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Tiger Tiger, burning bright

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Tiger Tiger, burning bright (AP file photo)

He was done.

We had all seen it for ourselves. The once-dominant force simply wasn’t able to exert his will over the course as he once had. His passion for the game tamped down and stretched thin by the breaking down of his body, yes, but also his whole life. One of the greatest to ever swing a club was now more or less a memory, with occasional flashes reminding us of the player he used to be. He was done.

Until he wasn’t.

Tiger Woods won the Masters for the fifth time on Sunday. The fifth time, but the first since 2005 – 14 years. He hadn’t won a major championship since his epic win (on a bum leg) at the 2008 U.S. Open – now over a decade in the past. It’s a win for which so many hoped and so few dared dream.

Woods came into the final day in a tie for second at -11. It was his first time even making the final pairing at Augusta since 2007. And he had never before come from behind on the final day to win a major, not once in his entire storied career. But with a score of 70 on Sunday – two under par – he shot well enough to don the green jacket.

We all assumed that Tiger’s pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18 major championships – once seen as a foregone conclusion – was dead. We assumed that the time lost to injury and personal turmoil would undercut that chase permanently. Instead, we watched as Tiger scored his 15th major on the same course that brought him his first back in 1997.

We can talk about history again. We can at least entertain the possibility that Tiger might still catch Jack. Three more majors are a tall order – that would be a sterling career total for most golfers. But as we saw 20 years ago – and glimpsed this weekend – Tiger Woods is not most golfers.

This win comes at age 43; Woods is just the seventh golfer over 40 to win here. He edges out Ben Crenshaw’s 1995 win by a month to become the second-oldest Masters winner ever. The oldest winner remains Jack Nicklaus, who was a couple of months past 46 when he won in 1986. Woods is also second to Nicklaus in total wins at Augusta; Nicklaus won six over the course of his career.

Obviously, none of this means that we’re going to see the Tiger of old going forward. This isn’t a 30-year-old athlete in exquisite physical shape anymore. This is a man who continues to deal with the aftermath of four back surgeries and the fallout from various relationship failings (all of which, it should be noted, are nobody’s fault but his own). It’s very possible that this is the last hurrah, one final grasping gasp of greatness from a player whose brilliance is finally fading.

And yet … what if it isn’t?

Just the fact that we can ask that question is enough. It’s enough to be reminded of that decade-long stretch of incandescent transcendence, a time when we could experience athletic dominance to an extent we had never really seen before. At his peak, Tiger Woods was more than man when he stepped onto a golf course – much more.

Make no mistake – Apex Tiger is gone forever, betrayed by his body and his appetites alike. That guy is never coming back. The purity of his prowess is something we’ll likely never see again – from him or anyone else. But could he rebound enough to put himself in the mix for another Masters? Maybe an Open Championship or a PGA? Would you bet against him?

Yes, there are plenty of what-ifs strewn in his wake. Could he have been greater? Sure, if his body doesn’t break down. And if he had developed the ability to have healthy relationships earlier. If that were the case, maybe he’d have won 20 majors by now. Or 25. Or maybe he wouldn’t won any at all, because perhaps all this fed into what led him to be successful in the first place.

Regardless if this is a new beginning or merely a graceful epilogue, we should celebrate it. True greatness is a precious and rare thing to witness – and we got to watch it unfold on Augusta National.

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