I have switched off from the Sania-Shoaib-Ayesha soap opera—which has got shriller and sillier by the day—and taken a breather from the long-running, word-sapping Indian Premier League (IPL) to train my sights on Tiger Woods’ return to golf at the Augusta Masters on Thursday. Can he make the cut?
A million-dollar question. In Woods’ case, make that several hundred million, for apart from the entire global sports fraternity, a fair chunk of the corporate world too is waiting and watching to see how he fares, not just on the green, but also in the hearts and minds of fans.
Woods was the world’s highest-earning sportsman with prize money and endorsements worth a whopping $100 million (Rs445 crore now) a year before revelations of his adulterous life spilled over into the public domain in November. This chewed up his image so badly that he could possibly lose out on $50 million as Accenture, Gillette, Tag Heuer and Pepsico—among other global brands—have already dumped him.
Despite this, Woods will still remain an extremely rich man, and if he wins a couple of Masters, the earnings, experts reckon, would be restored to their original levels, if not higher. But money is not of the essence in this story. It is the ability of a sportsperson to overcome obstacles and handicaps—sometimes physical, in all cases also psychological—and make a successful return.
The history of sport is replete with fascinating comebacks, some resulting in tales of glory, some, abject failure. Indeed, if the Woods saga was not compelling for its vicarious value as well, Michael Schumacher’s return to Formula One would have been the sports story of the year. There have been several others over the years, across age and gender.
Michael Jordan, for instance, retired from the Chicago Bulls in 1993 and made a spectacular return in 1995, playing the best basketball of his life to lead the Bulls to victory again. He was not short of money or fame even in retirement, but missed the “adrenalin rush”. Subsequently, he bought a stake in Washington and played for them, but with completely contrasting results.
The more dramatic, of course, was Muhammad Ali’s comeback. Put into jail for refusing to serve in the Vietnam war, the charismatic heavyweight returned to the ring after he was released three years later to resume a career that many historians reckon as the greatest in the history of sport for its sheer impact on race and international relations.
Some comeback sagas may not have a perspective of such socio-political gravitas, but are compelling nonetheless. Lance Armstrong fought off testicular cancer to return to the Tour de France in 1999 and won the gruelling race several times more against all odds to provide stirring inspiration to cancer sufferers.
Monica Seles, the No. 1 woman tennis player who was stabbed on court by a stalker obsessed with Steffi Graf, returned a few years later, though she never won a Grand Slam or the No. 1 ranking again. In another case, Kim Clijters returned after retirement and motherhood to win two Grand Slam titles last year.
Cricket throws up some terrific examples too. Two of the more notable ones from India: Mohinder Amarnath and Sourav Ganguly, who left a deep impress every time they came back. In both cases, it must be qualified that the players had not retired, but had been sidelined by the selectors.
The IPL has again put the spotlight on Shane Warne. Warne, who quit international cricket in 2007, led the Rajasthan Royals to victory in 2008. The following year, Adam Gilchrist, who was also a retiree, led his side to victory. But the most memorable cricketing comeback I can recall is Imran Khan’s, on Pakistan president Zia-ul-Haq’s plea, after he had retired in 1988. Nearing 40, the captain led his country to a World Cup win in 1992.
Not all comebacks are successful or even memorable. Bjorn Borg, for instance, after quitting tennis in sulking disappointment in 1981, switched over to a graphite racket from his trademark wooden one, but found quickly that he had lost his appetite for competition. There are countless such others.
Yet all things considered, Woods’ case is still unique for the cause and circumstances of his break from golf. Unlike others, he has been in the dock for moral turpitude, and while all comebacks are put under the microscope by critics and fans to assess their ability, Woods will also be put in the crucible of societal morality.
In that sense, succeed or flop, he has to convince people that like them, he has only been human. That’s tougher than winning all the Masters.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org