As Tiger heads to Augusta this week, will we witness something incredible, asks Kevin Markham.

There’s little doubt that should Tiger Woods be slipping into a Green Jacket on Sunday night, it will be touted by many as the greatest comeback in sport. At the age of 42, many commentators believed Tiger was finished following a decade of injuries and surgeries, including four on his back.

Sport is draped in comebacks that test the spirit and soul, so if Tiger does win will it be the greatest ever comeback?

Here are the top contenders.

1. Peyton Manning (American Football)

There are dozens of contenders for phenomenal comebacks in this brutal sport but quarterback Peyton Manning’s career reads like the lines from the song ‘Dem Bones’.

Manning had played for the Indianapolis Colts for 14 seasons, enduring neck pains for many years. In 2011, in the off-season, he had multiple neck surgeries and spinal fusion surgery. He was sidelined for the entire year and there was a discussion that his career was over. Manning was determined to prove the naysayers wrong, focusing on a rehab programme that saw him throwing passes by the end of the season.

The season was a disaster for the Colts and the franchise drafted Andrew Luck at quarterback. Manning was cut but then signed by the Denver Broncos, who were prepared to take a gamble. His first season back was solid… but in 2013, in his second season for his new team, Manning shattered offensive records and threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns.

Manning’s recovery was as inspiring as it was unexpected, and he capped off his career with a second Super Bowl win, in 2016. He retired a month later and is regarded as one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks.

2. Brian O’Driscoll (Rugby)

No guesses for where this story is headed. O’Driscoll endured many injuries throughout his career and was famous for his abilities to play through pain, but the June 2005 spear tackle during the Lions tour of New Zealand was not an injury he could walk away from. The game wasn’t even a minute old when he was picked up by two All Blacks and driven head first into the ground.


The greatest comebacks in sporting history

The impact dislocated his right shoulder so severely that he required surgery and 16 stitches. The following day, according to Eddie O’Sullivan, O’Driscoll said that he feared he was going to break his neck and die, and only managed to get his head out of the way at the last moment.

O’Driscoll underwent surgery on his return to Ireland and it put him out for seven months, but he returned to lead Ireland in the 2006 Six Nations, and the team won the Triple Crown, only losing the Championship to France on points difference. O’Driscoll was also named player of the championship.

The seriousness of the New Zealand incident led to a change in the rules of rugby regarding spear tackles or ‘tip’ tackles being tightened up.

3. Clint Malarchuk (Ice Hockey)

They don’t come much more graphic than this and you can find the video on YouTube if you have the stomach for it. Malarchuk was the goalie for the Buffalo Sabres in the National Hockey League, in 1989. Following a collision in front of goal the skate of an opposing player slit Malarchuk’s throat, partially severing the jugular vein.

Buffalo goalie Clint Malarchuk suffered an horrific injury in the NHL when his jugular vein was partially severed in 1989. He survived thanks to the quick actions of team trainer Jim Pizzutelli. Picture: Harry Scull Jr
Buffalo goalie Clint Malarchuk suffered an horrific injury in the NHL when his jugular vein was partially severed in 1989. He survived thanks to the quick actions of team trainer Jim Pizzutelli. Picture: Harry Scull Jr

As blood sprayed onto the ice Malarchuk’s team trainer, Jim Pizzutelli, rushed across and was able to stop the bleeding with gauze. Malarchuk, and everyone else thought he would die but Pizzutelli had served in Vietnam as an army medic and was able to save the goalie’s life by applying heavy pressure to Malarchuk’s throat, only letting up when the goalie needed to breathe.

In the hospital, doctors recommended that Malarchuk take the rest of the season off but he was back on the ice just four days later.

4. Bethany Hamilton (Surfing)

On October 31, 2003, Bethany Hamilton lost her entire arm when a 14-foot tiger shark attacked her as she surfed with friends in Hawaii. One of her fellow surfers applied a tourniquet made from his surfboard leash. She was taken to Wilcox Memorial Hospital. Her father was already there in the operating room about to have knee surgery, but he was bumped to make room for Bethany’s emergency.

Doctors estimated that she lost almost 60% of her blood as she underwent several surgeries. Remarkably she was released after only a few days. Even more remarkably she returned to surfing just three weeks later. She was 23 years old.

She won the Explorer Women’s division at the 2005 National Championships, and joined the pro circuit in 2007, where she continued to win events.

Her 2004 autobiography, Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, was a bestseller, followed by a documentary and eventually a film.

