As Tiger Woods moved toward the 18th green at Sunday’s Tour Championship, it was like watching a wave slowly rise as it approached the shore.
Behind Woods, his gallery had burst though the ropes, spilling into the fairway, filling every available space as it purposely walked in stride to the green.
In a sport where decorum is of utmost importance, the delirium was as instructive as it was uncommon. There was cheering and hand-clapping, something Woods would later say he rarely hears anymore in these preoccupied days of cellular phones.
But mostly, there was anticipation of what was happening for the first time in 1,876 days and feeling a part of it all.
“I appreciate it a little bit more than I did because I don’t take it for granted that I’m going to have another decade, two decades in my future of playing golf at this level,” Woods said. “It means a lot more to me now in that sense because I didn’t know if I’d ever be out here playing again, doing this again.”
After years of pain and personal trauma, all well-documented, Woods, the greatest golfer of his generation, perhaps the greatest ever, was a two-putt away from concluding a comeback some thought would never be possible.
And when his four-day tour around Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club was finally done, and Woods had won his 80th PGA tournament title, he raised his putter over his head and the strain and self-doubt seemed to release.
It was his first title since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, which was his fifth championship of that season, his eighth at Bridgestone. The good old days.
Of course, lost in the moment was that Woods’ championship still was not enough to keep Justin Rose from winning the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize. But if Rose had not finished the last two holes at least 1-under, that too would have belonged to Woods for the third time. Rose birdied the 18th to wrap that up.
Then again, maybe Rose realized he would have to ultimately deal with Woods on Saturday when his playing partner burst from the first tee by birdying six of the first seven holes.
“I’ve been sitting on 79 for about five years now, and to get 80 is a pretty damned good feeling,” Woods said.
Within a year’s time, Woods, with seven Top finishes in 18 events, has vaulted from 1,199 to the Top 15 in the world. With two more Tour victories, he will tie Sam Snead for the all-time lead. And now that seems very possible again.
This was Woods at his best, wearing his red, an archival exhibition of what he once was. He held a three-shot lead heading to Sunday and did not give it up. In fact, he has never lost a match in 24 tries under the same circumstances.
“It was a grind out there,” Woods said. “I loved every bit of it. The fight and the grind and the tough conditions and just had to suck it up and hit shots, and I loved every bit of it.”
Now 42 years old, it seemed Woods had disappeared forever into the game’s woodwork over the last few years. Back pain and four surgeries had limited him to three tournaments in the last two seasons.
But Woods then began to build momentum with six Top 10 finishes, including at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open.
With each forward step he seems to distance himself from what might have been the low point of his life, the Thanksgiving 2009 incident when he steered his Escalade into a fire hydrant and was discovered unconscious lying in the street.
Not long after came the revelations of the affairs, his treatment for sex addiction and the unwinding of his marriage to the mother of his two children.
Still, Woods was able to win eight more time between 2012 and 2013 before the buildup of his injuries caught up with him.
“I couldn’t even go out for dinner,” Woods told the New York Times. “I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t get from Point A to B in the house.”
Finally on Memorial Day 2017, Woods accidentally over-medicated – Vicodin, Dilaudid, Ambein and Xanax – and was arrested on a DUI charge after being found asleep in his car with the engine running near his Florida home.
But spinal fusion surgery finally put him on the road to physical recovery and as NBC reported on Sunday, Woods began referring to himself as a “walking miracle.”
That “walking miracle” not only won $3 million on Sunday, but re-established himself as the sport’s icon.
“I feel like a chance to play some more golf and maybe I’ll keep chipping away at that number (82) and maybe surpass it,” Woods said. “I just think that with what I’ve gone through and dealt with, I’ve gotten lucky. I’ve gotten very lucky. I’m not playing a full contact sport. At 42 years old with a fused lower spine that’s not going to happen but in this sport it can.
“I’ve been lucky to have an opportunity to have the people around me to support me and work through this process with me and I’ve ground out a chance to win golf tournaments again.”