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Newsmaker of the Year: No. 1, Tiger Woods

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Let’s be honest: Tiger Woods could – and probably should – be our No. 1 Newsmaker every year.

No one generates more pageviews, video starts or social-media interactions. He’s THE needle-mover, powering the conversation in our sport, every year, no matter whether he’s bedridden or a bona fide contender.

And yet, for whatever reason, a transcendent talent like Tiger hasn’t topped this list since 2011. Maybe it was because we tried to pay off the Player of the Year. (Justin Thomas, 2017.) Perhaps it was because we tried to shine a light on a big-picture topic. (Controversy, 2013.) But Woods’ everlasting star power was such that he still managed to crack our top 10 each of the past two tumultuous years, despite competing in a grand total of two official events.

So what would happen if he played a full schedule again? What would happen if he didn’t suffer another soul-crushing setback? What would happen if maybe, just maybe, he captured long-awaited PGA Tour title No. 80, in a storybook end to his season?

Well, that year would look exactly like his improbable and exhilarating and euphoric 2018, when Woods reclaimed his rightful spot atop our list of headliners – no lengthy justification necessary.

To appreciate where Woods is now – No. 13 in the world, seemingly pain-free, on the verge of his 43rd birthday – it’s necessary to recall where he’s been, because not even the most delusional Tiger supporters could have dreamed up this blast from the past.

After all, your trusty correspondent covered Woods’ much-hyped return in January at Torrey Pines – his first official round in 356 days – and it provided little insight into the complete player he’d once again become. That week he somehow shot par or better all four rounds, despite hitting a career-low 30 percent of his fairways. Yet that week there were two main takeaways: 1.) He didn’t reinjure himself hacking out of juicy rough, and 2.) his short game appeared sharp, putting to rest any memories of those horrifying chip-yips. Healthy and no longer haunted, yes, Woods could work with that.

Improvement throughout the year was slow, but noticeable. He continued to tweak his equipment. He tightened up his ball-striking. In mid-March, he even gave himself a chance to win, but he wasn’t ready for the moment. Not yet, anyway. He played cautiously during that final round in Tampa, never more so than on the brutally difficult 72nd hole, where he laid back off the tee with iron and never had a chance for a tying birdie.

Newsmakers of the Year: Full list and reveal dates

That was the start of a series of confounding back-nine stumbles for the game’s supreme closer: His out-of-bounds tee shot on 16 at Bay Hill; his back-nine retreat at TPC Sawgrass; his double bogey-bogey run as soon as he took the lead at Carnoustie; his wayward, 71st-hole tee shot at Bellerive; his final-round slog at Aronimink. Sure, this was a hell of a comeback story, but for much of the summer, a complex question lingered: Has Tiger lost his superpowers?

Woods’ aura of invincibility was shattered in late 2009, but this year he appeared decidedly less guarded. He was more candid in interview settings. He welcomed the new generation of talent that had worshipped him for years. He bonded with longtime nemesis Phil Mickelson, even playing tournament practice rounds with him with an eye toward inking a deal for last month’s $9 million, pay-per-view showdown.

For longtime Tiger observers, the contrast was startling. At his best, Woods was a laser-focused automaton, a presence so intimidating that his playing partners often looked at the ground when he swung, so they wouldn’t be demoralized. But in 2018 he showed a more human side, and everyone from his peers to his insane legion of fans gravitated toward him like never before.

Examples abound: His title bid at the normally sleepy Valspar event produced better TV ratings than all but one of the 2017 majors. His gallery at the PGA was dozens deep. Fans wore furry Tiger suits (even in 100-degree heat) and MAKE TIGER GREAT AGAIN T-shirts. Several times throughout the year his mere positioning on the course was enough to jam up area cell-phone towers. Woods’ popularity perhaps at an all-time high, other players openly rooted for his return to prominence – a bizarre thought for those who had been beaten and bruised during Woods’ dozen years of oppression.

Still, all of those feel-good vibes couldn’t obscure the fact that Mr. Nice Guy now had a closing problem, and everyone knew it. Careers are defined by the stretch between holes 63 and 72. No one knew that better than Woods.

For the first time since 2013, he qualified for the season-ending Tour Championship, which gathered the top 30 players of the season. It’s a low-buzz event because only a handful are motivated: The top 5, of course, have 11.6 million reasons to care, but Woods also had plenty of incentive, for it offered one last chance to cap his resurgent year with a cathartic victory.

And so finally, at the tail-end of a surprisingly lengthy year, Woods put it all together and broke the finish-line tape: His scaled-back driver kept him in the fairway, his iron game looked vintage, and his occasionally erratic putter behaved. In one of the most unforgettable scenes of his legendary career, a 42-year-old Woods strode down East Lake’s 18th fairway with tens of thousands of delirious fans streaming behind him, cellphones raised.

At last we could say it, without hesitation: He was back.

Truly, legitimately back.

For how much longer, hey, who knows? But no one will forget watching Woods in 2018 – and that’s long been the hallmark of golf’s ultimate newsmaker.