The red shirt and ground-shaking roars.
The steely glare and sweet swings.
The tactical precision and ruthless efficiency.
If not for the iPhone-wielding mob following his every move, you’d swear that golf had been transported to the halcyon days of the early 2000s.
The Tiger Time Machine kicked into overdrive at East Lake, where Woods won for the first time in 1,876 days and suddenly put two of the sport’s most hallowed numbers – 82 and 18 – back in play.
“I didn’t understand how people could say he lost this and lost that,” said Hank Haney, Woods’ former swing coach. “He is so good. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s won 79 times. If he can swing, he can win again.”
The only disappointing part of win No. 80 is that Woods will have to wait four months for another meaningful chance to build upon it. That’s a shame, because all of the pieces are in place for him to make a sustained run, and the Tour Championship might just be the start of an unimaginable final act.
A season that began with questions about whether a 42-year-old Woods could survive a full schedule with no setbacks ended with him saving his best for last, when his younger, healthier peers seemed to be gassed. Taking his recovery week by week, Woods ended up making 18 starts – his second-heaviest workload since 2005 – and never publicly complained of any discomfort, only the occasional stiffness that comes with having a fused lower spine.
Remember when Woods’ tanking world ranking was punch-line material? Now he’s all the way up to No. 13 – not bad for a guy who was 1,199th when he returned to competition last December at the Hero World Challenge. Nowhere close to reaching his 40-event minimum divisor, he’ll continue to accrue points and charge up the rankings, putting the game’s top players on notice.
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The victory at East Lake moves Woods only two shy of Sam Snead’s all-time PGA Tour wins record (82), a goal that seemed unthinkable a year and a half ago, when he was bedridden following the Hail Mary fusion surgery. And for those wondering whether he’s capable of chasing down Big Jack, remember that Woods almost picked off two majors this summer, at Carnoustie and Bellerive, with a body and swing that was constantly evolving.
Indeed, in an era of TrackMans and coaching stables designed to maximize a player’s performance, Woods has refreshingly gone back to his roots. It always seemed incongruous, watching the game’s most brilliant golf mind scrutinize down-the-line swing video, and so this year he has been a solo act, relying on old feels to guide his new move. The credit for this resurgence is his alone.
Sure, there were growing pains, lots of them, and for months each tournament turned into golf’s version of Whack-a-Mole, as yet another issue arose. The two clubs that most consistently held Woods back were his driver and putter, but recent improvements portend well for the future.
After wayward tee shots cost him the PGA, Woods changed the loft and shaft on his TaylorMade driver. For years, even while injured, he violently attacked the ball in a vain attempt to hang with the big hitters. But these tweaks to his gamer (resulting in lower swing speed and carry distance) were a concession that accuracy was more vital to his success than power. His newfound discipline was rewarded: He ended the season with four consecutive weeks of positive strokes gained: off the tee statistics, and on Sunday he put on a clinic while Rory McIlroy, one of the game’s preeminent drivers, thrashed around in the trees. Woods is still plenty long, closing out his victory with a 348-yard rocket on 18, and from the middle of the fairway he can rely on his vintage iron play.
His troubles with the putter weren’t as quick of a fix. Frustrated with his inconsistent performance on the greens, Woods briefly flirted with other models before rekindling his love affair with his old Scotty Cameron, the trusty putter with which he’s won 13 of his 14 majors. It’s exceedingly rare for a player to overcome the frayed nerve endings and putt better in his 40s than his 30s, but Woods was downright masterful on East Lake’s greens.
“It’s more satisfaction than anything,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “People have no idea how much work he put into this.”
By almost any statistical measure, Woods’ season-long numbers suggest that he’s already back among the game’s elite – even after struggling to walk and swing for the past four years. He’s the best iron player in the game. He finished the season ranked seventh in strokes gained: tee to green. And after his normally stellar short game went MIA for a few years, his play around the greens appeared as sharp as ever.
And so on Sunday, while watching Woods school the top 30 players on Tour, even Johnny Miller got caught up in the latest edition of Tigermania.
“He’s not looking like he could win a couple more,” Miller said. “He’s looking like he could win A LOT more.”
Where Woods’ story is headed – to No. 1 in the world, to the top of Mt. Nicklaus, to the operating table – is anyone’s guess, because this comeback has already defied any reasonable logic or expectation.
He’s come back from confidence-shattering performances at Phoenix (chip yips) and Memorial (85) and even his own media-day event where he humiliatingly rinsed a series of wedge shots.
He’s come back from four back surgeries and pain so debilitating that his kids once found him face down in the backyard; pain so unbearable that he used to keep a urine bucket next to his bed, because he couldn’t schlep his battered body to the bathroom.
He’s come back from an addiction so deep that in May 2017 police found him slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes, five drugs coursing through his system, a shocking and sad DUI arrest that was the catalyst for this clear-eyed comeback.
All of the months of unhappiness and uncertainty nearly came pouring out afterward – the culmination of a remarkable journey from turmoil to redemption that ranks among the most unlikely in sports history. Woods fought back tears as thousands formed a big green mosh pit and chanted his name, a surreal scene even for this larger-than-life legend. Hugging LaCava, Woods said into his caddie’s ear, over and over: “We did it! We did it! We did it!”
“He’s pumped up,” LaCava said later. “I’ve never seen him this excited.”
And not just for this moment, but for the future.
The prospects are as tantalizing as ever.