As 21-year-old American prodigy Jordan Spieth was running away with his first Masters victory Sunday, Tiger Woods—a man who did the same thing 18 years ago—was making a statement of his own.
His statement might not have been as flashy as Spieth's, but with a five-under par score that left him tied for 17th, for many golf fans, Woods' play was just as significant.
While a mere 18 months ago such a finish would have been a disappointment, this week at the Masters it was a big step in the right direction for the struggling 14-time major champion.
After a year full of more withdrawals than finishes and more questions than answers, Woods announced that he's not just back, but he's ready to contend for majors once again.
For most everyone, this revelation came as a surprise. After all, coming into the tournament, expectations weren't just slim for the four-time Masters champion—they were nonexistent, and deservedly so.
In March 2014, Woods withdrew from the Honda Classic with back problems, then ended up having back surgery and missing the Masters for the first time in his career. He attempted to come back in the summer, but never looked anywhere close to competitive; he missed the cut at Quicken Loans National, was 69th at the British Open, withdrew from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and missed the cut at the PGA Championship.
Last September, as there were debates about whether or not Woods would ever be able to contend for—let alone win—another major, he split with his swing coach Sean Foley and partnered with Chris Como. His plan was to retool his swing once again.
Then, just as hopes began to rise for his 2015 season, he was derailed by another back injury and a horrific short game. After another missed cut and withdrawal, his participation in the Masters was completely up in the air until just a week before the tournament began.
So coming into Augusta, he hadn't played 72 holes of golf in an official tour event since the 2014 British Open, where he finished six over par. He was simply a shell of the player who used to dominate the sport.
But from the first time Woods stepped up to the practice tees last week, he had a huge smile on his face and a game that looked more hopeful than horrific. The reports from the driving range and the practice rounds were all cautiously optimistic. What a welcome sight that was.
The surprises from Woods continued as his form translated from practice to competition. He shot a one-over 73 on the first day, but bounced back with a 69 on Friday and a 68 on Saturday, the first time he had shot back-to-back rounds in the 60s at the Masters since 2005.
He was in the third-to-last pairing Sunday, playing alongside Rory McIlroy. Though a 73 on Sunday derailed his chance at a top-10 finish, there were still far more positives than negatives from the 72 holes. With 15 birdies, an eagle and some miracle saves, there were moments when Woods looked in vintage form out there.
As reported by Ewan Murray of The Guardian, Tiger's good friend Darren Clarke thinks his comeback is a huge boost for the PGA Tour:
Tiger has had a career where he’s been questioned and doubted many, many times. There’s a reason why he was the best player in the world for a very long time and it’s great to see him coming back and playing.
The game, the game, our professional sport is a better game for having a Tiger Woods playing well in it. I think you would all agree with that.
What Clarke says is true; as great as it is to have a star like McIlroy at No. 1 in the world, and as thrilling as it was to watch the coronation of Spieth on Sunday, having Woods back playing well makes the game more exciting for players, sponsors and fans. He simply brings a buzz with him that no other golfer can replicate.
And while nobody is expecting Woods to ever be as dominant as he once was, after his much-improved driving and reformed short game at the Masters, it is safe to have expectations once again.
"I think what I've done all week has been pretty good," Woods told reporters on Saturday, according to ASAP Sports. "Coming from where I came from and having to change my entire release pattern. That was tough. And people have no idea how hard it was to do that."
"I really like what I"m doing," he added on CBS after his round Sunday. "I got my distance back and everything is good."
Woods is going to take some more time to refine his changes, and he hasn't announced his upcoming schedule. But it's a safe bet after the Masters that we're going to see him return as a full-time member of the PGA Tour sooner rather than later.
And now, unlike the dark days behind us, he should be a threat to win the next time we see him. We really should know by now never to count Tiger Woods out.