AUGUSTA, Ga. — You can like Tiger Woods, love him, dislike him or even loathe him.
But, purely as a golfer, he deserves your respect.
Woods the person always has been complicated. He has, at times, displayed an arrogance and an aloofness that have portrayed him as unapproachable, unrelatable and difficult to embrace. Of course, from his personal life there was the marital infidelity scandal that turned so many people off.
But Woods the golfer has been a lot of things since he introduced himself to the world 25 years ago this week with his record-shattering, sport-altering 1997 Masters victory — the first of five green jackets he has won — and every one of those things have been admirable.
Woods’ God-given talent, of course, is otherworldly. You know about the record-tying 82 PGA Tour wins and the 15 major championship victories, trailing only Jack Nicklaus’ 18. Those are all written in the record books.
You also know about all of the multiple back and knee surgeries Woods has come back from in his career, and most recently his remarkable return to competitive golf after the horrific one-car crash he was in outside of Los Angeles fewer than 14 months ago that left his right leg so badly mangled Woods said doctors considered amputation. Those are all well-documented.
What isn’t written in record books or hospital logs is Woods’ internal fortitude, his mental toughness.
I never thought there was even a remote possibility that Woods would be playing in these Masters — mostly because the walk is so difficult around the undulating emerald turf of Augusta National.
I always believed Woods’ best first chance to play tournament golf again would be the British Open at St. Andrews, where the terrain is as flat as a basketball court and where he has won twice.
Yet here he is this week, defying the odds.
After his eye-opening 1-under 71 in the first round, Woods spent the first five holes of the second round Friday playing himself to the wrong wide of the cutline with four bogeys.
He had gone from 1-under and a legitimate contender to 3-over with four bogeys on his first five holes.
It didn’t look good. Then we saw what might be Woods’ greatest trait on the golf course kick in: his unwavering willingness to grind.
Staggered by the poor start, Woods showed an iron chin and rallied back to 1-over, not only making the cut but giving himself at least a puncher’s chance to chase down leader Scottie Scheffler, whom he trails by nine shots, in the next 36 holes.
“Hey, I made the cut,” Woods said. “I’ve got a chance going into the weekend. Hopefully I’ll have one of those light-bulb moments and turn it on in the weekend and get it done. You’ve seen guys do it with a chance going into the back nine. If you are within five or six going into the back nine, anything can happen. I need to get myself there. That’s the key. I need to get myself there.
“[Saturday] will be a big day. I need to go out there and handle my business and get into the red and get myself a chance going into that back nine on Sunday.”
For all of his incredible physical gifts, Woods’ mind has always been his most underrated, underappreciated weapon on the golf course. He never gives up. That’s why I’ve always believed his greatest, most impressive, most unbreakable record is the streak of 142 consecutive cuts he made from 1998 to 2003.
That kind of grinding defines Woods better than anything. And that kind of grinding was on display front and center around Augusta on Friday.
Woods wobbled, even fell down, but he kept getting back up, refusing to let the dream die.
“I felt good about how I fought back,” Woods said. “I could have easily kicked myself out of the tournament, but I kept myself in it. I got myself back in the ballgame. It was a good fight.”
Woods hasn’t lost a lot of fights on golf courses.
“He is the best competitor I’ve ever witnessed,” US Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson said.
To put Woods’ remarkable week further into perspective, consider the big names who won’t be playing this weekend while Woods continues his relentless pursuit of another jacket: Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth all missed the cut.
“I’m astonished that he’s been able to come back and play in the Masters, but if there was one person I’ve ever known that I would say could do it, it would be him,” Stewart Cink said.
“I could give you 25 accolades that he has and there’s still more,” Will Zalatoris said. “Obviously, he’s won here five times. He’s got 15 majors. He’s won 82 times. He’s the greatest of all time. You could argue this is probably his best accomplishment.”
I don’t believe there’s any argument there.
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