Michael Phelps and Tiger Woods: The Competitive Comeback Parallels

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Photo Courtesy: CBS Sports (Twitter)

As his golf ball flew into the air and then bounced onto the green, television cameras captured Tiger Woods watching intently and muttering, “Come on. Come on. Come on.” Behind him, wearing a green shirt and white visor, Michael Phelps stared just as intently at the ball, only to jump into celebration as the ball came to rest feet from the cup.

That was the scene early Sunday afternoon in Augusta, Ga., as Tiger Woods won the Masters for his first major title in 11 years and the 15th of his remarkable career. In contention all weekend, Woods hit his shots as his competition faltered down the stretch Sunday. On the 16th hole, after Woods hit his brilliant tee-shot, he nailed the birdie opportunity to essentially clinch the win.

Always special, this particular victory was even sweeter given the time gone by and the significant obstacles, both self-inflicted and otherwise, that he had overcome. And because this time, the champion could walk a few steps over to find his son, not born in time for any of his father’s previous triumphs that made him a legend in the first place.

Better than anyone else at Augusta National Golf Club, Michael Phelps understood the emotions bubbling within Woods, even as the 43-year-old golfer kept an intense, focused look on his face. Because less than three years earlier, Phelps had returned from the lowest point of his life to recapture his past glory with his son on hand. Just like Woods.

It’s impossible not to notice the parallels: Two men who have redefined their respective sports and two men who have reached the peak of the mountain in their sport half a lifetime apart and two men who, even years past their most dominant respective primes, remained the primary draws for outsiders to tune into their sports.

Phelps made his first Olympic Games and set his first world record at age 15 and won his first World title at 16, and he dominated an Olympics at age 31. Woods won his first Masters at age 21 and his fifth this weekend at age 43. And if you were to ask an average American to name a golfer, they would name Woods; a swimmer, Phelps.

Both men were defined by their relationships with their fathers, Phelps living much of his life in the absence of his father, with longtime coach Bob Bowman becoming something of a father figure, and Woods being introduced to and then succeeding in golf under the watchful eye of his father, Earl, before he passed away in 2006. After Woods’ 2019 victory, CBS replayed the photo of father and son embracing after Tiger won his first Masters in 1997—22 years ago.

For Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps, mid-career setbacks very nearly proved too much to overcome.

Phelps had two earlier brushes with public scorn, a DUI arrest in 2004 and the release of a photo in 2009 showing Phelps using a bong, but neither would end up leaving any lasting scars. However, his downward descent can be traced to right after Phelps’ his record-setting eight-gold-medal effort at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when he lost motivation in swimming and even started losing his sense of purpose in life.

Phelps was still Phelps at the 2012 Olympics, winning four gold medals and two silvers, but afterwards, he fell to his lowest low.

Over the next few years, during his first retirement from swimming, Michael Phelps felt alone and helpless. He spent days alone in his bedroom, turning to self-medication for relief. At some points, Phelps admitted, he contemplated suicide. He returned to swimming in 2014, but it took a second DUI arrest that September to give Phelps the push he needed to seek professional help and get his life back on track.

michael phelps

Phelps after winning 200 fly gold at the Rio Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

Only two years after that, Phelps was back atop the mountain, tearing up on the Olympic podium in Brazil, with five more Olympic gold medals. For Woods, the struggle was two-tiered and the drought far longer.

Just a year after Woods captured the 2008 U.S. Open title after a dramatic 19-hole playoff, he dramatically fell from grace when the world learned that Woods had been unfaithful to his wife. He lost the majority of his endorsement deals, but he never really fell out of form. For the next four years, he remained the world’s best golfer, finishing in the top six at six separate major championships.

But from 2014 to 2017, the Tiger era appeared to be over. Reoccurring back injuries kept Woods off the golf course for much of this stretch, and he had very little success even when he did play. Woods would undergo four separate procedures on his back over this stretch, and he feared the injuries would prevent him from walking again, let alone swinging golf clubs.

And then, against all odds, Wood returned to form as one of the world’s top golfers in 2018. He followed up a runner-up finish at the year’s final major, the PGA Championships, with his first win on the PGA Tour in five years. For the first time, the concept of Woods winning another major wasn’t so far-fetched.

His first chance of 2019 would come at the Masters, an event revered for tradition and considered the most prestigious of golf’s four majors. And he did it. He followed his win Sunday with a fist-pump, a scream and hugs for his mother, Kultida, and his two children, son Charlie and daughter Sam.

When Woods won the U.S. Open in 2008, Charlie hadn’t been born and Sam was a baby. For the entirety of his children’s lives, Woods had been a golfer floundering in his own shadow, holding onto a seemingly-unrealistic hope of returning to his absurdly high standard. Now, his kids could see him as a major champion.

Just like it meant the world to Michael Phelps in 2016 when his son, four-month-old Boomer, got to watch his father in vintage form at an Olympic Games, an arena Phelps has dominated like no man before. All the hardships he had overcome aside, Boomer’s presence in Rio made Phelps’ fifth Olympics far more special than the meet might have been otherwise.

But Boomer will never remember Rio. And Phelps is soon to be a father of three, with second son Beckett born in 2018 and a third child on the way.

Phelps has spent much of the past three years squashing any thought of a potential comeback, but as he watched Woods triumph in dramatic, tear-jerking fashion in Augusta, what if he noticed those hugs with Charlie and Sam? And what if that gives Phelps the inspiration for one final go-round, in front of all three of his children, in 2020?

14 comments

  1. Annabelle Ancheta

    Wow !!! Mr Phelps your such a good person to “ Stand By Me “ ( Mr Tiger Wood ) that’s is supposed to be sports by Sports. Stick together no matter what it Is ! ✌️

  2. Suzie Thompson

    No doubt he will race Lochte in the next Olympic s!

    • avatar
      Cate

      No he won’t and his reasons are good ones.

  3. avatar
    James E

    I’m pretty sure 2020 is out of the question for the moment…even for Phelps it would be a tight comeback trail. He’d need to be competing in well under a year. But 2024 (or even 2028 on home soil) I could certainly see

    • avatar
      Cate

      He has shoulder problems. He said as much in an interview with Bild.

  4. avatar

    David,
    You are doing a great job bringing us stories of our stars. I think I can say “our” regarding Tiger even in a swimming magazine as his appeal is so universal. “…floundering in his own shadow…” is a marvelous turn of phrase that at times certainly applied to each of these icons.

  5. avatar
    Cate

    Phelps already addressed the comback rumors in more than one interview as well as the whys. In an interview with Bild after Rio he said, “If I were physically able to go four years I would. However for several years I’ve had shoulder problems and want to throw the football around with my son. Don’t want to be a father with a bum arm” Paraphrased

  6. Dee Carr

    Jack Carr lol saw this yesterday but couldn’t tag you!!

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