Be afraid, young bucks: a wily old cat is on the loose again
On Sunday the generation of players Tiger helped spawn all wilted in the mesmerising Woods aura
At the peak of his dominance, commentators, competitors and friends spoke of the Tiger factor, the hard to identify but very real aura he exuded – to not only will himself to victory, but crush his opponents’ spirits too.
On Sunday Tiger Woods turned back the clock with a final round at the Masters to rival any of his greatest among the 15 majors he has won.
It was not a mistake-free round by Woods, but his sheer willpower, patience and intimidation factor were all on display. The generation of players he helped spawn all wilted in the mesmerising Woods aura.
Golf has always had hard-edged competitors but none had come as ready to dominate as Tiger did when he turned pro in late 1996. None were honed from birth to be the greatest and only a few were as ruthless as Tiger in his pomp.
In 2003, a US PGA official relayed a story that when a young pro (whose name escapes me now) was paired with Woods for the first time, he introduced himself thus: “Hi, I’m ‘Chip Skunk’, pleased to meet you.” To which Woods responded: “I’m Tiger Woods, and I’m going to kick your ass.”
It is probably an apocryphal story, but it no doubt stemmed from a collection of war stories from pros crossing swords with Woods at his best.
I saw and felt the Woods electricity first hand at the 2003 President’s Cup at Fancourt. Pitted against SA’s Ernie Els in the final day’s singles, it was the match the golfing world wanted to see.
The local hero and top-three player in the world against the undisputed number one in a team contest that was on a knife’s edge. Everyone remembers the dramatic sudden-death playoff between the two, but few recall the actual singles match between Ernie and Tiger earlier that day.
The Links course at Fancourt with its man-made mounds was a dramatic setting for the lines of spectators, 10 deep in some places, who mostly otherwise would not have cared for golf. But Tiger’s appearance brought them to George in their thousands.
Having access inside the ropes with a front row seat to the drama, I can vouch for Tiger’s aura. I’ve never before or since come close to a sportsperson who crackles with such intensity. He hardly looked left or right. He zoned out the bedlam of people running, screaming, falling over, kicking up dust screaming for Ernie.
Physically imposing, but not as tall as the languid Els, Woods looked strong, almost superhero-like. Els not only had to contend with the tough course and high local expectations but with a man whose every movement screamed “I’m going to crush you”.
Woods took a little while to get into the match and went one down on the first hole. But typically he responded, winning the par-five fifth hole to square the contest. A little fist pump and a quick look at Ernie sent shivers through those who saw it.
But the real dagger to Els’s heart game on the next tee – a reachable par four. Woods now had the honour. He stepped up on the tee, all coiled power with bad intentions. He savaged the ball with the swing that would later cause him so many back and knee issues.
The ball penetrated the dusty air with laser-guided precision, pitched and rolled on to the green in one blow. Woods, demonstrating that this was a bare-knuckle fight against the local hero, turned and stared at Els. Stared right at him. Stared right through him. It was a challenge, a dare and a statement of intent. “I am the big cat, and don’t you forget it.”
It was a great matchplay moment and Els had no answer, eventually losing the match 4 & 3.
On Sunday at Augusta’s famous Amen Corner, Woods, playing the treacherous 11th, had four of the main contenders within a 50m radius.He was on the 11th green with leader Francesco Molinari and third playing partner Tony Finau. On the 12th tee stood Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter, both within a couple of shots of Molinari’s lead. They teed off with the great man nearby.Both dumped their tee shots in Rae’s Creek in front of the green, barely 130m from the tee. They made double bogeys and were out of it.A few minutes later Molinari and Finau did precisely the same. This time though, they played before Woods, who took the conservative route and aimed for the heart of the green, left of the hole, once his playing partners were drowning.While Molinari and Finau skulked to the drop zone, Woods strode over the Hogan Bridge to wait. But he didn’t just wait. He stood chest puffed out and glowered at them. If looks could be felt, this was a Mike Tyson uppercut. Molinari and Finau were on the brink of falling apart on Augusta’s back nine on Sunday and Woods’s stare helped them on their way.
Tiger’s success and dominance created the champions we see today – Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and others. They all hail Woods as the reason they are driven to be the best in golf.
It was safe to praise the Tiger while he was caged through seven back and knee surgeries. But now an older and perhaps wiser Tiger is on the loose in the twilight of his career and the young bucks better be afraid because they are all his prey as golf roars again.