Tiger Woods' Unbelievable Masters Comeback Adds to His Triumphant, Complicated Legacy

How many times has Tiger Woods come back after being declared done? Just being able to walk the course at Augusta National wasn't a given for the champion golfer after a scary car crash 14 months ago.

By Natalie Finn Apr 11, 2022 9:00 PMTags
Watch: Tiger Woods Spotted on Crutches in Rare Appearance After Car Crash

Tiger Woods didn't come close to winning the 2022 Masters.

But he played 72 holes of golf in four days, walking the hills of Augusta National on his own two legs, and that was everything.

"It was an unbelievable feeling," the 46-year-old told reporters April 10 after his 13-over finish in his first competitive tournament since doctors pieced his right leg back together following a Feb. 23, 2021, car crash. He added, "I wasn't exactly playing my best out there, but just to have the support out there and the appreciation from all the fans. I don't think words can really describe that, given where I was a little over a year ago and what my prospects were at that time, to end up here and be able to play in all four rounds. Even a month ago, I didn't know if I could pull this off."

Let alone 14 months ago, when the dirges started to sound for Woods' estimable, historic roller coaster of a career.

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Tiger Woods Through the Years

He's only three years removed from his last Masters win, which on its own was an almost unfathomable return to the top after an 11-year title drought in major tournaments. But once again, Woods was playing his way out of the rough.

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End of an Era?

In February 2021, Woods had recently undergone his fifth back surgery, which is why he wasn't playing in the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., though he was there as the annual tournament's host. He said he hoped to feel well enough to compete in the 2021 Masters that April.

"I spent over a dozen years trying to get Tiger to give me a high 5 at Riviera and today he handed me a trophy hahaha what a world! #golf," tournament winner Max Homa tweeted Feb. 21.

The next day, Woods was out in Palos Verdes coaching Jada Pinkett Smith, Dwyane Wade and David Spade for an episode of the Discovery+ series Tiger Woods: My Game. (He signed a four-year, $35 million "strategic partnership" deal with Discovery in 2018.)

And on Feb. 23 at 7 a.m., Woods was driving to Rolling Hills Country Club to film with NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees and Justin Herbert when his 2021 Genesis GV80 veered into the center divider on Hawthorne Boulevard, shattering the sign that read "Welcome to Rolling Hills Estates," hit the curb and then launched into a tree before rolling for about 30 yards away from the road.

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Tiger Woods Injured in Car Crash: Everything We Know

Emergency responders needed tools to pry him out of the wreckage through the windshield and within hours he was in emergency surgery at Harbor UCLA Medical Center in Torrance to repair a broken ankle and multiple lower leg fractures on his right side. Orthopedic trauma specialists inserted a rod into his lower right leg to stabilize his tibia and fibula bones and a number of screws and pins were used to repair his right foot and ankle.

Catastrophic as photos of the crash site looked, it's hard to overstate the collective sigh of relief when authorities confirmed that his injuries weren't life-threatening, it being barely 13 months after the sporting world lost another heartbreakingly young sports legend in a tragic accident.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told reporters that Woods was likely driving at a "relatively greater speed than normal," but didn't show any signs of impairment at the crash scene and criminal charges were unlikely.

The day after the crash, County Supervisor Janice Hahn called for a review of that stretch of road, where 13 accidents had occurred since January 2020 (drivers were found to be at fault in 11 of those cases, per sheriff's department records).

The crash investigation was completed a month later but Villanueva said he needed Woods' (as the party involved in the collision) permission to release it, citing a California law.

"It's an accident, OK," he reiterated to reporters in a Facebook Live session. "We're reaching out to Tiger Woods to be able to release the report itself, and nothing has changed from what we know and what we learned throughout the course of the investigation. And everything we did turned out to be accurate."

There had been reasonable cause to wonder—and perhaps worry—about the circumstances of the crash. Woods was coming off a procedure to remove a pressurized disk fragment that was pinching his nerve—and the last time he had back surgery, in April 2017, his recovery got complicated.

