Rebuilding the body
It was at the Champions' Dinner in the Augusta National clubhouse in 2017 when Tiger Woods delivered the bombshell to Jack Nicklaus: "That's it, I'm done." He was not talking about his starter.
Sir Nick Faldo, with his three green jackets, was in the room. Recalling the sad, hunchbacked figure who had trouble sitting down throughout the meal in honour of Danny Willett, the 2016 champion, Faldo also suspected that this had a discernible feel of the last supper.
"Tiger had been through three back surgeries at the time, was obviously still in agony whenever we'd seen him of late and was saying 'this is it'," Faldo said last year. "So if he is to win this year's Masters, then to my mind it would the greatest comeback not just in the history of golf, but in the history all of sports."
Faldo declares so aware he had not even witnessed the low point during golf's most exclusive evening. Two months later, the world gasped as mugshots were released by the Florida Police Department depicting Woods in a red-eyed, pathetically bleary mess after a late-night arrest when found slumped over his steering wheel. "There looked no way back," Faldo said.
Except, by then, Woods had undergone a fourth operation. True, he was still, as the therapists say, "trapped in the prison of the dependency" but there was at least a light through that opiate haze. Two weeks after the 2017 Masters, the 41-year-old underwent an Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion and this was his and, yes, golf's "Eureka!" moment.
The trio of microdiscectomies had not worked, regardless of the statements of Woods and his Pravda-like team thereafter. The surgeons had chiseled away at the discs cutting onto the nerve, but each time the contact would resume and the agony would re-ensue. There was only one more option.
"It was no surprise that Tiger and his doctor decided to go with this procedure after all the other treatments had been exhausted," said a spokesman for the much-lauded Spine Health Institute in Florida. "It is quite a common sequence."
The problem was that Woods was adamant after his last microdiscectomy that there would "no more operations, no more going under the knife". Yet after months of being bound to the sofa, unable even to venture out into the back garden for a kick-around with his children, Woods relented. He would at least look into the possibility.
It has not been known until last March, but Rory McIlroy, Woods's neighbour and friend, has revealed to Telegraph Sport that Woods' salvation began in Britain.
"Tiger told me the story about how he'd been fixed and how it was a 'mini-miracle'," McIlroy said. "He actually travelled all the way to London to see the ultimate consultant on these things, who told him that the only guy who could fix this was in Texas."
Dr Richard Guyer was the Dallas specialist who took just under three hours to re-piece the icon and perform the spinal fusion procedure that basically entailed removing Woods' damaged disc and re-elevating the collapsed disc space to normal levels, thus allowing one vertebrae to heal to the other.
It was described as "minimally invasive", which "accessed the spine" from the "front of the body". In truth, Woods had not even contemplated these kinds of returns. "I got a second chance at life - I am a walking miracle," Woods had said on his website.
So long as he followed the rehab plan and broke the habit of a golfing lifetime by not returning to whacking his driver too soon, the medics assured him there was no reason why his physical health should be an issue.
Except there was still an enduring physical problem coursing wildly deep within his veins. He was addicted to prescribed pain-killers and the drying out would be at least as painful.
"You think they save your life and then they almost kill you – 'almost' if you're lucky," so Cathryn Kemp, the author of the celebrated "Painkiller Addict", told The Telegraph.
Woods checked into rehab and is now clean. Now came the time to resurrect his career.
Rebuilding the swing
When Woods received the green light to resume playing he did so on his own terms and with his own philosophy.
Woods officially announced in December 2017 he had split from Chis Como, his fourth and seemingly final swing adviser, and that he had gone solo.
Whether he has received any assistance since is not known, but it has been the subject of constant speculation - particularly when he has reached remarkable swing speeds that were apparently long behind him and his battered frame.
Pete Cowen - the world-renowned coach from Yorkshire who has guided the likes of Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett and Darren Clarke to majors and Lee Westwood to world No 1 – believes Woods is responsible for rediscovering his own majesty.
"If there is one player who could work it out himself then it's him – he knows the swing better than any other player nowadays," Cowen told Telegraph Sport last year. "But it's the swing speed that's the thing. That's defying age, right there."
