Tiger Woods wins a golf tournament. Half a dozen words once uttered with seamless regularity had vanished from golf’s vernacular amid years of personal, physical and professional turmoil for arguably the finest player this sport has ever seen. History was made on Sunday evening on the outskirts of Atlanta as Woods – by two shots – delivered PGA Tour victory number 80.
He was even cantering towards first place at the Tour Championship before a couple of late stumbles which ultimately proved immaterial. Thousands of fans swarmed the final fairway as Woods entered his victory march.
Pictures and numbers endorse the scale of Woods’s latest triumph which, while not his best, is surely his most significant. In May last year, images of a woefully dishevelled Woods were beamed across the world following an arrest for driving under the influence. This marked a nadir amid recovery from a fourth back surgery which left onlookers to question whether Woods would ever play competitive golf again. The last laugh? Woods had cause for hysterics with a par on the 18th, which gave him a 71, and 11 under par total at East Lake. Fears for his career, as candidly articulated by Woods himself, proved so woefully unfounded. Billy Horschel, with a fine 66, finished second, two shots behind.
Ten months ago, Woods was 1,193rd in the world rankings. Precisely 1,876 days had passed between win numbers 79 and 80. Since his 2013 success at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, 118 different individuals had claimed PGA Tour trophies from a total of 239 events. In his darkest moments, Woods could not even sit at a dinner table.
One statistic, however, proved the most pertinent of all. Woods had held 54-hole leads of three shots or more 23 times before his latest, beautiful Georgia Sunday. Every time, Woods had won. Starting from a position of three clear of Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy here, Woods eased towards a record of 24 out of 24. McIlroy, Rose, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Tommy Fleetwood – the best players in the world – had no answer to what ultimately become a dominant Woods display. Parallels between what transpired at East Lake and Woods in his all-conquering prime were as legitimate as they were inevitable.
Woods once famously remarked “Honey, this is what we do” to his wife, Elin, amid disappointment that the golfer wasn’t in the mood to properly celebrate a tournament success. For so long, this was what he did. And yet, as 2018 developed in golfing context, it was plain Woods still had the professional tools to win again. He had close shaves for a 15th major title at the Open and US PGA Championships. Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour wins has always been a more sizeable Woods goal than widely recognised and is now so tantalisingly within view.
Almost as striking as the fact Woods won was the ease with which glory arose. He was unflappable, apparently unperturbed – and perhaps even inspired – by the scale of what lay in front of him.
A converted birdie putt from 10ft on the 1st set the tone. McIlroy, playing alongside his one-time idol, and Rose couldn’t lay a glove on the champion. The scale of McIlroy’s stumble was particularly curious; he played the front nine in 39, the round in 74, for a share of seventh.
Woods had brief trouble on the 6th, where he could only advance a greenside chip around two feet from treacherous rough. He still saved par. He couldn’t do that at the 10th, where a blocked drive meant no direct angle to the green. Even that mattered little as Rose, then his closest challenger, simultaneously dropped a shot at the 11th.
Woods’s birdie at the 13th meant a five-shot lead. He couldn’t lose from there; and duly didn’t despite bogeys at the 15th and 16th.
Galleries, stretching to 15 deep in places, roared and hollered their delight. The key element to Woods as such a prominent figure again relates to what it means for him but there is a broader, serious benefit to his sport. It was Woods who brought, and continues to bring, golf to the masses. And unlike earlier in his career, when Woods was always respected but rarely loved, fans audibly want him to win.
Rose, who birdied the 18th to tie for fourth, has the reasonable consolation for falling short at East Lake of the $10m FedEx Cup bonus. How Rose, McIlroy and company cope with a resurgent Woods will prove a fascinating subplot to the Ryder Cup, which starts on Friday.
The plane carrying the United States team to Paris for that event had a long evening wait in Atlanta as Woods completed duties that go along with a return to the podium. On that transatlantic path, it is hoped Woods reflected on another, sometimes tortuous journey. He has delivered one of sport’s greatest comeback tales.