At the time, he underwent spinal fusion surgery to relieve chronic nerve pain in his back and leg. In a hopeful update posted to his website May 24, 2017, he said that he felt better than he had in years. "Right now, my sole focus is rehab and doing what the doctors tell me," the post read. "I am concentrating on short-term goals."

Five days later, police in Jupiter, Fla., found him shortly before 3 a.m. asleep in the front seat of his Mercedes-Benz, which was stopped along the side of the road about 15 miles away from his house. The vehicle had signs of damage on the driver's side, and both tires on that side were flat. He was arrested on suspicion of DUI, booked and released.

There was no alcohol in his system, but toxicology tests found four prescription medications, including the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the painkiller hydrocodone, and traces of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Woods pleaded guilty to reckless driving and agreed to enter a diversion program, and was released from his probation in September 2018, a month ahead of schedule.

Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Of course folks wondered if that was the death knell for his illustrious career, if perhaps he simply couldn't bounce back mentally, even if he was physically healing. 

He answered by winning the Tour Championship in 2018 and then that triumphant Masters, followed by the 2019 Zozo Championship in Japan that October.

Born to Play

Woods may not have been literally born with a golf club in his hand, but he came pretty close.

Hoping to turn his son onto the game at a very tender age, Earl Woods did give 3-month-old Tiger a tiny club to play with, and by the time he was 2 he was in a putting contest with Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show.  

By the age of 14 Woods had won five Junior World Championships and could drive the ball more than 300 yards. His short game was better than most on the PGA Tour already, Earl assured in a 1990 interview, already envisioning his son's trailblazing place in the sporting world as "the first Black golfer to"—insert every milestone here.

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So Tiger spent his childhood as the future of golf until, around the age of 19 when he left Stanford to turn pro, he basically was golf.

And he fulfilled everybody's hopes and dreams for as long as he could, his extraordinary skills carrying him to 14 major championships in 12 years, until he just couldn't keep up the façade that he was more than human any longer.

We All Fall Down

Injuries started to take their toll, his U.S. Open win in June 2008 practically occurring on one leg as the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee finally withered to nothing, four years after he told his coach Hank Haney he had about 20 percent of an ACL left. He wouldn't compete again until February 2009, but he added six trophies to his case that year before Thanksgiving, when personal disaster struck.

Tiger smashing his Escalade into a fire hydrant and then a tree just outside his Florida mansion. His philandering ways exposed in spectacular fashion. The bell tolling for his marriage to Elin Nordegren, the mother of his two children. The world, as the recent HBO documentary Tiger recalled, pressing its nose against the glass to gawk.

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The Biggest Tiger Bombshells

Due in no small part to his unparalleled rise to the top of his sport, his failures and screw-ups—the evidence that he's just a guy, not a god—registered more painfully than it did with most other sports stars, beloved but flamboyant or cocky guys who talked trash or boasted about their strengths, or who never bothered to keep their love of a good time under wraps.

Like his golf game, Woods' mistakes registered as epic, too, errors in judgment that resulted in a far harsher spotlight on him than on the countless other athletes who've had reason to apologize or try to make up a past wrongdoing.

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But Tiger clawed his way back, his decade-long resurgence complete once he added the 2019 Masters title to his championship resume, a victory all the more life-affirming because his son, Charlie, now 13, and daughter, Sam, 14, were there to see it, the first time he'd won a major title since they were too little to know what was happening.

"I was very fortunate to be given another chance to do something that I love to do," he told reporters after his momentous win. "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. 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."

Asked if he had a message for people who were struggling, personally or physically, he replied, "Well, you never give up. That's a given. You always fight. Just giving up's never in the equation."

For Love of the Game

Woods remains tied with Sam Snead for most-ever PGA Tour wins with 82, but his 15 major titles are still three shy of Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18.