5. Monica Seles (Tennis)

The era of the Steffi Graf- Monica Seles rivalry had begun and Seles was starting to dominate. In 1993, she was the top tennis player in the world, following 22 straight singles titles and eight grand slam tournaments.

Monica Seles is tended to after being stabbed by a crazed fan of her rival Steffi Graff during a tournament in Germany.
Monica Seles is tended to after being stabbed by a crazed fan of her rival Steffi Graff during a tournament in Germany.

She was playing in Germany when a crazed Steffi Graf fan, named Günter Parche, stabbed her with a nine-inch knife from behind. Seles was lucky as the incision was only an inch and a half deep and the blade just missed her spinal cord. Security and spectators pounced on Parche before he could stab her again and while the injuries proved to be only minor, the psychological scars were severe.

Seles missed two full seasons but returned in 1995, winning her first event — the Canadian Open — before reaching the final of the US Open the following month.

She lost to Graf, and had to wait until the next grand slam before she won. Sadly, the 1996 Australian Open was to be her only major singles victory although she was runner-up in two more.

She never achieved her former heights and certainly never dominated as she had been expected to do before the attack. That domination was left to Steffi Graf, who won 22 majors in her career.

6. Niki Lauda (Formula One)

At the 1976 German Grand Prix, a terrifying crash saw Niki Lauda trapped in his car and engulfed in flames. Lauda suffered severe burns to his head and lost much of his right ear. Trapped in his car and in the flames he inhaled toxic gasses that damaged his lungs and caused him to slip into a coma.

Nikki Lauda was rescued from this fireball at the Nürburgring in Germany.
Nikki Lauda was rescued from this fireball at the Nürburgring in Germany.

Ironically, Lauda had urged fellow drivers to boycott the race the week before, largely because he believed the Nürburgring track had poor safety arrangements.

Less than six weeks after the accident Lauda returned to the track for the Italian Grand Prix, finishing fourth. He had won the driver’s championship in 1975, ended up missing out on the title by one point in 1976, and then went on to win it in 1977, and again in 1984, taking his place among the sport’s greats. Lauda is now non-executive chairman of Mercedes F1.

7. JB Holmes (Golf)

Holmes had two PGA Tour victories to his name coming into the 2011 season. After turning pro in 2005, he won the FBR Open, and then won it again in 2008. In 2011, he withdrew from a tournament suffering from vertigo, something that he had been battling for months. The doctors diagnosed structural defects in his cerebellum, known as Chiari malformations. Brain surgery followed but the titanium plate placed in his head caused more problems and he required further surgery.

The greatest comebacks in sporting history

After returning to the tour in early 2012, Holmes went on to play 26 events that year. Further injuries meant a reduced 2013 schedule but he claimed a third PGA Tour victory in 2014, and rose to 68th in the world rankings. In 2015 he won again, at the Shell Houston Open. Later that year he achieved his highest world ranking, reaching 19th.

8. Tiger Woods (Golf)

Yes, Tiger Woods is up against himself for the comeback title. He started the 2008 US Open after suffering a double stress fracture of his left tibia two weeks beforehand. He had already been carrying a torn ligament in his left knee for at least 10 months and he had been sidelined for two months following surgery to clean out the cartilage, in April.

Doctors told Tiger that the recommended treatment was three weeks on crutches, followed by three weeks of rest. Tiger wasn’t having any of it, and so began one of the greatest US Open stories: he did it the hard way. After 72 holes he was tied with Rocco Mediate, which meant an 18 hole play-off… after which they were still tied. After five days of grimacing through the pain, on a leg that was getting worse by the step, Tiger finally beat the field and Rocco Mediate on the first play-off hole of sudden death, playing a total of 91 holes in the process.

9. Ben Hogan (Golf)

In 1949, at age 36, Hogan and his wife were in a head-on car collision with a Greyhound bus. He suffered a broken clavical, a complex double fracture of the pelvis, a fractured left ankle, broken ribs and facial injuries. Doctors said he would probably never walk again, let alone play golf. In hospital, he then nearly died from blood clots, which resulted in circulation and fatigue problems which lasted the rest of his life.

He certainly never played the volume of golf he had been playing before the accident but he left the hospital 59 days later and began working on regaining his strength.

He returned to the tour in 1950, where he was runner up to Sam Snead in the Los Angeles Open.

Eighteen months after his near-fatal accident, Hogan won the 1950 US Open at Merion. He won the Masters and the US Open in 1951, playing just five events and winning three of them.

In 1953, he won five out of six, including the Masters, the US Open and the Open Championship. Until Tiger Woods, he was the only player to have won three majors in a year. Hogan won nine majors in his career, six of which came after the car crash.

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