Time seems to have healed more than Tiger Woods’ ailing back

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson tee off on the 13th hole while playing a practice round together for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Tuesday.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson tee off on the 13th hole while playing a practice round together for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Tuesday.

Nobody can really get into somebody else’s head. What people say and what they think often are two different things, especially when the subject is a public figure, they’re accustomed to having every word and action dissected and, in some cases, their existence becomes fodder for everybody from the National Enquirer to the chairman of Augusta National.

But about Tiger Woods: He’s trying.

He’s smiling as he’s walking through galleries during practice rounds. He’s stopping to sign autographs. He’s acting gracious around the media. Dare we suggest he has been humbled? (A lightning bolt hits Butler Cabin.) He’s giving answers that at first hearing seem unlikely to have been crafted in IMG’s Image Lab.

Woods even played a practice round Tuesday with his former chief rival/mortal enemy, Phil Mickelson, jaw-dropping photo-click nirvana that prompted even Rory McIlroy to muse: "I walked past Tiger on the range and I said, 'I never thought I would see the day: Tiger and Phil playing a practice round at Augusta.'"

And the skies open up, as we all flash back to Rocky’s speech after he beats Drago in the Soviet Union: “During this fight, I seen a lot of changing, the way you felt about me and the way I felt about you. If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”

We can’t know if Woods has really changed. But he does act like he cares about how he’s perceived. He’s 42 years old now and not nearly the best player on earth, so it’s logical that he hasn’t been overcome with some sense of reality. He also surely has a new level of gratitude for just being here.

“I thought prior to the fusion surgery, that's pretty much it,” he said. “I'll have a nice, comfortable and great life, but I'll never be able to swing the club like I used to, speed‑wise. Just, there's no way.”

That’s not fiction speech writing. That’s back fusion reality.

Woods can win this week. He probably won’t but he can, and that in itself is remarkable. If he wins another major -- and his most-recent one was 10 years ago -- it would go down as one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.

His game and body once ravaged by four back surgeries, his mind and body ravaged by an addiction to painkillers, Woods gave his first State of Me news conference in Augusta in three years. He was good. He seemed grounded and sounded honest.

He would not venture into the “dark place,” as one questioner put it, a clear reference to Woods being arrested after passing out in his car and ultimately entering a rehabilitation center for substance abuse. But he spoke openly about his battle with injuries and a career spiral, that has led him to go five years without a tournament win and miss three of the past four Masters, a tournament he once dominated (four titles in a nine-year span). He talked about the depths of his pain, the comeback that has seen him finish in the top five in consecutive tournaments and, illogically, post a tour-high club speed of 129 mph.

He was asked about winning his first Masters as a 21-year-old in 1997, with his father in attendance.

His first thought: “I had a job for the next 10 years.”

It was a reference to the then-10-year exemption for winning a major. The room laughed.

“You guys laugh at it now, but, I mean, it was the coolest thing in the world.”

He was asked whether winning this week would rank as the greatest comeback in sports history. His response was fairly perfect: “I have four rounds to play, so let’s just kind of slow down.”

Then he referenced Ben Hogan, who suffered life-threatening injuries in a head-on collision in 1949, including fractures of his pelvis, collarbone and leg and near-fatal blood clots, only to come back and win six majors in four years (1950-53).

“I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won major championships,” Woods said. “The pain he had to endure, the things he had to do just to play, the wrapping of the leg, all the hot tubs and just how hard it was for him to walk, period.”

Woods didn’t get hit by a bus. OK, metaphorically, maybe, but not literally. But he has a chance this week because his body has healed from spinal fusion surgery and his swing is back. He spends more time working on his core and flexibility and less time on the practice range. What used to be four-hours-plus on the practice range is now maybe one.

“I can't stand out there for that long and do it,” he said.

He came to Augusta last year to attend the Tuesday champions dinner. He knew he wouldn’t play. Just sitting was uncomfortable.

“My nerve was on fire. It was going down my leg and it was just burning,” he said.

He calls himself “a walking miracle.” There were several times when he would fall to the ground.

“My leg didn't work, or I just had to lay on the ground for extended periods of times.”

He teased himself into believing he could play in 2016 and 2017. It’s the way a competitive athlete’s mind works. He now calls that “a pipe dream.

“My back was fried. I was trying -- cortisone shots, epidurals, anything to take away the pain. Nothing worked. My disk was gone.”

Now he’s walking around relatively pain-free, even if with occasionally stiffness. He hasn’t felt this good for “seven or eight years” and has ascended to a level he never imagined. How has this happened?

“I wish I could tell you. But all of a sudden I have this pop and my body and my speed's back and my timing.”

He remained guarded on past criticism around his marriage and personal life eight years ago, but said, “I learned a lot. It's certainly helped me in my life and my career.”

There were questions about the young players on the tour (“Some of their first memories are of when I won my last major”) and his sudden friendship with Mickelson. The two hadn’t played a practice round together since 1998, when both were in their 20s.

“We're at the tail end of our careers,” Woods said. “We’ve had a great 20‑year battle, hopefully we'll have a few more. But we understand where we are in the game now versus where we were in our early 20s.”

A new perspective, a new reality, it seems.

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