could tell straight away that he was more ready, had worked more on his game, looked healthier and was keen to compete again,” Henrik Stenson, four shots up on Woods and leading the Arnold Palmer, said.
“It was a noticeable difference to me, compared to the other [failed comebacks] when he hadn’t been healthy enough.”
The rise and fall of a one-man empire is well documented.
The preeminent figure in the sport for more than a decade, he secured 79 PGA Tour wins and 14 major championships between 1996 and 2013.
Then came the implosion in his private life. The multiple infidelities, the breakdown of his marriage and battles with prescription drugs.
His body will never be what it once was, but Tiger is definitely swinging with more freedom. (Reuters: Jasen Vinlove)
Having rebuilt his life, he has tried to do the same with his body and his game. Largely with little effect.
Now there are green shoots which suggest something great is still possible.
And yet a full declaration of a second coming, still feels a touch premature, however much his fans, event organisers and those charged with selling golf TV rights might will it.
Woods has not won a major since 2008. His last win at Augusta was three years before that.
Those shoots of recovery look healthier than at any point since his ugly fall from grace, but not enough time has passed for them to flower into a credible long-term renaissance.
His body, however fit he feels — and he looks noticeably leaner and freer of movement than he has at any time in the last few years — will never be what it was.
But there are factors in his favour that demand serious consideration.
Call it the Tiger factor. As ephemeral as that concept feels, it carries weight.
Tiger hasn’t won a major since 2008, but is 2018 the year the decade-long drought ends? (Reuters: Jasen Vinlove)
It is sometimes difficult to mute out all the noise and remember with clarity just what an otherworldly player Woods was in his pomp.
Justin Rose is seen as a genuine challenger for this year’s green jacket after claiming 10 top-10 finishes on tour in a row last season.
Woods racked up 12 across 2006 and 2007. Nine of them were wins.
The sheen of those 14 majors has become dulled by time, reduced in part to a kind of blunt shorthand for what he was, rather than what he is.
Yet no-one in the modern era has come close to his era of dominance.
Imagine for a moment, Woods being in any sort of contention on the final round next month. A stalking presence on the leaders’ shoulders, the crowd willing him on.
Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm are fine golfers, but would find themselves in unchartered territory. A tiger on their tail, they could be forgiven for wilting under such pressure.
And he loves Augusta.
The four wins there have been some of his finest moments. Even as his powers declined, only twice in his last nine appearances did he finish outside the top six.
The challenging greens demand more of players’ short game than do shots off the tee. Generous fairways with a lack of penal rough equalises things between the big power hitters and those, like the modern version of Woods, less weaponised with a driver.
Thomas and Johnson and the in-form Rahm, in any other circumstance, should be considered the three men to beat without an aging, patched up 40-something with a reconstructed knee considered their equal.
They may benefit from the media’s obsession with Woods, allowed to go about their business under less scrutiny that they otherwise might.
But Woods is in the conversation.
That in itself is a remarkable transformation after his sporting obituaries were written long ago and rehashed with each failed comeback attempt.
“You guys are asking different questions from when I first came back and it wasn’t that long ago — it was two months ago — and the narrative has completely flipped,” Woods said this week.
“I enjoy just playing again, playing feels good. Just take a different perspective over it is all I’m asking.”
His fans, and backers on the betting markers, are demanding more. Whether they should is still up for debate.
But the flickering of Woods’ flame, long thought permanently extinguished, even if it is no more than that, makes this one the most eagerly anticipated Masters of recent times.