From Tiger Woods to Fergie: why we all love a comeback kid

Joe Shute
Tiger Woods celebrates his Masters comeback - Getty Images North America

When Tiger Woods was busy winning his first Masters championship in 1997, he presumably had neither the time nor inclination to read Donald Trump’s then newly published book, The Art of the Comeback. But consulting the 10 tips for rebound success, written by the man who would be president, one discovers a roadmap for Woods’s own improbable return to the top.

In the Trumpian playbook, tip number one is “Play golf”; number 10 is “Always get a prenup”. Woods’s fifth green jacket proves he has clearly been not shirking at the former, while in 2010, after his career and personal life had gone spectacularly awry, he divorced his wife Elin Nordegren. A figure of £100 million was widely quoted to have been the couple’s agreed settlement.

Delving further into the list of Trump’s comeback commandments, they range from the strikingly mundane – “Stay focused” and “Be passionate” – to the two that appear to combine the author’s personal mantra: “Be paranoid” and “Get even”.

Following publication, the critics were unkind to Trump’s self-help tome, with one reviewer calling it a “pointless and ultimately ugly book”, and another “a cock-crowing elegy for his own lost relevance”.

Yet what he did manage to elicit was something perfectly encapsulated by Woods’s tap-in bogey on the Augusta green on Sunday to end an 11-year major title drought: the world loves a comeback kid.

Tiger Woods celebrates after winning the 2019 Masters Credit: Reuters

Human history is littered with such examples. Former Olympian gold medallist James Cracknell becoming, at 46, the oldest ever Boat Race winner earlier this month; Sarah, Duchess of York making a spectacular return to Royal favour last year via two Windsor weddings in 2018; even Iain Duncan Smith’s second act in politics following his disastrous two-year spell as Tory leader in which he was described by Lord Patten as the “most lamentable choice in living memory”.

Admittedly, that barb was delivered in a world before Theresa May. As you read this, perhaps the beleaguered Prime Minister is plotting her own improbable comeback while on a walking holiday in the Welsh hills with her husband, Philip?

Rowan Hooper is the author of Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability, in which the New Scientist journalist who has a PhD in evolutionary biology interviewed those who have reached the peaks of human achievement in their respective fields – sporting or otherwise.

He says three characteristics are vital in any great comeback: intense laser-sharp focus, a clear goal, and an absolute passion for what somebody does.

“To do something extraordinary requires those three elements ramped up to the max,” he says.

The Duchess of York enjoyed a comeback year in 2018 Credit: Reuters

Hooper admits there may be something to Trump’s claims that a great comeback is best inspired by a sense of settling scores – but insists revenge is far from the most powerful motivation in the human psyche.

“Some people deliberately stoke their passion,” he says. “Maybe some people can use the chip on their shoulder to drive them on to positive things. But I found a positive drive was better than a negative drive. All the people I spoke to who achieved greatness were doing so for positive reasons.”

To this Mark Wilson, professor of performance psychology at Exeter University, suggests a few observations of his own. “Unshakeable belief is key,” he says, as well as being able to “tread the fine line between wanting the comeback badly and sticking to the process”.

Professor Wilson adds that a decent support structure is vital, so too the ability to actually relish the battle that lies ahead. “By its very definition, no comeback is easy,” he says.

Now the world’s biggest tech company, Apple is worth more than $1 trillion today, but central to its success was firing Steve Jobs, the man who co-founded it in a garage in Silicon Valley… before bringing him back years later to take charge of the company’s remarkable turnaround. 

Steve Jobs, the former Apple CEO Credit: Getty

Politicians represent a rich seam of comeback stories, popping up hither and thither regardless of what knocks they take in the manner of the fairground game Whack-a-Mole.

One need look no further than Nigel Farage, back (again) last week launching his new political vehicle, The Brexit Party – unwavering in his own perception of his popular acclaim despite having tried, and failed, seven times previously to become a Ukip MP.

In his various guises, Labour’s Peter Mandelson has proved similarly indefatigable (or shameless, depending on where you stand). One of the key architects of New Labour, Lord Mandelson made history when he became the first Secretary of State to resign twice – first from the Department of Trade and Industry and later the Northern Ireland Office – only to return once more, to help prop up Gordon Brown’s administration in 2008.

Now on the proverbial political sidelines, Lord Mandelson has since tried to coax David Miliband (who for those who may have forgotten missed out on the Labour leadership to his brother, Ed) into his own political comeback.

Fashion, too, boasts its own fair share of tales of phoenix arising from the flames. In 2012, German designer Jil Sander announced her return to her eponymous label she had previously sold in 2004. (“She’s Back” ran the subsequent headline in Vogue.) 

After Jo Malone walked away from the luxury fragrance business she created, selling it to cosmetics giant Estée Lauder in 1999 in a rumored multi-million-dollar deal, she described the ensuing period as “one of the most unhappy times of my life – worse than cancer”. In 2011, she launched a new company, Jo Loves. 

The pop singer Kylie Minogue on stage Credit: Getty

Though not strictly fashion related, Kylie Minogue’s 2000 comeback with her single Spinning Around was cemented by a pair of gold hotpants now firmly ensconced in the pop hall of fame – quite literally so as the singer has since donated them to the Australian Music Vault at a museum in Melbourne.

Dr Sally Ann Law says she has seen comeback stories in every conceivable professional field in her 18 years working as a life coach and executive coach. Clients come to her seeking a way out of redundancy, divorce or professional humiliation. “These are people at very low ebbs and trying desperately to pick themselves up and believe in themselves again,” she says.

Dr Law believes some of us are better equipped to deal with setbacks and return from adversity although she says often we tend to fixate upon high-profile stories of comebacks and, in the process, disregard those successes we achieve in our own lives.

“There are countless examples of people who have been in really bad shape and thought there was no hope left for them,” she says. “The Tiger Woods thing is of course very inspirational, but what we tend to overlook is the things we have done for ourselves. We often take our successes for granted and focus on our failures.”

Age is no barrier to a comeback. The 76-year-old US singer Barbara Streisand has just been announced as the latest headliner of British Summer Time festival in Hyde Park this summer – her first UK appearance since 2013. Mary Berry, 84, has also enjoyed something of a second coming following her casting as a judge on the Great British Bake Off in 2010, in which she became a national treasure following decades spent largely off-screen running a cookery school.

There is a metaphor in Berry’s ascendancy, for those who wish to find it, in rising to the top. But, of course, the great joy of comebacks, is that nobody really stays there for long.