Like a Major League pitcher on his back nine, Tiger Woods has learned how to adapt to diminishing physical skills. The explosive tee shots that once were a big part of Tiger’s game are a thing of the past. Four back surgeries and a slew of other ailments have taken care of that.
In its place, Woods has become a more cerebral player. He describes it by saying he’s still able to “think the course” by maneuvering his way around its hills and slopes by leaning on his vast experience.
Where there once was power there is now savvy. Think of it this way: He is hitting the corners with his pitches.
The results of this re-creation have become abundantly clear over the last 13 months. Woods has patiently resurrected his career, winning three tour events while carefully managing his schedule to protect his health. And on Sunday, that enabled him to again make history.
Woods flawlessly worked his way through the final seven holes to win the Zozo Championship in Japan. It was his 82nd PGA Tour title (in 359 events), matching Sam Snead for the most in the history of the sport.
“Well, it’s a big number,” said Woods. “It’s about consistency and doing it for a long period of time. Sam did it into his 50s, and I’m in my early to mid-40s. So it’s about being consistent and doing it for a very long period of time. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the career I’ve had so far.
“To have won this tournament in Japan, it’s just so ironic because I’ve always been a global player. I’ve always played all around the world, and to tie the record outside the United States is pretty cool.”
Woods is now 43 and Snead won his last tournament, the Greater Greensboro Open, as a 52-year-old in 1965. So just think of how many events Woods might still win if his body and mind remain in synch.
This was Woods’ first start of the new season and the victory, his third in his last 14 events, moves him to No. 6 in the world. He shot a final-round 67 to finish 19 under par. In many ways, it was just as remarkable as his wins at last year’s Tour Championship and The Masters, his 15th major title.
“I just told him, ‘You never cease to amaze me,”’ Mark Steinberg, Woods’ longtime agent, told ESPN. “I did not see this coming.”
Woods has interrupted the flow of his comeback many times to accommodate his health and well-being. He carefully chooses where he plays. For instance, after he won The Masters in April, he made only six others starts and his best finish was a tie for ninth.
He’s just returned to competitive golf after another minor knee surgery on Aug. 20. This was the first time he’d actually walked a course in a very long time.
Woods once again defied the odds to win. He began the tournament with three straight bogeys. According to Elias, no player since 1983 had won a tournament under those circumstances. But he fully recovered before the end of the first round by making nine birdies on the final 14 holes to share the first-round lead with Gary Woodland. Woods had 27 birdies in the event.
“His ball-striking was a joke. His distance control was something I’ve never seen,” said Woodland, one of Tiger’s best friends on the tour. “He looked like the best player in the world. It was impressive to watch.”
For those keeping score, Woods won his first event, the Las Vegas Invitational, in 1996 just a few weeks after becoming a professional. Now he has just one more goal to chase, tying or surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships.
“I probably thought about [the record] when I got north of 50, but then, unfortunately, I went through some rough patches with my back and didn’t play for a number of years, so that record seemed like it was out of reach,” said Woods of Snead’s record. “Having had my fourth back procedure and being able to come back and play at a decently high level again, it put the number back in the conversation again.”
It also makes it almost certain that he will play on the U.S. Presidents Cup team. As the team captain, Woods has the prerogative to name himself to the team – and he likely will after the way he played over the weekend.
And who knows, he might return to Japan in the summer of 2020 as part to the United States Olympic golf team.