CHIBA, Japan – Davis Love III doesn’t watch golf on TV. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy the action, it’s just that, like many professional athletes, Love doesn’t really do inactivity.
If Love isn’t playing golf he’s normally practicing or getting ready to practice, but late Sunday he enthusiastically embraced the role of couch potato. “Oh, I’m going to watch it all,” he gushed.
Love wasn’t alone. With Tiger Woods seven holes away from history at the Zozo Championship the entire golf world settled in for the finish.
Leading by three strokes, Woods was on the cusp of tying Sam Snead for most PGA Tour victories. It was must-see TV even for those who set out just past daybreak at Narashino Country Club to complete the weather-delayed first-year event.
One by one, players completed their rounds and, one by one, they found a TV or leaderboard to follow the final few holes of Woods’ historic march.
Rory McIlroy, who returned to the course Monday with just one-and-a-half holes to play, made up ground with back-to-back birdies to finish his week tied for third place, but he was more focused on the player atop the leaderboard.
“It’s amazing what he keeps doing with the comebacks – the Tour Championship, the Masters, here, it’s incredible,” McIlroy said. “He does things that people really can’t comprehend and no one can really understand apart from himself and I think that’s the reason he does these things, because he thinks and dreams of things that other people don’t think are possible.”
Although Woods has always been reluctant to publicly acknowledge how much Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships has driven him, he has alluded to Snead’s mark as motivation in recent years.
He admitted Monday in Japan that he began eyeing the all-time victories record when he inched “north of 50 [wins]” on the career list. But it was just past victory No. 79, the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, that things became interesting.
A mountain of injuries slowed his pursuit of Snead, before he finally ended a title drought that had stretched more than five years with his triumph at last year’s Tour Championship.
“I went through some rough patches with my back and didn't play for a number of years, so that record seemed like it was out of reach,” said Woods, who closed with a 67 for a three-stroke victory over Hideki Matsuyama. “Having had my fourth back procedure and being able to come back and play at a decently high level again, it put the number back in the conversation again. Lo and behold, here we are tied [with Snead].”
It’s a juncture in his career that just a few years ago seemed unlikely. He managed to play just seven events in 2014 and only once in 2017 on Tour, and even after his victory in April at the Masters it was clear this version of Tiger Woods was not nearly as consistent or dependable as in his prime.
That he’d undergone knee surgery this off-season and arrived in Japan having not played since being bounced out of the playoffs before the Tour Championship only added to the uncertainty of the moment.
Always the showman, Woods started the week with three consecutive bogeys and appeared headed to what would understandably amount to a rehab start following nine weeks of competitive inactivity. He played his final 69 holes like a man on a mission, opening a two-stroke lead with back-to-back rounds of 64 and enduring a grueling 29-hole Sunday to set up Monday’s sprint.
Neither his fourth knee surgery nor a typhoon, a storm named Bualoi which washed out Friday’s play, would deny Woods his piece of history or another check on the eternal list.
“It’s only the major conversation to think about someone arguing that he’s not the greatest ever to play the game. It’s an incredible feat,” Jordan Spieth said.
It’s also a benchmark that defies modern comparison. Consider that Snead was 52 when he won No. 82 at the 1965 Greensboro event and very much in the twilight of his career. By comparison Woods is a well-travelled 43-year-old who has looked both ageless and aged in 2019.
Although it’s always dependent on Woods’ health, following his ball-striking exhibition at the Zozo Championship, victory No. 83 could be just a start away, which likely won’t come until early next year at Torrey Pines.
“It’s incredible. Having played 20 years I just can’t imagine winning 82 golf tournaments,” Charles Howell III said. “I think 82 top-10s is a heck of a career.”
No one had a better view of the historic finish than Gary Woodland, who was grouped with Woods for the final two rounds. He’d played with Tiger before and knew enough golf history to not allow himself to get distracted by the moment, but even for Woodland this was worth watching.
“The ball-striking exhibition I've seen the last two days is a joke. I don't see him stopping anytime soon,” Woodland said. “Eighty-two's pretty special. I think there's a lot more in store.”
As players congregated around TVs in the clubhouse to watch the finish, Joel Dahmen ventured out to the 18th green. He’d completed his round nearly an hour earlier but wanted to witness the moment for himself.
“How many times are you going to get a chance to see this? Never, right,” Dahmen said with a smile.
Dahmen’s reaction was understandable, but innocently incorrect. Woods never set out to tie Snead, the real moment will come when he eclipses the all-time victory mark. That will be truly historic.