The spectators who swarmed Tiger Woods and shouted his name as the closing moments unfolded on the final day of the Tour Championship were but another reminder of the golfer’s immense popularity and the cool redemption story that unfolded for the 14-time major champion in 2018.
That he won the PGA Tour’s season-ending tournament and capped a remarkable return to competitive golf with his 80th PGA Tour victory is simply magical stuff.
While two of the year’s major championship winners, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka, finished near the bottom of the leaderboard – with longtime nemesis and now made-for-TV-foe Phil Mickelson finishing dead last – Woods bolted to the top of the leaderboard during the first round with a 65, remained tied through 36 holes, then forged ahead during the third round, never to be matched again.
Along the way, he played with and better than Tommy Fleetwowod, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose – who would go on to win the FedEx Cup title and get to No. 1 in the world – and Rory McIlroy.
Although his final-round performance was not dominating, it was a reminder of a time when Woods routinely got the lead, then played precision golf while others faltered. He shot 71 and made just two birdies but his closest challengers could not push him.
And to think that Woods himself, just less than two years ago, thought he was “done,” the constant back and nerve pain making him miserable, golf an afterthought.
“Probably the low point was not knowing if I’d ever be able to live pain-free again,” Woods said. “Am I going to be able to sit, stand, walk, lie down without feeling the pain that I was in. I just didn’t want to live that way. This is how the rest of my life is going to be? It’s going to be a tough rest of my life. And so — I was beyond playing. I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t lie down without feeling the pain in my back and my leg. That was a pretty low point for a very long time.”
That Woods was somehow able to emerge from it after spinal fusion surgery in April of 2017 and win again is every bit as impressive as some of his greatest victories. The golf might not be as transcendent as his 1997 Masters win, nor as awe-spirting as his 2000 U.S. title, nor as dramatic as his 2018 U.S. victory. But it undoubtedly ranks among his greatest wins.
And to think, when Woods returned to competition in December of 2017 at the Hero World Challenge he was ranked 1,199th in the world. After the Tour Championship, he was ranked 13th. And it make his selection to the U.S. Ryder Cup team several weeks before all the more meaningful.
Woods slowly worked his way up both the FedEx Cup and Ryder Cup lists, as well as the World Ranking: 12th at Honda, tied for second at Valspar and tied for fifth at the Arnold Palmer cranked up expectations; finishing tied for 32nd at the Masters followed by a tie for 55th at the Wells Fargo showed there was still work to be done.
As late as June at the U.S. Open, where Woods missed the cut, he was ranked 79th in the world and not making many feel he’d be a vital asset at the Ryder Cup.
But after that, Woods posted five top-6 finishes including the Tour Championship victory in eight events and did not missed a cut. He twice contended at majors, including a runner-up finish at the PGA Championship.
“What I really love about this whole Tiger thing right now is this is not some ceremonial finish to his career,” said Paul Azinger, the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup captain. “He’s still got game, bro. Still got game. This is not a ceremonial walk, not at all.”
And who would have believed that? Certainly Woods had his doubts. As recently as last September, at the Presidents Cup where he was an assistant captain to Steve Stricker, Woods said he did not know “what my future holds.” He had started hitting pitch shots following April fusion surgery but nothing more than that.
Even late in the year, Woods recalled his time away from the game, prior to the fusion surgery, when he seemingly tried everything to alleviate back problems. “I didn’t think I’d ever play again,” he said. “When I was laying on the ground and couldn’t move for a number of months, golf is the furthest thing from my mind.”
Then there was the 2017 Memorial Day arrest for DUI. Woods had taken a concoction of sleep aides and pain relievers that eventually sent him to a rehab facility. Although he has not spoken in detail about the incident or its fallout, it was safe to wonder what impact that might have on his game.
Given all the physical and mental woes, the lack of golf over the past two years, the abundance of talent the game now produces, it would have been a reasonable goal for Woods to simply be playing competitive golf, never mind the results.
But winning? “I guess you don’t put anything past him,” Stricker said. “He’s capable of anything. I think that’s where the hope lies. Nothing would surprise you. “I didn’t write him off by any means. It’s neat to see him back. Neat to see him excited to play and how engaged he is. It’s fun to be around him and see how excited he is.”
All of this portends an interesting 2019. Woods is eligible for any tournament he wants to play, including two of the World Golf Championship events for which he was not eligible in 2018. That means guaranteed world ranking, FedEx Cup and Presidents Cup points. And while the latter is nearly a year away, don’t underestimate how important that is to Woods, who has already been named captain of the U.S. squad that will take on an International team in Australia. Woods would dearly love to make his own team.
But look for him first to do all he can to prepare properly for the major championships. The Masters, where he has won four times, will be on the top of his list, obviously. But so will the PGA, to be played at Bethpage Black, where he won the 2002 U.S. Open. The U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach, where Woods posted his historic 15-shot victory in 2000.
“Now I know that I can do it, now it’s just about managing and making sure I’m fresh for events because I know I can win tournaments again,” Woods said.
“I need to make sure I am rested and ready to play.”
January 01, 2019