Quiet Romance, Quality Dad Time and Getting Healthy at Last: How the Tiger Woods Comeback Finally Happened

It wasn't only his body that needed repairing, but the GOAT conversation is officially back on after the golf star won his first major title since 2008

By Natalie Finn Apr 16, 2019 10:00 AMTags
Tiger Woods, 2019 MastersAP Photo/Matt Slocum

When Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open in 2008, he limped off the course.

When he won the Masters on Sunday, he leaped with joy.

It was officially a bum knee that first pushed the golf star into a prolonged hiatus over a decade ago, but in hindsight, he was also stumbling under the weight of his entire life—which would come crashing down around him after Thanksgiving in 2009.

But the Tiger Woods who disappointed countless fans with his very non-role-model-worthy behavior, sent the sports pundits into overdrive and then had so many injuries most people were convinced that he'd never be great again, let alone the greatest, was nowhere to be seen this weekend. The last traces of that beast have officially been vanquished.

This green jacket, his fifth, is easily his most precious, rivaled perhaps only by the first one he won 22 years ago.

"What a fantastic life comeback for a really great guy!'' President Donald Trump, who's golfed with Woods on numerous occasions and will be awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, tweeted in response to the thrilling moment. Another golf buddy, former President Barack Obama, also weighed in: "To come back and win the Masters after all the highs and lows is a testament to excellence, grit and determination.''

Indeed, while the bright-red Sunday shirt has remained the same, the man wearing it has changed.

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Even when he wasn't playing, Woods remained the most talked-about golfer in the game, but it comes as a huge relief—to his most stalwart fans and golf watchers in general—that there's finally an answer to the frequently asked question, "Will he ever win another major title?" His last major was that 2008 U.S. Open, when he won in breathtaking fashion after 19 playoff holes, practically standing on one leg, and then had surgery eight days later to repair his left ACL.

He won six tournaments in 2009, but the events of Nov. 27 that year irrevocably changed his fortunes—in all definitions of the word—within a few hours. There had already been a National Enquirer report that he was cheating on Elin Nordegren, his wife of five years and the mother of his two kids, but running his Escalade into a tree in the front yard of their Florida mansion triggered an explosive flood of names, text messages and tales of bad-boy behavior that felt entirely foreign amid everything we had come to know about Woods, from his inspiring origin story to his staggering successes as a pro golfer. 

There was speculation that Elin had come after him with a golf club and he was fleeing, but she later insisted she only smacked the window of the SUV to help him get out after the accident.

"There was never any violence inside or outside our home," she told People. "The speculation that I would have used a golf club to hit him is just truly ridiculous. Tiger left the house that night, and after a while when he didn't return, I got worried and decided to look for him. That's when I found him in the car. I did everything I could to get him out of the locked car. To think anything else is absolutely wrong."

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After an "indefinite break" that included a stretch in rehab—to repair mind, body and soul—Woods made his return to competition at the 2010 Masters that month, where, despite the overall sigh of relief that he was back in action, he was publicly scolded by August National Chairman Billy Payne, who let it be known that Woods had "disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. His future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his effort to change."

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"I was rationalizing; I was denying, in total denial, at all times," the suddenly scandal-marred athlete told reporters at the event. "I lied to myself; I lied to others. The way I was thinking caused so much harm with the people that I loved and cared about the most on this planet."

As he teed off in the opening round, a small plane, referring to Woods' revelation that he had turned to Buddhist teachings during his time off, flew overhead trailing a banner reading, "Tiger: Did you mean bootyism?"

Distractions aside, Woods tied for fourth, then matched that best-of-2010 finish at the U.S. Open, but he wouldn't win another tournament until 2012. Moreover, after his 2008 surgery, he didn't go another year until 2018 without suffering some sort of debilitating injury.

Meanwhile, the Woods empire took a hit, personally and professionally.

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Forbes still ranked him as the highest-earning athlete of 2010 with $90 million, largely due to his Nike deal and other endorsements in addition to $1.3 million in prize money, but he reportedly lost an estimated $22 million in the wake of the cheating scandal as Accenture, AT&T, Gillette, Tag Heuer, General Motors and Gatorade all cut ties. According to the Wall Street Journal, his endorsement worthiness score at the time was comparable to post-doping-scandal Lance Armstrong and post-"winning" Charlie Sheen.

"Concentration on the golf course, at times it was difficult," Woods admitted in 2010.

Moreover, Elin filed for divorce that August and ended up with a settlement that was reported to be anywhere from $100 million to a fantastical $750 million, but was closer to the former.

A subsequent relationship, with champion skier Lindsey Vonn, ended amicably after a couple of years—albeit still shrouded in cheating rumors, which Woods thoroughly denied

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But while his personal baggage was the elephant on the course for years, golf fans (and every single last person who profits somehow from the game, from PGA Tour officials to network executives to advertisers) were just glad to have him playing whenever he could play. Rolex and Monster Energy signed him up for endorsements, and the Tiger Woods Foundation helped keep his name in the headlines for positive reasons. 

Yet as recently as 2017, close observers were wondering if Woods' body had failed him one too many times. An arrest for DUI after falling asleep in his car under the influence of prescription medication seemed like, while not an impossible stumble to rebound from in the court of public opinion, perhaps just yet another indicator that the Era of Tiger Woods was over.

Or had been over, and no one, including Woods himself, wanted to admit it. At the time of his arrest (he later pleaded to reckless driving), he had played one tournament since 2015 and didn't even make the cut.

But so long as Woods wasn't ready to quit, it didn't matter what anyone else thought.

