OLIVER HOLT: Tiger Woods' spirit is what separates him from rivals

OLIVER HOLT: Tiger Woods’ desire and hunger to push his ravaged body through considerable pain shows his indomitable spirit as a sportsman. It is what separates him from many of his rivals… he is golf’s iron man

  • Tiger Woods battled through tough conditions at The Masters to finish +9 today 
  • Woods narrowly equalled the record for most consecutive cuts at the Masters
  • He continued gallantly to fight the weather and the pain in his leg in round three

Tiger Woods’ longest day ended at 3.17pm when three wails of the siren at Augusta National signalled the cancellation of play and a temporary end to his suffering.

Battered by torrential rain and the cold that gnawed at his damaged right leg, the greatest golfer of his generation could barely walk. 

He had dropped five shots in his previous three holes. He was 54th of the 54 players left in The Masters in the third round. He was three shots adrift at the bottom of the field.

But this is not a story designed to elicit sympathy. This is a story that should elicit admiration. 

There are many ways that sportsmen can inspire those around them and in the past, Woods has done it almost exclusively by winning. Now, with a broken body but an unquenchable spirit, things are different. 

Tiger Woods squeezed through to avoid the cut at The Masters earlier this morning in the rain

The American would go to nine over par in his third round before play was suspended

The 15-time major winner battled the elements out on the course and appeared to be in pain

Those of us who followed him around the hills and valleys of Augusta in a seven-hour downpour today were fortunate indeed.

His ordeal – for that was what it seemed – had begun just after 8am in pouring rain and a light mist and something approaching solitude. 

The patrons had been kept at the gates until the players resumed what was left of the second round and so Woods stood at Amen Corner in front of deserted stands and lofted his tee shot at the 12th over Rae’s Creek and to within five feet of the pin. 

It was the start of an epic.

Woods missed his birdie putt and stayed at +2, close to the cut line. He launched his drive off the remodelled 13th tee, plunged his hands deep into the pockets of his blue gilet and hobbled down the fairway, bent against the wind.

The weather was filthy. Not quite as bad as the squall he played through at The Open at Muirfield in 2002 when he shot 81 in his third round. But not far off.

All morning, he would trail along behind his playing partners, Xander Schauffele and Viktor Hovland, as they marched forward. 

The ‘hardware’ Woods referred to in the right leg that was so badly damaged in his car crash in Los Angeles two years ago reacts badly to the cold and it was obvious he was in considerable discomfort. His expression was set and grim but Woods had a goal and he would not be swayed from it.

Maybe you have seen a passage of video footage known as The Crawl, which chronicles the last few hundred yards of the 1997 Hawaii Ironman and features an agonising battle between two exhausted athletes, Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham, to get to the line first. 

It is only when one of them has crawled over the line that the narrator reveals they were competing for fourth place.

The sequence is inspiring because it shines a light on the purity of the desire to compete and the strength of character that burns in some athletes.

Perhaps that was why it felt profoundly moving to follow Woods around the last seven holes of Augusta today in the wind and the rain, to sense the galleries willing him on, to sense his desperation to succeed, when all that was at stake for him was whether he could make the cut.

This is a man who has won the tournament five times, who produced one of the greatest comeback victories the sport has ever seen when he won here in 2019, a man who has won 15 Majors, a man whose highlight reel is already full, a man who was playing through considerable pain, and yet he played those seven holes as if he were pursuing the greatest prize in sport.

On several occasions, patrons could see Woods struggling to walk in the cold, wet weather

Woods started his third round with a bogey before carding two double bogeys on 15 and 16

Conditions were dire at Augusta today with rain causing some water to pool on the greens

Like all of us, Woods, 47, has many flaws but even if it is hard to banish from our minds some of what he has done away from the course, his indomitable spirit as a sportsman lies at the heart of our view of him. 

By this morning, he knew he had no chance of winning the tournament. He was fighting for the right to play the last two rounds. He was fighting for the right to push his ravaged body through the pain barrier by playing 25 holes in a day.

Not everybody has that. Some of the big names who had exited the tournament on Friday went with a whimper, looking defeated long before the 18th. Not Woods. That would never be his way. And he was fighting for pride, too. 

He knew that he had not missed the cut at The Masters since he turned professional in 1997 and that if he made it this time, he would tie the record of making the cut for 23 straight appearances that was held, jointly, by Fred Couples and Gary Player. Woods has already made plenty of history at Augusta but this was a chance to make more.

He was already limping heavily on the 13th fairway as the cold bit into his leg. Hovland was dressed as if he were going cross-country skiing in Norway, gloves covering both his hands and a thick woolly hat on his head. 

Woods sliced his second shot into the crowd but then lifted his third over a tributary to Rae’s Creek that guards the front of the green. The galleries cheered but Woods’ eyes were glued to the ball. ‘Sit,’ he said, furiously, ‘sit, sit.’ The ball did sit. Woods made par. 

‘Dang it, Tiger,’ one of the patrons yelled out at him.

He was still right on the cut line. His approach to the par-5 15th was right at the flag. It hit the pin but rolled back across the green. 

The galleries were willing him to sink his 20ft birdie putt and when it disappeared into the cup, a huge roar rolled around the natural amphitheatre there. Woods tipped his cap to the patrons but it was noticeable that his limp had become even more pronounced as he walked back across the green.

Woods made par at 16 but dropped a shot at 17, where the pin was in a devilishly hard position. One more hole to go and he was back to +2. Back on the cut line. 

The rain was torrential again. It fell in sheets as he teed off on the 18th and he hooked his drive into the trees. He hacked it out on to the fairway and lofted his third shot on to the green. He had a 35ft putt for par.

By the time he reached the green, he was soaked through. His caddy handed him a towel and he tried to dry himself down and mop his brow with it but the towel was sodden, too, and Woods flicked it out in weary irritation. 

He stood over his putt and the huge gallery crowded around the green, sheltered by a giant canopy of massed green and white umbrellas, willed him to hole it.

It was a valiant effort and there was a moment when it seemed it would curl into the hole but it just missed the right lip and came to rest a foot away. 

Woods tapped it in for a bogey to finish on +3. The crowd rose to him but Woods looked utterly dejected. He thought all the pain and all the effort he had poured into quest had been in vain.

He was wrong. Others, including his friend Justin Thomas, had wilted in the onslaught of the elements and given him a way back and now +3 was the cut line. He had made it. 

He would get to play two more competitive rounds of golf at Augusta after all. He would get to play with increasing pain in that right leg. The rain would get harder and harder, the conditions more and more hostile.

Woods though still battled on and attracted the support of many patrons at Augusta National

While he may not win this week, his indomitable spirit is why he is one of the greats of the sport

Starting his third round on the tenth tee, he would get to double bogey the 15th, plunge his ball into the water at the 16th and double bogey that, too, he would be three shots adrift at the bottom of the field on +9 with less than half of the round played. 

As even Augusta’s greens were overwhelmed and play was abandoned for the day, he would reach a point where he could hardly put one foot in front of the other.

He would get to play for nothing except pride and the love of the sport. The desire and the hunger to do that is what makes Woods an iron man of golf. 

It is what separates him from so many of his rivals. Long after the winning has gone, it is what still makes him great.

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