McIlroy noticed it as soon as he played with him in that friendly round in November. "It was incredible when he first drove the ball – I was like, 'wow', where did he get that speed from?" he said. "I went there worrying about what sort of Tiger I'd see. And I honestly left thinking he could stun the world again."
Certainly, Woods has astonished the boffins who operate the tracking machines. His clubhead speed at the recent Valspar Championship – where he had recorded his first top-three placing in almost five years - was measured at 129.2 mph, the fastest on the PGA Tour this year.
"He isn't thrashing it but he's still maintained the speed and actually increased it," Cowen said. "And it's actually as much from deceleration as from acceleration. The swing doesn't look violent but it's now like the one-inch punch. The same power as the haymaker but with that power used much more efficiently.
"The titanium plate in there is probably helping him as it is giving him a bit of restriction but also control. It's not a 'band-aid' swing anymore. The stability is all the way through the body. In the past, he tried to get ground-force through moving the weight down, but now he has just done it through weight structure."
The distance is there, but as yet, the direction is palpably not. "If there's one reason not to fancy him at Augusta it's his inaccuracy off the tee," Cowen said. "You can't spray it all over the place there like maybe you once could. Tiger's been taking a driving-iron off the tee recently and been getting away with, but I'm not sure that will work at The Masters.
"It would be no shock at all, however, if he turns up with his driver suddenly on point. People forget that he is an utterly remarkable sportsman. He does things nobody else can - he is the Usain Bolt of golf. And now he's fit and as fast again…."
Apart from the driving, one alarm bell does still sound in the distance. During one of his aborted comebacks a few years ago, Woods exhibited a sudden propensity to duff and thin pitch shots. The dreaded "yip" word was diagnosed, with Gary Player declaring "Tiger has the cancer of golf – and with the chipping yips there's no way he can win, no way at all."
Player was not alone in his alarmist overtures, with Woods's former coach Hank Haney also chiming in. Blessedly, those statements of doom seem premature. Woods's short-game has looked razor-sharp.
"I never believed he had the chipping yips, " Cowen said. "As Tiger said, he was just in between methods of swinging and it seeped through to his chipping. And it only happened into the grain on Bermuda grass and I've even seen Phil Mickelson, the best chipper in the land, make duffs on that.
"Believe me, when Tiger came back this time he knew that his short-game would be his strength. Look at his putting. He can rely on it, more than any other golfer. His stroke is beautifully orthodox - so simple and the same every time. Only he can produce those momentum putts when he has to. Tiger's never lost that."
Rebuilding the mind
Woods thought he was finished as a professional golfer. His decision to undergo the spinal fusion was more to do with the alleviation of the constant pain and the wish to be an active father than returning to the competitive fairways.
The "minor miracle", as he termed it to McIlroy, gave him another shot. The then 42-year-old came back a different Tiger, not keeping up his well-worn pretense of being 'here to win' regardless of the state of his health and game, but instead admitting, 'I'm just learning how to play tournament golf again".
Cowen thinks this change of mindset was important. "It freed him up, took the pressure off and allowed him to enjoy it," he said.
Woods, himself, was stunned how quickly his form returned, finishing second and fifth in just his third and fourth official PGA Tour events. In the heat of contest, the famous intensity still seemed there, but there was also something else – an appreciation of simply being out there.
Notah Begay, his long-time friend, summed it up best. "He's a completely different person," Begay said. "He's gone through public humiliation. He's gone through personal challenges. He's gone through physical injury. He's gone through technical problems in all parts of his game. He's risen above it all and the end result is a guy who is really appreciative of the ability to go out there again and play the type of golf he's capable."
That is great news for the fans, with whom he appears so much more engaged and showed in his celebrations at Augusta. But is it all roses for the competitor, himself? In his pomp, the Woods psyche was impregnable, letting in no-one and nothing in the ceaseless, sentiment-free quest for domination. Now he is much more open, and acts as a friend and even in a mentor to the young generation. What will that do to his legendary focus down the stretch?
No matter how much they love 'the new Tiger', it is 'the old Tiger' the audience craves. Major Sundays have truly missed the red-shirted certainty. But now that Tiger is back.