Tiger Woods had not won a major golf tournament in 11 years. Chris Davis had not stroked a base hit since last September. Each had once stood atop their professions—Woods placing a stranglehold on the top golfer in the world ranking for more than a decade; Davis twice clubbing more home runs than anyone in the American League. But each had since been humbled by their games of choice, and, in Woods case, also by poor personal decisions and a recalcitrant back. Self-doubt dogged both men. Would they ever experience what they once had again?
Last weekend, on two of sport’s most hallowed grounds—Augusta National and Fenway Park—we got our answers. Two ignominious droughts ended as the 43-year-old Woods won the Masters for the first time since 1997 (the longest stretch between green jackets by any golfer at the tournament unlike any other) and Davis snapped a 0-for-54 hitless streak (the longest in baseball history by a non-pitcher). The dry spells ended resoundingly, with Davis going three-for-five, with two doubles and four runs batted in in a 9-5 Baltimore Orioles victory against Boston, and with Woods winning his 15th major tournament, just three shy of Jack Nicklaus’s record.
In his previous 14 major victories, Woods held the lead heading into the final round. But in this one he was forced to overcome a two-stroke deficit at the start of the day. Tiger’s charge was a fitting exclamation point to one of the most remarkable comeback stories in sports history.
It’s easy to forget how high he had soared and how far he fallen. In the 1990s, the young phenomenon that was Tiger Woods grabbed hold of his sport and America’s interest in a way that no athlete had done since baseball slugger Babe Ruth back in the Roaring Twenties. It was interesting to hear the accounts of the golfers at Augusta and all the fans on social media who said Tiger was the reason they either played or were interested in golf. The way he exploded onto the scene had us wondering not if he would break the Golden Bear’s record for major tournament victories, but rather by how many.
The second act of the Woods story saw triumph turn into tragedy. Many of his troubles were self-inflicted. There were sordid stories of affairs with porn stars and the highly publicized divorce that followed, along with an arrest after imbibing a cocktail of painkillers and passing out at the wheel. Tiger went from being the toast of the town to the butt of jokes. Not surprisingly, his game, like his life, wound up in knee-deep rough. Eventually, Tiger developed back problems so severe that he couldn’t swing a club. He wondered if he would ever be pain-free again.
Two years ago, in a last-ditch attempt, he underwent anterior lumbar interbody fusion surgery. The pain dissipated and he became healthy enough to play highly competitive golf again. More importantly, he got a handle on his life. Woods has become, by most accounts, an involved, loving father to his two young children. Once notoriously surly with fans, he now readily doffs his cap and even chats with people in the gallery. Smiles have replaced scowls. He appears to be grateful for blessings he once took for granted. A humbled, more likeable Woods was on display Sunday as he hugged his son near the same spot on the 18th green that he had hugged his late father during his last Masters victory 22 Aprils ago.
Davis has never carried the baggage that Tiger has, but he has experienced similar crises of confidence. And like the legendary golfer, he found himself in a slump from which he wondered if he would ever emerge. In 2013, the player nicknamed “Crush Davis” smacked 53 home runs and drove in 138 runs. Two years later, he again topped the AL in homers, with 47. That prompted Orioles owner Peter Angelos to reward him with a seven-year, $161-million contract. Davis paid dividends the first year of the deal, clubbing 38 homers and driving in 84 runs, but he’s been in decline ever since. Last year, he finished with a putrid .168 batting average, lowest ever in MLB history. This year, his woes continued as he went hitless in the first two weeks of the season.
He’s been pilloried by Orioles fans, who booed him lustily during pre-game introductions at last week’s home opener and who later serenaded him a sarcastic standing ovation after he was pinch-hit for in the seventh inning. Clearly, Davis has incurred their wrath for being a grossly overpaid underperformer. But it’s not like Davis hasn’t been trying or giving his all. He’s taken a ton of extra batting practice and spent hours dissecting video of his swing. Through it all, he’s handled himself with class and grace.
And when his misery finally ended with a two-run single Saturday in Fenway, his appreciative teammates acted as if he had just hit a walk-off, World Series-winning homer. Davis smiled broadly upon reaching first base, and jokingly asked for the baseball—the way rookies do after smacking their first big-league hit. “You have to embrace it at some point,’’ he said, laughing.
It wasn’t a green jacket like the winner receives at the Masters, but it felt every bit as good. In all likelihood, this was just a momentary highlight for Davis, a 33-year-old ballplayer who appears to be in serious decline. And only time will tell if Tiger’s win at Augusta will be the impetus he needs to break Nicklaus’ record or his final gasp at golf greatness. To which I say, “Who cares?” Let’s just savor what these two did last weekend. It was fun seeing them experience something they once wondered they ever would again.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.