Asked in 2017 on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio—post-fourth back surgery, post-arrest, and when he still only had 14 majors—if he thought he could catch Nicklaus, Tiger replied with a simple "of course."

While a full-circle culmination in one sense, winning in 2019 at Augusta, where Tigermania really began when he was 21, there was also the hope that it was the start of a new, hungry chapter for Woods, one he could attack pain-free for the first time in ages.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images for The Match

The 2020 Masters weren't held until that November, delayed seven months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Woods played a key role in taking sports fans' minds off of a sad spring, pairing with retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning to topple Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady in a May 24 charity match that raised $10 million for coronavirus relief efforts.

In December 2020, Woods teamed up with Charlie at the PNC Championship, a two-day pro-fam exhibition where the former world No. 1 said his own game was the last thing on his mind.

"Just making sure Charlie has the time of his life, and he's doing that," Woods told reporters.

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Athletes and Their Sports Star Kids

Woods admitted after winning the 2019 Masters that he didn't really know if he would ever hoist a major trophy again. 

"I had serious doubts after what transpired a couple years ago," he said during the winner's press conference. "I could barely walk. I couldn't sit. Couldn't lay down. I really couldn't do much of anything. 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.

Woods would've been forgiven if he wanted to call it a career after the 2021 crash, having hit all of golf's high notes and then some, while also able to share one of his biggest triumphs with his children.

But while roaring back may not have been in the cards, Tiger should never be counted out.

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Tiger Woods' Family Photos

"He doesn't want his career to end like this," a source close to Woods told People after his 2021 accident. "So if there's any way at all that he can continue playing golf, he will."

He found a way.

"There was a point in time when—I wouldn't say it was 50/50—but it was damn near there if I was going to walk out of that hospital with one leg," Woods told Golf Digest in November. Having gone from using a wheelchair to hobbling on crutches to walking without assistance, "I've had some hard days and tough setbacks," he said of the process. "But I keep progressing and I'm able to walk again."

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Celebrities Golfing

He made his big return with Charlie by his side once again for a repeat pairing at the PNC Championship in December, Woods calling it an "awesome day."

"If you would have asked me after those three months in the bed, [if] I would be here, I would have given you a different answer," he admitted. "But there are no days off. We worked every day. Even days where I didn't feel very good, we still worked on something. So every day, there was never a day off the entire time other than those three months in bed."

But actually play the Masters?

The Comeback Master

"It's going to be a tough challenge, and a challenge I'm up for," Woods told reporters before the illustrious tournament began, the spectators swarming to watch him tee off as if he were the favorite to win it all—as they've always done whenever Woods has been in the field for the past 25 years.

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"I think the fact that I was able to get myself here to this point is a success," Woods told reporters before his first round got underway April 7, noting that swinging the club wasn't going to be the problem, but rather, it was the hilly grounds of Augusta National that might do him in. "Now that I'm playing, now that everything is focused on how do I get myself in the position where I'm on that back nine Sunday with a chance? Just like I did a few years ago."

He shot an opening round of 1-under-par, which may as well have been 18 straight eagles the way the crowd responded.

And while it was all downhill from there, score-wise, the ovation Woods was given as he walked off the course after his final round Sunday was a lifetime achievement moment.

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While he hasn't said one way or another if he'll play in the PGA Championship in May, his plan is to compete at the British Open in July.

And again, Woods was just "thankful" to be there, he told reporters after turning in his final-round Masters scorecard April 10. "I keep saying it," he added, "but I am. I really am. I truly am. Just to get to this point, just to be able to play, and not only just to play, but I put up a good first round. I got myself there. I don't quite have the endurance that I would like to have had, but as of a few weeks ago, didn't even know if I was going to play in this event."

But the veteran champion has spent a career taking his game one swing, and one step, at a time.

(An earlier version of this story was published Feb. 27, 2021, at 8 a.m. PT)