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"I had serious doubts after what transpired a couple years ago. I could barely walk. I couldn't sit. Couldn't lay down. I really couldn't do much of anything," Woods recalled that pivotal time during his championship press conference Sunday. "Luckily, I had the procedure on my back, which gave me a chance at having a normal life," . "But then all of a sudden, I realized I could actually swing a golf club again. I felt if I could somehow piece this together that I still had the hands to do it. The body's not the same as it was a long time ago, but I still have good hands."

A year after undergoing spinal fusion surgery to relieve pain in his back and leg, his fourth back surgery, and nine months after another stint in treatment to deal with his pain med issues, he played the Masters for the first time in three years in 2018.

Alas, rampant excitement could only affect his game so much. He finished tied for 32nd place, but it was still a memorable moment in what would be Woods' most normal-looking year, schedule-wise, since 2012, and the first time he was able to play all four majors since 2015 (when he only made the cut in one of them). Ultimately, he came in second at the PGA Championship and won the year-ending Tour Championship, his first victory since 2013. 

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In the course of getting his swing back and once again finding himself at the top of the leaderboard on a Sunday afternoon, Woods made numerous adjustment to pretty much every aspect of his life, from how he trained to how he enjoyed his personal time.

"Well, I used to get up in the morning, run four miles," Woods said last year in an interview for the Golf Channel, recalling his go-to workout regimen in his 20s. "Then I'd go to the gym, do my lift. Then I'd hit balls for two to three hours. I'd go play, come back, work on my short game. I'd go run another four more miles, and then if anyone wanted to play basketball or tennis, I would go play basketball or tennis. That was a daily routine. I'm not doing any of that now."


Talking to the New York Times before last year's Masters, he mused about whether training so hard and being too anxious to come back from injury contributed to the severity of his ailments over the years.

"We're pushing the boundaries of our bodies and minds and, unfortunately, a lot of times we go over the edge and we break down," Woods said. "But thank God there's modern science to fix us and put us back together again."

The now 43-year-old athlete still treats his body like a temple—similar to his age-defying pal Roger Federer—but the bulk of his routine these days focuses on low-impact exercises such as swimming.

"Trying to lengthen my body," he told the Times. "I can still get the endurance, I can still get the long burn, I can still feel the lactate building, but it's not loading my body like I used to."

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Meanwhile, he's been undramatically co-parenting with Elin and, since breaking up with Vonn in 2015, he has kept his love life fairly under the radar. 

"I have moved on, and I am in a good place," the super-private Nordegren told People in 2014. "Our relationship is centered around our children, and we are doing really good—we really are. He is a great father."

And while healing over these last few years was obviously imperative for his game, it has also proved important to his relationship with his kids.

"I was very fortunate to be given another chance to do something that I love to do," he reflected on Sunday. "But more importantly, I've been able to participate in my kids' lives in a way that I couldn't for a number of years. And so they are a lot more active than I am, and I'm a little competitive myself, so I try and keep up.

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

"I tried to do that for a number of years and I just couldn't do it, but now I'm starting to do it and starting to be able to play with them and do things in their sports. That's something I always missed. I always felt like I could do pretty much anything physically, but for a while there, I just couldn't even walk."

He noted that his prep for the Masters started six months beforehand, "just trying to make sure I get ready to peak for this one week."

So hopes were high among the many, many members of Team Tiger for 2019.

"It's unreal for me to experience this,'' Woods said after he won Sunday. "It was one of the hardest I've ever had to win just because of what's transpired the last couple of years."

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He continued, "To have my kids here, it's come full circle. My dad was here in '97, and now I'm the dad with two kids there." Noting how his son, Charlie, and daughter, Sam, made the trip to Scotland last summer and saw him come in second at the British Open, he added, "I wasn't going to let that happen to them twice. So for them to see what it's like for their dad to win a major championship, I hope that's something they will never forget."

While Woods is all-business once he tees off (his children didn't arrive in Augusta until Saturday night), it's been apparent over the past year that, when it comes time to celebrate, he has yet another very devoted person in his corner.


After enveloping Sam and Charlie in a massive hug, he shared an embrace with his mother, Kultida Punsawad Woods, and then his girlfriend, Erica Herman—whom he's reportedly been dating since 2017.

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According to Golf.com, Herman was the general manager of Woods' Florida restaurant, The Woods Jupiter, which ultimately brought them together.

They were first spotted watching the 2017 Presidents' Cup, where eagle eyes noted that Herman was wearing a "player spouse" credential (which is also used for unmarried partners). Then she was by Woods' side when he appeared in court a few weeks later in October to plead guilty to reckless driving.

Herman was seen walking with Charlie and Sam at the 2018 U.S. Open last June—the biggest sign yet that she was important to Tiger—and they enjoyed a Wimbledon date in the Royal Box in July. More recently, she was there to see him win the Tour Championship in September—the big victory kiss pretty much made it official—and accompanied him to France for the Ryder Cup.

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But this Masters win was something else.

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Asked where this historic win ranked among his 14 other major titles, Woods told reporters, "It's got to be right up there, right, with all the things that I've battled through. Just was able to be lucky enough and fortunate enough to be able to do this again.

"It's ironic that I'm given a chance to play golf again, and lo and behold, I won a tournament coming from behind, which I had not done for the first 14. So it's just amazing."

As for any advice he might have for others experiencing setbacks of any kind—personal, physical, professional, etc.—Woods said, "Well, you never give up. That's a given. You always fight. Just giving up's never in the equation.

"Granted, pushing and being competitive has got me into this position, but it's also what got me out of it. And so I've always had a pretty good work ethic throughout my career and throughout my life, and I just had to change the work ethic a bit and work on some different things. Focused on that and just keep fighting. That's just part of the deal. We wake up every morning, and there's always challenges in front of us, and keep fighting and keep getting through."