The golf world’s tectonic plates shifted last month when Tiger Woods won at Augusta National, collecting the 15th major championship title of his storied career and his first in 11 years.
At 43, Woods became the second-oldest player ever to win the Masters, behind Jack Nicklaus who won the tournament at age 46 in 1986. Woods also set a record for the longest period between Masters wins (13 years).
Most remarkably, Woods revived a career many people thought was over, one that had been derailed by a slew of personal problems, public-relations fiascos and physical infirmities – among them four back surgeries. But this week, as he prepares for the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y., Woods has the opportunity to win back-to-back majors.
Woods joins an elite club of athletes who realized crowning achievements even in the twilight of their careers, with several of them overcoming serious injuries to defy Father Time. For instance, his Masters victory came two months after 41-year-old Tom Brady won his record sixth Super Bowl ring as quarterback of the New England Patriots.
Three of those Lombardi Trophies came after Brady overcame a devastating, three-tendon knee injury that kept him off the field for almost the entire 2008 season. So he has a special appreciation of what Woods has achieved.
“I’ve been watching Tiger for a long time,” Brady said over the weekend in a phone interview. “I think he found a way. It’s really cool to see an athlete when they just dig deep. He’s incredibly resilient. He grinded it out, and that’s the mark I think of a great champion.”
As for whether Woods will eventually match or surpass Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, Brady said he’s not sure, “But I don’t think you ever bet against Tiger Woods.”
Among other athletes who enjoyed great achievements late in their careers:
Bill Walton — The 6-foot-11 Walton, a Hall of Fame center, won NBA titles at both ends of his NBA career, with Portland in 1977 and Boston in 1986. In that latter season with the Celtics, he was named NBA sixth man of the year. He can relate to Woods in that he underwent multiple surgeries — he had chronic foot problems — to reach the mountaintop yet again.
George Foreman – Foreman knows how it feels to bob and weave against Father Time. A gold medalist at the 1968 Olympic Games, Foreman won boxing’s world heavyweight title with a second-round knockout of then-undefeated Joe Frazier in 1973. Although he retired in 1977, Foreman made a stunning comeback in 1994, at age 45, and regained a portion of the heavyweight championship with a knockout for 26-year-old Michael Moorer.
Orel Hershiser — The Dodgers great pitched 18 seasons in Major League Baseball from 1983 to 2000. He was a unanimous selection for the National League Cy Young Award in 1988, a season in which he had a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings pitched. Best remembered for his days in Los Angeles, he played for Cleveland late in his career and was most valuable player of the American League Championship Series in 1995, becoming the first player to win those honors in both the American and National leagues.
Ray Bourque — Bourque, a five-time winner of the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman, spent 21 seasons with the Bruins and became Boston’s longest-serving captain. But he finished his career with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001, winning his only Stanley Cup in his final game.
John Elway — The Hall of Fame quarterback played his entire 16-year NFL career in Denver, with it culminating in with back-to-back Super Bowl wins in his final two seasons. Those came after Elway suffered a ruptured biceps in his throwing arm.