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How it happened - Tiger Woods's return to the top

How it happened - Tiger Woods's return to the top
© Reuters
The 43-year-old has claimed the 15th major trophy of his career.

From child prodigy to the biggest sports star in the world, from fallen idol to beloved veteran, the career of Tiger Woods seemingly had it all.

The only thing that was missing was another major title after almost an 11-year drought, another green jacket after a 14-year wait, another unforgettable Sunday.

All those things came to pass in the 83rd Masters, culminating in Woods roaring with delight as he put the finishing touches to one of the most remarkable redemption stories.

Tiger Woods won his 15th major title in the 83rd Masters
Tiger Woods won his 15th major title in the 83rd Masters on Sunday (David J. Phillip/AP)

The man himself will tell you it is not even the greatest comeback in golf, let alone sport as a whole, citing instead Ben Hogan's recovery from a near-fatal car crash.

But whether Woods winning a major title after a gap of more than a decade, four back operations and one DUI arrest is the greatest comeback, second greatest or not even in the top 10 simply could not matter less.

All that does matter is that Woods is back where he belongs and can now focus on achieving a feat that will see him automatically ranked as the greatest of all time, namely surpassing the 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus.

After telling Nicklaus "I'm done" at the Champions Dinner ahead of the 2017 Masters, Woods flew to London that night to consult a specialist about his chronic back injury and subsequently underwent spinal fusion surgery.

The following month, with five prescription drugs in his system, Woods was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence when he was found asleep at the wheel of his car and later pleaded guilty to reckless driving.

He spent 11 months on probation and after returning to competitive golf at the end of November, revealed the depth of his physical struggles.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods was found asleep at the wheel of his car in May 2017 (PA Archive/Palm Beach County Sheriff)

"I've been in bed for about two years and haven't been able to do much," Woods said ahead of the Hero World Challenge, where he would finish ninth in the 18-man field.

Back on the PGA Tour in 2018, Woods missed the cut in his second event but crucially felt fit enough to add tournaments to his schedule and the results soon followed, most notably when he led the Open Championship with eight holes to play and then finished runner-up in the US PGA.

In that sense his victory in the Tour Championship in September came as no surprise, but for anyone who had watched Woods become a shadow of his former self in recent years, surprise – or even amazement – would be a completely understandable reaction.

After winning five times in 2013, Woods started just 24 events in the next four years as the pain from his back often left him grimacing in pain or forced to withdraw from events entirely.

It was all a far cry from the early narrative which had become so familiar.

Born December 30, 1975 in Cypress, California, Woods was the son of retired US Army lieutenant colonel Earl Woods and Thai-born wife Kultida.

Named Eldrick but nicknamed Tiger after a Vietnamese soldier befriended by Earl, Woods was imitating his father's swing aged just six months, appeared on television putting with Bob Hope before his third birthday and soon after shot 48 for nine holes.

Amateur success graduated seamlessly into professional glory and the manner of some of those wins, by 12 shots in the 1997 Masters and 15 in the 2000 US Open, made Woods a global superstar.

But after such a momentous rise, the fall from grace was equally spectacular, a car crash in November 2009 eventually leading to admissions of infidelity and Woods taking an "indefinite break" from golf.

So if his millions of fans want to label it the greatest comeback they have plenty of ammunition, but as a student of the game Woods knows all about what Hogan had to overcome to simply walk again, let alone return to golf and win six of his nine major titles, including all three he could contest in 1953.

Hogan and his wife Valerie survived a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus in February 1949, an accident which left the 36-year-old Hogan in hospital for two months with a double fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collar bone, a left ankle fracture, a chipped rib, and near-fatal blood clots.

Ben Hogan
Ben Hogan, arriving with his wife at Prestwick Airport for the Open Championship in 1953 (PA Archive)

"As far as greatest comebacks, I think that one of the greatest comebacks in all of sport is the gentleman who won here, Mr Hogan," Woods said ahead of the 2018 Masters. "I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won major championships.

"The pain he had to endure, the things he had to do just to play and just how hard it was for him to walk, and he ended up walking 36 holes (in one day) and winning a US Open. That's one of the greatest comebacks there is, and it happens to be in our sport."

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