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Perhaps not a career year, but a life-changing one for Tiger

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NASSAU, Bahamas – On paper, Tiger Woods’ 2018 just doesn’t compare.

By any measure – be it money earned, events won or majors collected – Tiger’s 22nd season on the PGA Tour as a professional doesn’t even rank inside his top 10 best calendars, but that’s where the numbers and nuanced sentimentality diverge.

For the record, the guy in red and black won once in ’18, finished runner-up twice, failed to win a major and earned a cool $5.4 million. For most, that’s a career year. For Tiger, it might be his 12th- or 13th-best campaign depending on how you measure success.

But that box score ignores so much.

As Tiger and the golf world settle into what passes for an off-season with this week’s Hero World Challenge it’s easy to reminisce back to a time when there were no shortage of opinions and virtually no answers.

A year ago at Albany, Woods was preparing for his first competitive event, albeit an unofficial frame on forgiving and familiar course against a limited field, since going under the surgeon’s knife for his fourth back procedure.

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He was optimistic when he arrived in the Bahamas for what was his first competitive event since February, talking of renewed health and a joy that hadn’t been there for so long. But he was also cautious after having endured his share of full stops along the way to what some thought might be his final chance.

“Last year was a moving target – let's try and make it through the West Coast, let's try and make it to Augusta. It was always something,” he said.

Tiger tied for ninth at last year’s Hero World Challenge, a finish that was widely regarded as a success. It was as much a testament to how far he’d fallen as it was his competitive future. For Woods, it was one of many benchmarks back to competitive relevance. At the time he ranked 668th in the World Golf Ranking – jump of over 500 spots before the week began.

On Tuesday at Albany, he settled into his role as host ranked 13th in the world – but even that statistical scorecard glosses over how significant 2018 was for Tiger.

After so many years of doubt and debilitating pain, Tiger proved to himself, the only person who really matters, that he could compete again.

“Probably the most rewarding [year], because there was a point where I just didn't know if I would ever do this again,” he said. “You look at this entire year, it literally was a process. You saw me have flashes, and then I would rework a few things here and there. Towards the end of the year I just became more and more consistent as a tournament player.”

Taken individually, each step in the process falls flat when it comes to historical comparisons.

His runner-up showing at the Valspar Championship in March was encouraging, but he still failed to birdie the last hole to force a playoff with Paul Casey.

The next week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his title chances sailed left on Sunday at the 16th hole and out of bounds. And in July, a sloppy back nine cost him a chance of running down Francesco Molinari at The Open. But if his victory in September at the Tour Championship was the high-water mark, it was his also-ran at Carnoustie that aligned Tiger’s passion with his performance.

“Taking the lead at the Open Championship, that was just the rush of it all, of fighting my way up to that lead,” he said. “I was playing my own game and my game plan was to put myself there with a chance and win the golf tournament. And I did that, I just didn't win the golf tournament. Looking back on the Open Championship, that gave me a lot of confidence to go into the end of the summer because I was able to formulate a game plan.”

By comparison, last year when he embarked on this most recent comeback there was no game plan, at least not one he was willing to talk about. Twelve months ago, Tiger dismissed any expectations and balked when asked to predict how his year might go. On Tuesday, with retrospect on his side, he offered what may be the most striking assessment of his year when asked if he needs to win a major to complete his comeback.

“I wouldn't say so, no,” Woods shrugged. “Just being able to win a golf tournament again considering where I was at this point last year and before that point, I think what I've accomplished this year has been pretty special.”

What he accomplished in ’18 will likely be footnotes when the final chapter is written about Woods’ competitive life, crucial moments that will be lost amid a resume with 14 majors and 80 Tour titles (and counting). This past campaign will never rival those years when it seemed like he couldn’t lose, but for Tiger it was the most rewarding year of his career.