When did you first believe Tiger Woods was “back”? His opening round at the Hero World Challenge in November, his first competitive round of golf since spinal fusion surgery last April? Was it three weeks ago, when he finished second at the Valspar Championship and reminded the world that Sundays are for red and black (sorry, Patrick Reed)? Maybe it was something even more simple, like when he made this face after draining a 71-foot birdie putt at Bay Hill:
I first believed Tiger was back on October 23, 2017. A week earlier Woods had been cleared by a doctor to resume full golf activity, and he began testing the limits of his game leading up to the Hero. He had been posting clips of practice sessions to social media, showing off his pitching, iron shots, and drives. But that day, he uploaded a simple, slow-motion video to Instagram that showed him lining up and hitting the golf shot that he made famous. His caption read: “Return of the Stinger.”
The stinger shot was first invented by golf legend Ben Hogan, who showed it to his friend, Claude Harmon, who passed it along to his son, Butch, who served as Woods’s coach from 1993 until the early aughts. It was designed to combat windy conditions on the golf course—a low, blistering shot that gives a player both control and distance. Tiger has been known to use it at times when his driver becomes unreliable, as he can hit the shot over 260 yards off the tee with a 2-iron.
No sooner had Tiger added the stinger to his repertoire than it became his calling card. A stinger is a pretty accessible golf shot—something amateurs can learn with a few tips from an instructor and days spent at the local driving range. To start, the ball is placed 1 to 2 inches back in the golfer’s stance, which pushes the hands forward. At impact, the arms form a y, with the left wrist (if you’re a righty) bowing in the direction of the target. That motion delofts the club and and keeps the ball low. For most players, this is a shot for windy days or if there’s an obstruction in your line. But Tiger gets enough distance on his stinger to be used—at times—in place of a standard drive.
There’s a whole section of the internet devoted to teaching people to “Hit Tiger’s Stinger,” with varying levels of specificity. But each instructional post carries the same disclaimer: No one hits the shot like Tiger. Butch Harmon wrote a stinger guide for Golf in 2007, and in it he emphasized the improvements Woods had made on the shot since Harmon first learned it from Claude. “I’m sure [my father] never envisioned that someday a player would be using it to hit the ball 280 yards with a 2-iron,” Harmon wrote, “and I don’t think you can expect to get Tiger-like distance from this shot, either.”
The stinger is a pure distillation of Tiger’s game: an aggressive play that still allows him to fully determine the ball’s fate—no surprises, no uncertainty. So when Woods posted that video in October, it was illuminating. He was getting his game back, but not just any generic, this-is-how-I-play-now-because-I-have-a-fused-back game—he was bringing back his signature shot. Now, a little over five months after that Instagram, we’ll get to see the stinger back where it belongs: at Augusta National during the Masters.
Ten years ago, Tiger stepped up to the seventh tee on Sunday at Augusta trying to make up some ground. He’d started the day six shots back of 54-hole leader Trevor Immelman, and he couldn’t afford any mistakes. It was a rough day around the course—by round’s end, three of the four players that had started the day in front of Woods would shoot 77, 78, and 79, respectively, to finish behind him. As he teed it up at no. 7, he was just trying to stay in control of his own round. So he broke out the stinger.
The ball smacked off the end of his fairway wood, flying toward the hole and landing in the middle of the fairway—exactly what he wanted. He went on to make par and finished the tournament in second place, three shots back of Immelman. The stinger didn’t get him the win that day, but it had become, as he would write a few weeks later in an article for GolfDigest, his “knockout punch.”
Probably Tiger’s greatest stinger shot came during the 2006 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. That weekend, he famously hit driver just once over four rounds of play, instead choosing the consistency of his 2-iron en route to a two-shot victory. He also used it effectively at the 2012 Open, as demonstrated below by this amazing Protracer visual:
“Every successful player has a go-to shot that holds up under the most intense pressure. Mine is a stinger,” Woods wrote in 2008. “I’ve used it many times and in all kinds of conditions. It’s my ultimate control shot. Although it’s conservative in nature, it’s also a scoring shot because it helps me avoid trouble while putting me in position to play aggressively into the green.”
Woods will need that combination of aggression and care this weekend, as he plays in his first Masters since 2015. He’s looked good in practice rounds, making two eagles on the back-9 on Tuesday and chipping in just like the good ol’ days on Monday.
Tiger looks ready for The Masters pic.twitter.com/RlbFHW2S7l— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 3, 2018
And he’s impressed his playing partners, like Fred Couples who walked with Woods during both practice rounds. “He hit a few drives that were well worth watching, whether you paid for it or are in the tournament like me,” Couples joked on Monday. “Today wasn’t any different than it was 10 years ago when we played. It was pretty awesome.”
But those practice rounds were helped along by good weather, something that isn’t likely to last through the weekend. Augusta forecasts show a 100 percent chance of rain on Saturday, which Tiger will have to contend with should he make the cut. If that’s the case, his stinger could serve as both Woods’s security blanket and his not-so-secret weapon.
On Tuesday afternoon, Woods sat in front of the media for somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes looking completely at ease. He recounted the terrible back pain that’s plagued him for years, discussed his effect on the younger generation of golfers that will play alongside him this weekend, and relived his long, glowing relationship with the Augusta National course—even when he was playing through pain in 2015, he still finished the tournament in the top 20. In the middle of his press conference, one reporter asked what Woods thought about the narrative that, should he win this weekend, it would mark the greatest comeback in sports history.
“Well, I have four rounds to play, so let’s just kind of slow down,” Woods cautioned, in typical fashion. “I got to go play and then let the chips fall where they may, and hopefully I end up on top. But I got a lot of work to do between now and then.”
Even if Masters Sunday doesn’t end with Tiger donning his fifth green jacket and completing one of the most incredible narrative arcs in all of sports, this spring has proved that he’s back—back to competing, back to stalking around the course where the Tiger fervor all really started, and back to playing his brand of golf. That October video marked the beginning of the comeback—now, at Augusta National with his stinger in tow, he’ll have a chance to put a cap on it.