There was a period, very recently, where the only time you thought about Tiger Woods was to wonder when the official retirement announcement was going to arrive.
That was when you thought about him at all. Woods was a distant ghost, a beautiful memory banished – by a combination of injury and self-inflicted scandal – to the peripheries of a sport he had once dominated.
He was a man with a body so wrecked that he struggled to bend down to pick his ball up from the cup. He chunked drives, and the yips snagged his pitching wedge and his putter.
The greatest player of all time was fearful of even sitting in a golf cart to watch others play the President’s Cup, because the bumps gave him so much pain. And golf cart rides on manicured championship courses are not rollercoasters.
And then there he was on Sunday at East Lake in Atlanta, coming down the 18th fairway about to win the Tour Championship with thousands of the faithful stampeding in his wake, dressed in the victory red of old, coming home like some sporting saviour, back from the dead, indomitable once again.
Woods is not the messiah. He’s been a very naughty boy. As many illicit affairs as a lead guitarist, a man treated for sex addiction and attacked by his wife with one of his own golf clubs.
You’d describe his private life as a car crash, except then it actually became one. Two, in fact – the first into a fire hydrant, sparking the conflagration that would destroy his carefully constructed image; the second on to a lonely verge at a time when elite sportsmen are asleep or about to get up training. Toxicology tests showed the presence in his bloodstream of two painkillers, a sleeping pill, an anti-anxiety drug and the active ingredient in marijuana.
A gap of 1,876 days since his last win. Down at one stage to 1,199th in the world. Four operations on his back, the last a spinal fusion. Struggling to get out of bed unaided, hoping only to recover enough to be able to play with his kids.
Woods was somewhere between holy relic and washed-up film star. His aura had gone and his hair was following. To watch online clips of him chipping the ball 60 yards with a body frozen where once it had slashed and burned was to be reminded of how quickly sport moves on and how cruel its legacy can be.
Woods never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him. He was about shock and awe rather than pats on the back and sympathy.
And yet you couldn’t help it. Here was a man trapped emotionally in a fading past and brought low by the same physical endeavours that had taken him to the top.
You laughed at him when South Park made his cartoon image the central character in an episode called Sexual Healing. Then you saw the real Tiger Woods making the job of being Tiger Woods look like the worst thing in the world, and you wondered how he was ever going to escape: chasing something that had seemingly gone forever, caught in the contradictions of a life where you spend $20m on a yacht that can be recognised from miles away and name it ‘Privacy’.
To watch him across the past eight months has been to see a man come back to life. To see him hold off 18 of the best 20 golfers in the world at East Lake was something closer to witnessing a rebirth.
It shouldn’t be possible.
From tee to green there has been both accuracy and the same power as in his previous life; on the PGA Tour all season he ranks seventh in shots gained tee to green and first on shots gained approach-the-green. Where his putting has let him down this season (the Tiger of old would never have shot the double bogey on the 11th that wrecked his final round at The Open) he held it together across all four rounds this week.
To the current generation of star players – Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka – he has been a hero of childhood rather than a live rival, a trailblazer who has made them all an awful lot of money by thrilling so many others a decade and more ago.
Yet you watched Woods marching into the locker room before Sunday’s final round in tight sleeveless vest and baseball cap and you saw what appeared not only to be an athlete in peak rippling condition but with an alpha swagger to match the pecs and carved biceps.
There are caveats. While this is Woods’ biggest win since 2008, the Tour Championship is not a major. His return is not as unlikely as Jack Nicklaus’ when he won the 1986 Masters aged 46, 24 years after his first major and six years since his last, let alone that of Ben Hogan, who won six of his nine majors after the car crash in 1949 that doctors feared might mean he never walked again.
Outside golf’s preppy boundaries there is the 1993 comeback of Canadian ice hockey icon Mario Lemieux, diagnosed mid-season with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins the day his radiation treatment ended, finishing that season by winning another NHL scoring title.
And there is Muhammad Ali, who sacrificed his best years for a far nobler cause than lonely waitresses and came back to win his world title in a way that is rightly lauded to this day.
That’s fine. In the past few months Woods has now finished second at the US PGA and shared the lead at The Open in the final round. Perhaps the most remarkable statistic of all is that in 2018 he has taken part in 18 tournaments. This is no one-off.
It is wonderful for the Ryder Cup, starting this week in Paris, and it is terrific for a sport that has struggled to find a defining narrative over the past five years. There have been 118 different winners on the PGA Tour since Woods’ last victory in 2013. With respect to Cody Gribble, Mackenzie Hughes and Chesson Hadley, the bigger the winner, the more magnetic the draw.
None of it solves the problem of what golf does when Woods finally retires, or more pertinently what Woods does when he steps away. So far he has dealt with the nightmare of a life not playing elite golf by returning to play elite golf. If it is a healthier medication than some he was taking it still comes with long-term side-effects.
For now, an American audience is savouring a very American narrative of fall and redemption. The rest of us may feel carried along with it or may not; Woods’ wounds have been self-inflicted, and he has always been afforded a protection and leeway that those without his peculiar sporting gifts are not.
But it is hard not to be stirred by the implausibility of it all, by the romance of a renaissance that almost no-one saw coming.
“Coming back and playing golf was never in my thoughts,” Woods admitted earlier this year. “It was just, ‘How do I get away from this pain? How can I live life again?’ I felt like I couldn’t participate in my own life.”
It doesn’t actually matter whether he helps wins the Ryder Cup for the US in Paris this week, or does go on to win another major, although he is as short as 8-1 with some bookmakers for next April’s Masters.
This is less about a tournament victory than what Tiger Woods won in trying to get back: a sense of who he is and how the world feels about him, a sense of a past that is not necessarily a foreign land.