Was Tiger Woods’ victory in the Tour Championship on September 23 the greatest comeback in sports history?
It was, to be sure, huge. Even more, it was Hoganesque.
Only 18 months before the win, Woods could barely move, let alone swing a golf club. “I was beyond playing. I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t lay down without feeling the pain in my back and my leg,” he says. In April 2017, he was lying on an operating table undergoing spinal fusion surgery, an operation that finally seemed to end years of physical and emotional agony, years that he no longer competed like the all-time great with 14 major championships, years that he barely competed at all.
But a year and a half after that surgery, the vast throngs at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta were celebrating the 42-year-old Woods’ 80th Tour victory, his first in five years. How far he had come in such a short time was astounding.
“Probably the low point was not knowing if I’d ever be able to live pain-free again,’’ Woods said after his victory. “Am I going to be able to sit, stand, walk, lay down without feeling the pain that I was in? I just didn’t want to live that way.”
Yes, Woods overcame a lot to win again on the Tour. But Ben Hogan nearly died.
In February 1949, while driving with his wife Valerie in rural West Texas on a foggy patch of road, Hogan’s car collided head-on with a Greyhound bus. He threw himself in front of his wife to protect her, an act of heroism that also saved his own life. The steering column was driven through the back of his seat. Hogan broke his pelvis, ankle, collar bone and chipped his ribs. While in the hospital he also developed blood clots that required delicate surgery. Like Woods, Hogan doubted that he would ever be a Tour player again.
“It’s going to be a long haul,” Hogan told reporters back in ’49, “and in my mind, I don’t think that I’ll ever get back the playing edge I had last year. You work for perfection all your life, and then something like this happens. My nervous system has been shot by this, and I don’t see how I can readjust it to competitive golf. But you can bet I’ll be back there swinging.”
Yet, like Woods—famous for a strong work ethic and dedication to the game—Hogan returned to the Tour. It was February 1950, he was 38, and he lost in a playoff to Sam Snead. Then, in June, he won the U.S. Open at Merion. He would win six of his nine majors after the accident that nearly killed him.
It can be argued that Jack Nicklaus and Woods are 1 and 1A among golf’s all-time greats. So, too, it can be argued that Hogan and Woods are 1 and 1A when it comes to the all-time comebacks from injury—and they deserved to be linked in the game’s lore because of it.