When Tiger won the Masters two months ago, it was the most popular win by any professional golfer since… Tiger won the Masters in 1997. The amazing Mr. Woods is both the youngest winner at Augusta National and the second oldest.
Don’t need to recite here the things he’s had to overcome – the worst for me would have been having to listen to Augusta National Chairman Hootie Johnson’s pious public reprimand nine years ago, and not being allowed to just slug him.
El Tigre waited eleven years between major wins, an eternity in his business. That got people comparing him to Muhammad Ali; the People’s Champ had a couple of long hiatuses as the official heavyweight champion, including one from ’67 to ‘74.
In golf, up until now, the most widely admired comeback was the bounce back of Ben Hogan, who barely survived a collision with a Greyhound bus one foggy winter morning in 1949, in the desert near El Paso. A year and a half later, in a hankie-twisting drama at Merion, the aching, limping man won the US Open in a playoff.
Because of something good that’s basic to our game – maybe the patience and endurance it requires – golf has plenty of stories to keep us inspired. I’ve re-remembered a few for a book I’m writing called Roaring Back (guess who’s on the cover, wearing red and black).
I’d forgotten one of the best ones. To keep the suspense up for a moment, let’s just use her first name. Mildred, who was born in Port Arthur, was the Tiger Woods of women’s basketball. At the Olympics in LA in ’32, she won gold in the javelin – she was super strong – and gold in the 80-meter hurdles – super fast, too. The Tiger Woods of track and field could also jump out of the room; she tied for first in the high jump. Officials broke the tie by finding that Mildred had made a technical error while flying over the bar, so she had to “settle” for silver in that event.
After the Olympics, the twenty-one-year old greatest woman athlete on earth played eighteen holes for the first time and shot about a hundred. But she liked it. Three years later she won the ’35 Texas Women’s Am and then everything else. Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias dominated the game more than Tiger ever did – she had seventeen wins in a row at one point – and she could even beat the boys, or some of them. She qualified – she was not invited – for four PGA tour tournaments and made the thirty-six-hole cut in three of them. Annika played pretty well in the 2003 Colonial, but her 145 didn’t get her to the weekend. Babe was the only woman to have ever made a cut in a PGA tour event.
She rubbed some people the wrong way, however. There was bitching that she was just too strong, that she was muscled like a man. She wasn’t exactly Ms. Sportsmanship, either. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody take losing less gracefully,” said Betsy Rawls of her old friend and rival.
And another annoying thing, to some: The Babe had more ham in her than a prize pig. Her wisecracking, loud voice, and showmanship stood out in the staid game like a raisin in rice pudding.
In 1953, the world’s first-ever celebrity woman golfer fell ill with colon cancer, which was more fatal then than it is now, and was practically a taboo subject, besides. But the Babe used her platform to urge people to get tested, so she probably saved some lives. Following her -ectomy and -ostomy, Babe was expected to just die. Most people did.
She didn’t. She played a couple of tournaments in early ’54 and won both. But she was like a clock running down. Although she sprinted to a big lead after two rounds in the ’54 US Women’s Open, they made ‘em play thirty-six on Saturday.
When she finished, Mrs. Zaharias looked drained and lifeless, but she’d won. By twelve.
The cancer came back, if it had ever left. Just before the end, on a visit to Fort Worth just before Christmas, she asked her hosts to take her to a golf course. Any golf course, just to look at it. The car pulled onto the grounds at Colonial and stopped by the second green. The skinny, shaky Babe hobbled over, knelt on the grass, and ran her hand over it, feeling something deep in the ground for one last time.
She died nine months later.