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Tiger Woods wins TOUR Championship to break five-year win drought

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Tiger Woods wins TOUR Championship to break five-year win drought

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    Tiger Woods' 80 victories on PGA TOUR

    ATLANTA - The wait is over.

    Tiger Woods shot a final-round 71 to win the TOUR Championship at East Lake for his 80th PGA TOUR victory and first since the 2013 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational.

    “I had a hard time not crying coming up the last hole,” Woods said.

    Billy Horschel (66) finished second at 9-under, two back.

    “He put in so much work,” said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. “People have no idea.”

    With the victory, Woods inched closer to all-time TOUR victories leader Sam Snead (82) and completed one of the most improbable comebacks in sports.

    He hugged his caddie and walked off the green into the embrace of his girlfriend, Erica Herman, and was congratulated by a group of players including Billy Horschel, Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas.

    “The people who are close to me saw the struggles and what I was going through, and some of the players that I'm pretty close to, they've really helped throughout this process,” Woods said. “Their support and some of those things that they said coming off that last green meant a lot.”

    Justin Rose spent the day in the trees, but a clutch birdie at the 18th hole, where he hit the green in two, gave him the FedExCup victory as he shot 73 to finish T4. (For more on Rose’s FedExCup win, click here.)

    Rory McIlroy, playing with Woods, also struggled as he shot 74 to finish T7.

    Woods won for the 43rd time in 45 chances after holding the solo 54-hole lead, and has now won all 24 tournaments he’s led by three or more going into the last round. He had already posted six top-10s this season when it all came together at East Lake.

    “The last two months he’s played phenomenal,” caddie LaCava said. “Where he’s finished in tournaments is not a reflection of how he’s played. I can go back three or four tournaments that he could have won, possible should have won. We talked about it last week. I said two things: You’ve got to work on your bunker game, and you’ve got one more shot. Let’s give it a go.”

    Woods was 7/9 at getting up and down from the sand at East Lake, third best in the field, but that was misleading. After being followed by a mob of fans down the 18th fairway, and hitting his second shot into the front bunker, he wasn’t trying to get up and down. He merely had to avoid blading his bunker shot over the fence and he would win, assuming he didn’t four-putt.

    Woods tied for third in driving accuracy, crucial given the thick rough at East Lake; was first in scrambling (17/24); and was second in Strokes Gained: Putting.

    Paul Casey spoke for many when he was asked if he thought Woods would ever make it back.

    “I hoped we would,” Casey said, “but there were times when I thought probably not.”

    Woods showed up for Sunday’s final round wearing a muscle shirt and his cap on backward, his signature red shirt on a hanger. He changed into his golf clothes, warmed up, made his way to the first tee to a thundering ovation, and piped his drive down the fairway on the way to a birdie.

    “I figured if I shot anything under par I would win,” he said.

    When he bogeyed 15 and 16, Woods’ lead was just two over Horschel, but he saved par from behind the 17th green and salted away the win with an uneventful 18th, other than the crowd.

    “That scene on 18, I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Sean Foley, Woods’ former coach, who still works with Rose. “The thing now that is so different is (Woods) is embracing all that love in the atmosphere. That’s a lot of energy around that green. Why would you not use it?

    “I’m so glad for Tiger,” Foley added. “I’m so glad to see the story go that way. The gallery—the world is full of people, who like to see a comeback story because we are all coming back from something.”

    This was a season of comebacks, with players like Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey, Gary Woodland, Kevin Na and Keegan Bradley breaking victory droughts. Woods, though, had reached higher highs—79 wins, 14 majors, 11 PGA TOUR Player of the Year awards—and lower lows.

    “There's really nothing I can look forward to,” he said in December, 2015, when he was in the throes of back pain that ran down his legs and forced him to go under the knife four times.

    To come all the way back, Woods said more than once this year, was amazing even before he won. For years, his public appearances had been mostly on behalf of his foundation, tournaments and golf courses. He spoke at Presidents Cups and Ryder Cups, as an assistant to U.S. captains.

    He planned a comeback in 2017, but missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open, flew to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and opened with a 5-over 77. It would mark yet one more false start in a series of them, and Woods withdrew prior to his second-round tee time in Dubai. He scuttled plans to play in the Genesis Open and The Honda Classic, and underwent spinal fusion in April.

    “Even lying down hurt,” he said in May, 2017, when the closest he could come to playing golf was watching it on TV. “I had nerve pain with anything I did and was at the end of my rope.”

    He wanted to be able to play with his kids. That was all.

    “Probably the low point was not knowing if I'd ever be able to live pain-free again,” he said Sunday. “Am I going to be able to sit, stand, walk, lay down without feeling the pain that I was in? I just didn't want to live that way. This is how the rest of my life is going to be?”

    Thomas and Rickie Fowler went to Woods’ house during the off-season, engaging their host in chipping contests. Those gave way to practice rounds, Woods mindful of taking it slow. He had to get his speed back, but he also had to learn to trust his body again, and figure out a swing.

    When he returned to competition at the unofficial Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, last December, and tied for ninth in the 18-man field, there was no sign of the chipping problems that plagued him in 2015. He got raves from even some of his toughest critics.

    He made his first official start this season at the Farmers Insurance Open.

    “I have no more pain in my back,” he said at Torrey Pines. “My back is fused.”

    He fought to make the cut, the first time he’d played on the weekend on TOUR since the 2015 Wyndham Championship, ultimately finishing T23. It was a start.

    He missed the cut at the Genesis Open at Riviera, but later called it a turning point when he felt well enough to add a tournament: the Valspar Championship outside Tampa. He finished T12 at The Honda Classic, and tied for second behind Casey at the Valspar.

    Something about this comeback looked different.

    The Florida Swing would bring not only a sniff at his 80th victory but also a T5 (Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard) and T11 at THE PLAYERS Championship. Woods played in the Masters for the first time since 2015, but didn’t contend. He began swapping out putters like every other golfer on the planet. He changed shafts in his driver. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open, bounced back at the Quicken Loans National (T4), and briefly held the final-round lead at The Open Championship (T6) before playing partner Francesco Molinari prevailed.

    Finally, it all came together—all the rehab, all the equipment changes. Woods finished second to Brooks Koepka at the PGA Championship, delighting a massive throng in St. Louis.

    There was no denying it now: The comeback was for real. A win was imminent.

    The numbers had been frozen in time—79 PGA TOUR victories, among them 14 majors—but now there was anticipation. Jack Nicklaus had won the Masters and a yippy Johnny Miller the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am at 46. Okay, they hadn’t had such a drastic back operation, but hadn’t Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl at 39 after cervical neck fusion?

    Woods was going to do it, and he finally did so winning from ahead, just like old times.

    “Yeah, to kind of get to the 80 mark is a big number,” he said. “Sam is still ahead of me. I've still got, I feel like, a chance to play some more golf and maybe I'll keep chipping away at that number and maybe surpass it. But I just think that what I've gone through and what I've dealt with, I've gotten lucky, to be honest with you. I've gotten very lucky.”

    Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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