In 2019 Tiger Woods won the Masters for the fifth time and his 15th major. Even as remarkable as that statement is, it doesn’t come close to capturing the full significance of what happened - it's possibly the greatest comeback in sporting history.
It was twelve years since Woods last won a major. During that time on a personal and physical level he has been deep in the valley of despair. The very public fall from grace as one with a carefully crafted public persona were brutally exposed to full scrutiny. Then his body gave out and during the course of rehabilitation, surgeries, new swings and new regimes he fell to his lowest ever ranking of 1,199 in November 2017. At that point few of even his most ardent supporters thought his Masters win was possible.
There was so much that was remarkable about his Master’s performance. Winning any major, let alone the Masters is incredibly difficult. However, the manner of Woods’ victory was remarkable too. Woods is famed as a front-runner but in this he had to come from behind. He was down at the turn behind Molinari who had barely hit a bad shot all tournament. Then as Molinari faltered Koepka & Schauffele made a run and heaped on the pressure. But as the pressure mounted Woods just got better. He was flawless for the remaining six holes. Birdies at 13, 15 and 16, whilst others faltered left him needing a bogey to win. And as the ball dropped in the hole and Woods celebrated he ran to hug his son, just as 22 years previously he had hugged his dad immediately after his first Masters victory.
What was also noticeable is the sheer joy expressed by others. Even those who had been openly critical of Woods’ misdemeanours and how they damaged the golfing community were celebrating, for there seems a new sense of humility about Woods that only serves to make the victory all the more engaging.
J R R Tolkien, arguably the greatest storyteller of our generation coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’ for moments like this. A catastrophe in literature is technically a sudden and unexpected ‘downward turn’ where all that is good unravels. Woods experienced one of the greatest catastrophes in modern sport back in 2009. Everything unravelled. But Tolkien argues that there is deep longing in all of us for the opposite a ‘eu’ (from the Greek for ‘good’) catastrophe - a sudden and unexpected turnaround where wrongs are put right - in sporting terms a great comeback.
Why this deep longing for the great comeback? Because it resonates with a deep sense that we all have that joy and restoration are more fundamental than sadness and disorder. If you doubt that then imagine me telling my 3 year old son a fairy story at bedtime. As I finish with the words “And they all lived happily ever after”, wide-eyed my son looks at me and says “Daddy are there happy ever afters in real life?” “No son” I reply, “It’s just wishful thinking. Sleep well”!
It is fitting that all this is happening as we approach Easter weekend because Tolkien thought that the greatest eucatastrophe of all was the one in the greatest story of all - the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the gospel. This sudden turn around is not in a fairy story but took place in space time and history, a matter of historical record, a ‘true myth’ as Tolkien described it to his friend C S Lewis. And because the turnaround it produces is the greatest there could be, life from death and hope from despair, the joy it produces is the greatest there can be. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55:
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
So as we debate where Tiger Woods’ Masters win ranks in the great comebacks of sport we should pause to think about why we love comebacks so much. At a deep and very profound level these sporting comebacks resonate with us because they connect with our longing for the great comeback, Jesus Christ, the one who came back from the dead and who will one day bring back with him all those who trust in him.
Minister in Charge, Inspire Saint James Clerkenwell, London
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