ATLANTA – As Tiger Woods made his way to East Lake’s 18th green and a victory that was five years and four back surgeries in the making the masses that had tracked his every move crested the gallery ropes and began rushing down the fairway behind the day’s final group.
The decorum of golf was temporarily whisked away by the urgency of the moment and a career that had come full circle under a blinding public spotlight.
Just as Woods was making his way to his 80th PGA Tour title Paul Casey was stepping to a stage behind the 18th green to speak with the media and glanced at a television that was showing the pandemonium in all of its raucous glory.
“It’s mental,” Paul Casey smiled. "He’s the only person who does that. It’s cool.”
For two days fans flocked to East Lake to get a glimpse at history, Woods’ long-awaited return to the winner’s circle after five seasons of setbacks and substandard play. The knock on the Tour Championship has always been its utter lack of atmosphere. That changed last week.
Despite sporting the season’s 30 best players and the lingering $10 million drama of the FedExCup champion since 2007, the finale has always felt more like a cozy member-guest.
Even the 2009 edition - which was headlined by an epic duel between Woods and Phil Mickelson that finished with the former winning the season-long race and the latter hoisting the Tour Championship trophy - didn’t deliver anything even approaching buzz.
It’s this general lack of excitement that, at least in part, prompted the Tour to dramatically overhaul both its schedule and the format for the finale. Beginning next year the Tour Championship will be played the week before Labor Day weekend, avoiding the stifling shadow of football.
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But not even football’s draw could rob last week’s event of its celebrity thanks entirely to Woods’ weekend at East Lake, an inspiring performance that featured six birdies through his first seven holes on Saturday and a commanding if not technical performance on Sunday.
With fans lined five and six people deep down the first fairway, Woods wasted no time giving the public what they wanted with a birdie at the first that echoed to every corner of the property, and when he scrambled for par at the 17th hole the stage was set for one of the season’s most rowdy finishes.
The bedlam that broke out on the 18th hole as Woods completed his round was like a scene from an old Open Championship, when fans were allowed to walk down fairways behind players.
“That was awesome,” said Woods’ caddie Joey LaCava. “I kept telling the cops, as long as they don’t trample us let them keep coming, why not? That was fun. This is what golf needs, right? They don’t do it for anyone else.”
The quiet game with its gentile rules had gone mainstream. Officials often talk of attracting a more general sports fan to the game and this is what it looks like – loud and unapologetic.
Woods has always transcended golf and his appeal has drawn many to the game, but this comeback from injury has reached even further to an element of the public that appreciates how far he’s come this season if not the nuanced brilliance of his game.
“I was talking to Rory about it. I think Tiger played here in 2013, but in 2014 when Rory and I were in the final pairing, we didn't have this many people, and he was the No. 1 ranked player in the world at the time,” said Billy Horschel, who played three groups ahead of Woods on Sunday. “It shows you what he does for an event, and it's exciting. We miss it because there's always that extra buzz, that extra energy around the course, and for someone like me, a player that feeds off that, I love it. I actually absolutely love having more fans, more energy. It just makes me play that much better, and especially when I get in contention, I thrive off it.”
Record and raucous galleries are nothing new for Woods, but this season has been particularly intense.
When he began the final round of the Valspar Championship in March a stroke off the lead record crowds flocked to Innisbrook Resort, a normally subdued stop on the circuit, and roared for his every shot.
The intensity grew with each missed opportunity. A tie for fifth place at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a fourth-place finish at the National followed by a tie for sixth at The Open all set the stage for the season’s most frenzied moment, Woods’ runner-up showing at the PGA Championship.
The prospect of a breakthrough combined with a St. Louis fanbase starved for major championship golf reached a crescendo on Sunday when even Woods had to stop on his way to the scoring area to marvel at the masses.
The crowds at East Lake weren’t to the level to those that made Bellerive the year’s largest party on grass, but it’s the most recent example of how Woods, a heathy and hungry Woods, continues to reach well beyond golf.