As millions of people watched Tiger Woods cap a comeback for the ages with a Masters win, two men looked on and probably smiled with a little flicker of recognition, an acknowledgment of the kind of greatness that only they and few others know.
Michael Jordan was watching from afar, Michael Phelps from the front row of the gallery at Augusta National, and both were amazed by what they saw. For Jordan, it was a little more personal because he could relate to mastering a return to the top.
“I took two years off to play baseball but nothing like that,” Jordan told the Athletic’s David Aldridge. “I’m pretty sure he questioned himself, whether he could get it back, and he had to put a lot of work in. But he took it head-on. He had to change his game; he had to change his perspective a little bit. To me, it was the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen.”
Jordan’s was right up there, though. He scored 55 points against the New York Knicks in his fifth game back in 1995, and, although he and the Chicago Bulls lost in the playoffs that year, they went on to win three straight NBA titles. Jordan admitted that he doubted Woods would be able to get back to the top of the golf world.
“He didn’t think he’d get back physically. But he did it,” Jordan said. “No one expected him to be back the way he is now. He’s probably the only person who believed he could get back. To me, that’s a major accomplishment. To me, it’s unbelievable. Mentally, you always think you can. But you can’t answer to what your body has to deal with.”
Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals (23 gold), was a little more personally involved, seeing Woods win in person and becoming a meme for a photo in which he was looking over Woods’s shoulder.
“That was one of probably the coolest shots and coolest things I’ve ever seen live in sports and definitely in golf,” Phelps said of the shot on No. 16 in an interview with NBC. “Just watching Tiger come back. Watching him be able to do that, get back on top of the mountain, it’s just so cool.”
Phelps briefly retired, too, after the 2012 Olympics, but he returned to win five gold medals and a silver at the 2016 Rio Games. Like Woods, the swimmer’s reputation suffered along the way with a DUI and a stint in rehab. Phelps knew he was in the company of a kindred spirit Sunday.
“I’m getting chills right now,” Phelps said as he described the final round. “The chance to see [Woods] at that place be able to come back when everybody counted him out, it’s cool because I kind of have an idea of what that feels like, climbing back to the top of the mountain. Having a chance to see him do it on his terms with his kids there, I was speechless for two days.”
Jordan warned Woods’s opponents this season that the Masters win is only the beginning.
“They got problems,” Jordan said of the PGA Tour’s other golfers. “His confidence is only going to build from here.”
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