Titles, controversies, injuries, comebacks: Tiger Woods’ rollercoaster career

Phil Casey, PA Golf Correspondent

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

And although the debate about whether he or Jack Nicklaus deserve the title of ‘Greatest of All Time’ will never be settled, Woods’ car crash in Los Angeles on Tuesday highlights how little that matters.

Following the accident, from which he was lucky to escape with his life and which left him with significant injuries to his right leg and ankle, Woods looks almost certain to end his career with 15 major titles, three short of the record established by Nicklaus, who was also a runner-up 19 times in majors.

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But the manner of some of his 15 wins – by 12 shots in the 1997 Masters and 15 in the 2000 US Open on his way to the ‘Tiger Slam’ of holding all four majors at the same time – made Woods a global superstar before a spectacular fall from grace and remarkable redemption.

Born December 30, 1975 in Cypress, California, Woods is 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.

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Amateur success graduated seamlessly into professional glory and Woods went on to dominate the game in incredible fashion, winning 54 times between 1999 and 2006 and claiming the US Open in 2008 despite a double stress fracture and knee injury which prompted season-ending surgery.

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

Following an excruciating televised apology in February 2010, Woods returned to action with a tie for fourth in the Masters – where his “egregious” personal conduct was slammed by Augusta National chairman Billy Payne – but failed to win that season for the first time since turning professional.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods, pictured here in 2019 (Richard Sellers/PA)

Something approaching normal service resumed the following two years but, 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 or forced to withdraw from events entirely.

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 (Palm Beach County Sheriff handout/PA)

“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 a return to form 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.

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Exhausted by his performance in Atlanta, Woods promptly lost all four of his matches at the following week’s Ryder Cup in Paris, but recovered sufficiently to play five events at the start of 2019 before arriving at Augusta for the 83rd Masters.

Starting the final round two shots off the lead, Woods held his nerve on a wonderfully chaotic final day to win his 15th major title, and a first in 11 years, thanks to a closing 70 which was enough to finish a shot ahead of Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka.

It was the first time Woods had won a major when trailing after 54 holes and came 3,954 days after his 2008 US Open victory, prompting many to label it the greatest comeback in sport.

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

The man himself will tell you it is not even the greatest comeback in golf, citing instead Ben Hogan’s recovery from a near-fatal car crash to win six of his nine major titles, including all three he could contest in 1953.

It is too much to ask that Woods can do anything remotely similar after his own brush with death in Los Angeles, but his family, the golf community and wider sporting world will be simply hoping to see him fit and healthy once more.