ATLANTA – Midway through Rickie Fowler’s post-round media obligations he was interrupted by a thunderous roar that echoed across East Lake.
“I don't know who it was. I just heard the roar,” Fowler said. Pressed on who might have caused such a distinct reaction, he shrugged, “no.”
There was a time when only one player prompted that kind of raucous response from the masses, but in Fowler’s defense it’s been a while.
Tiger Woods always cast an easily recognizable shadow over the game. The signature red and black wardrobe combination on Sundays, the savage fist pumps and emotional outburst, even the steely glare. It was all so unmistakable.
But for PGA Tour players of a certain age those moments are from another era, folklore stuff that veterans talk about, which at least partially explains Fowler’s confusion.
The current generation has repeatedly said that they would cherish the chance to compete against Tiger at his best, to hear those roars and feel those moments. The 14-time major champion isn’t there yet, but as his 28-footer for eagle at the last hole on Thursday at the Tour Championship trundled to the hole and ignited the gallery it was something of an “aha moment.”
So that’s what greatness sounds like.
Woods finished his day at the finale with a closing nine of 31 after a slow start and was tied with Fowler atop the season-ending leaderboard at 5 under par. He’s been in this position before from Tampa to St. Louis and was equally impressive two weeks ago at the BMW Championship when he opened with a first-round 62 for a share of the lead.
But Thursday at East Lake felt different. It felt better.
“This was by far better than the 62 at [the BMW Championship],” said Woods, who is playing at East Lake for the first time since 2013. “Conditions were soft there. It's hard to get the ball close here. There's so much chase in it. If you drive the ball in the rough, you know you can't get the ball close.”
A better comparison might be his closing 64 at the PGA Championship, it was certainly louder, yet there was something complete and clinical about his 65 at East Lake.
On Wednesday Tiger talked of getting all of the parts of his game to fall into place at one time. When he’s driven the ball well, his putting has been off. When he putted well, his driving has let him down. You know, golf.
On Thursday he had the look of a complete golfer, a five-tool player whose only limitation was running out of holes. Statistically he finished inside the top 10 in strokes gained: off the tee (eighth), tee to green (third), fairways hit (fourth), driving distance (eighth), greens in regulation (fifth), proximity to the hole (sixth), scrambling (first) and strokes gained: putting (eighth).
“I felt in control today,” Woods said without even trying to hide the knowing smile that inched across his face. “I had a lot of control over my shots.”
Woods has said all season that as long as he’s healthy he was confident he’d figure out a way to be competitive. Although he said his plan starting the year was to put himself in contention and win, he also acknowledged that starting out the year he wasn’t sure how he was going to do that.
“The objective is to always win, but how am I going to do it when I had no game at the beginning of the year? Somehow I've got to find a way to piece it together and give myself a chance with what little game I had,” he said.
Woods’ march back to competitive relevance has seemed meteoric at times, particularly when you consider that at this juncture last year he still wasn’t sure if his surgically repaired back could withstand the rigors of Tour life.
He’s pieced together a game, swapping putters and drivers at regular clips this season in an attempt to match a new swing with a newly healthy body, and he’s put himself in contention. Getting that elusive victory would be the last piece of the puzzle, but he knows he’s on the clock with 54 holes remaining in his season.
There was a time when Tiger’s name atop the leaderboard was a reason for the field to take notice even on Day 1. That piece of his aura has also been elusive, but much like that 80th Tour victory that part of his mystique could also be within sight.
Fowler won’t have any problem deciphering roars on Friday when he’ll be paired with Woods in the day’s final group, it’s what he and the other members of the current generation have pined for and one of the final pieces of Tiger’s comeback.
“I've had the opportunity before, and I definitely am in a lot better position now than I was in the early part of my career,” said Fowler, who has been paired with Woods a dozen times in his Tour career. “There is a little bit of a comfort level that you have to get used to playing alongside him, especially in a big situation, in a final group. No, I look forward to it now.”
This is what everyone looked forward to, for those roars to be as distinctive as the man who has produced so many in his career.