We should’ve known better.
After all, the golf world has been through this process before: the cycle of doubt and scrutiny transformed into shock and awe before our very eyes. We have all wondered if we’ve already seen the last, best, most memorable performance, only to receive a front-row seat to another iteration of brilliance.
So when Tiger Woods flew halfway around the world for an exhibition and a tournament brimming with variables, closer to his most recent knee surgery than his most recent competitive swipes, we should’ve known better than to question how much gas was left in the proverbial tank. After all, he was barely a year removed from his watershed win at East Lake, and that green jacket still resides in his closet for another six months.
But the temptation proved irresistible, and the speculation mushroomed. How was he feeling? How’d the swing look? How much of a toll did the intercontinental travel take on a physique that often seems one 12-hour plane ride away from crumbling to dust?
It all felt inordinately familiar. And then, days later, so did the result.
One week after teeing it up in a four-man skins game saddled with another round of questions about his form and frame, Woods silenced any doubts in emphatic fashion. His Zozo Championship win was a dominant display that harkened back to the Woods of old, and it served as an eight-day microcosm of the comeback he has spent the last four years authoring.
When Woods announced that after the BMW Championship he had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery, the pieces seemed to fit into place. He had clearly been hobbled down the stretch of his 2019 season, appearing more like a beleaguered veteran than the reigning Masters champ. But it also added speculation to his trip to Japan for his first start in more than two months and his only competitive reps before his Presidents Cup picks are due. There were whispers of rust and an expectation that Woods might ease into things, all of which received credence when he wandered through the Monday exhibition without much of a spark and opened the tournament proper with three straight bogeys.
But by the following Monday morning, when Woods returned to Narashino Country Club with a three-shot lead and seven holes separating him from a piece of PGA Tour history, it was like he had entered a time machine. The trademark grit and determination were on full display as a man who has won as much or more than any other Tour player knew exactly what to do to add to his haul.
“It’s something like I’ve never seen. He misses the ball in the right spot every time,” said Gary Woodland, who played the final two rounds alongside Woods. “And when he does that, he makes a lot of birdies and that adds up to some pretty good weeks. He didn’t miss a ball left I don’t think for two straight rounds.”
It’s the same turnaround from woebegone-former-champ to current-day-renaissance-man that we’ve seen play out in recent years. The 2015 Hero World Challenge may have marked the low point of Woods’ injury woes, the site of a funereal press conference in which he pronounced through the pain that any future on-course achievements would be considered “gravy.” It was the somber proclamation of a man who had come to grips with the possibility that his time inside the ropes may have run out.
But less than three years later he was back in the winner’s circle, whipping the Tour Championship crowd into a frenzy while coming within a whisker of winning the Tour’s season-long prize. Then this spring he re-wrote another page in the record books, all while doubts swirled through the towering pines at Augusta National about whether he could hold up to the pressure of capturing his first major in over a decade.
It’s the sort of perspective that made Woods’ most recent lap of middling play mixed with injury questions seem like little more than a trifle.
“I’m very appreciative,” Woods said. “I know how it feels to have this game, you know, what I felt like taken away from me, where I couldn’t participate the way that I wanted to. Just so happy and so fortunate to be able to have this opportunity again.”
That appreciation was apparent this weekend in Japan, as Woods seemed to relish another opportunity to keep an elite field at bay. This wasn’t a turbulent back nine like Augusta or an emotional breakthrough like East Lake. This felt like old times, with Woods out ahead of the pack – his most comfortable position and a spot from which he’s converted chances to wins at a pace that will never be equaled – and he never came close to blinking.
“I’ve been able to be consistent most of my career and I’ve put myself up there with a chance to win on a number of occasions,” Woods said. “There’s plenty of times where I didn’t, but today was one of those days where I was going to pull it out.”
One week, one month, one year. Paths from valleys to peaks vary in length. But Woods’ victorious display in Japan should serve as another reminder that, when it comes to the now 82-time champ, there’s typically only one type of end result.
It was also a harrowing reminder to his peers both young and old that a vintage Tiger performance is sometimes only a week away.
“To battle through the injuries he’s dealt with, gosh, he’s young and he’s playing unbelievable,” Woodland said. “The ball-striking exhibition I’ve seen the last two days is a joke. So I don’t see him stopping anytime soon.”