Chapter 7: Return to Form
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Sidelined for eight months with leg and knee problems, Tiger bounced back in 2009 in typical dominant fashion to win another FedExCup
Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR
Had you sought to find a flaw in Tiger Woods’ golf game – at least in his prime – chances are you would have come up empty. He drove it long and very effectively, played long irons as well as anyone, had a killer short game, and putted brilliantly, especially when the pressure was on.
Pretty much, he was perfect.
But if you were determined to find a hiccup, you were safe with choosing Woods’ left knee. It was his soft spot going back to 1994 when as an 18-year-old, he had surgery to remove two benign tumors. Eight years later, Woods had surgery to remove fluid from around the ACL in that same knee and then in 2007 he ruptured that same ACL while running, though he chose to play through it.
Unfortunately, it all caught up to him in the spring of 2008 when he had arthroscopic surgery on the left knee, then was told by doctors he had stress fractures on the left tibia and needed to rest it.
That he came back after that short rest to win the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines is a part of golf folklore. But perhaps just as impressively is the fact he rebounded from nearly eight months on the sidelines to claim a second FedExCup title. Devoid of a major, it perhaps gets overshadowed, but this stretch certainly helped amp up the aura.
Win No. 66: March 29, 2009 – Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard
Tiger Woods wins 2009 Arnold Palmer Invitational
As the ground shook and the sun fell into the horizon, Woods’ longtime caddie, Steve Williams, leaned into the boss and screamed, “This feels like we hadn’t left.”
Indeed, if there was a place on the PGA TOUR landscape that offered a comfort zone, it was the 18th hole at Bay Hill. As he had done in 2001 and 2008, Woods made a birdie putt to win at this demanding finishing hole, in front of Palmer, no less, and so Zach Johnson had every reason to place tongue firmly in cheek.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him make a putt when he needed,” said Johnson.
For the record, it had been 286 days since Woods’ previous victory, the 2008 U.S. Open, though it had taken just three tournaments into the comeback season to post a win. So, yeah, Williams was right; it had to feel like they hadn’t left, much to the chagrin of Sean O’Hair, whose five-shot lead was made to disappear with Woods’ closing 67.
By the Numbers: Only PGA TOUR win where Tiger didn't play the par 5's under par (even for week).
Win No. 67: June 8, 2009 – the Memorial Tournament
Tiger Woods wins the Memorial Tournament 2009
With a closing 65 to wipe out a four-stroke deficit, Woods gives Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host, plenty of fodder. “I suspect (a 15th major championship) will come for Tiger Woods in about two weeks,” said Nicklaus, predicting a U.S. Open triumph.
OK, so we’re eight years later and still waiting for No. 15, but Nicklaus’ praise was well-grounded. Just ask beleaguered playing competitor Michael Letzig, who was paired with Woods and said: “I don’t know how to describe it. It was the best golf I’ve ever seen.”
Or ask Jim Furyk, who said the media was fueling this incredible comeback. “I just wish you all would just quit ticking him off … so he has to come back and keep proving stuff.”
Never one to shortchange the customers, Woods nails down the rally with an eagle at the par-5 11th, then approaches that scraped the sky and set up birdies at the 17th and 18th.
By the Numbers: Tiger hit every fairway in the final round, marking the only time in his career where he accomplished this feat in the final round of a PGA TOUR victory.
Win No. 68: July 5, 2009 – AT&T National
Tiger Woods wins 2009 AT&T National
No rally from behind needed this time, but Woods did have to shake a 54-hole tie with young and talented Anthony Kim.
Just don’t say that Woods – who closed with 67 to shake Kim and hold off Hunter Mahan’s scintillating 62 -- intimidated the bold and brash Kim. “You know, you can’t physically intimidate anybody,” Woods smiled.
Mahan suggested there was no great mystery to why Woods had moved right back into a winning mode. “He’s pretty good. He knows what he’s doing. He knows how to play this game better than anybody,” said Mahan.
As for Kim, he chalked it up to a learning experience. And just what did he learn? “That if you have a birdie putt, you better make it – especially on the last day,” he said. “Tiger obviously wins for a reason.”
By the Numbers: Tiger finished with a 2.69 Scoring Average on the par 3s, matching his second best Par 3 Scoring Average in his 77 stroke-play victories.
Win No. 69: Aug. 2, 2009 – Buick Open
Tiger Woods wins 2009 Buick Open
“You know,” conceded Vaughn Taylor, when asked about Tiger Woods, “he’s always on everyone’s mind.”
Even on Friday? Taylor smiled and nodded his head.
“I’m sure the closer we get to Sunday and the closer he gets to the top, guys always think about him.”
The conversation was prompted by vintage Woods; having opened with 71 to sit in a tie for 95th, Woods roared past 91 players with a sizzling 63 in Round 2. When he added a 65 on Saturday, he seized the lead, then produced a bogey-free 69 to nail down a three-stroke win, his third in this tournament at Warwick Hills.
So, yeah, Taylor had reason to speak the truth, and Aussie Greg Chalmers, one of those who tied for second, agreed with that assessment. “With any other player you might think there’s a chance, but with Tiger, he’s done it so regularly I think his peers know he’s going to close it out.”
By the Numbers: Was the 10th victory in the ShotLink era where Tiger was perfect from inside 5 feet.
Win No. 70: Aug. 9, 2009 – World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational
Tiger Woods wins 2009 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational
If the third-round 65 that pushed Woods into second place, just three off Padraig Harrington’s lead, wasn’t enough to give you a sense of the plot, then him playing the first five holes in Sunday’s final round in 4 under surely was. “What are you watching for?” Camilo Villegas said after his round to media members watching TV monitors in the scoring area. “You know what’s going to happen.”
Villegas nailed it, too, as Woods maintained that torrid pace and shot a second-straight 65 to rally past Harrington. He became the first player in history to win seven times on the same course (Firestone) and nailed down his 16th World Golf Championship.
“He could play this course left-handed and do well,” said Hunter Mahan.
True, Woods was helped immensely by Harrington, who made a triple-bogey at the par-5 16th against his opponent’s birdie.
Woods’ 70th career win came in just his 234th professional start, an utterly incredible winning percentage of 29.9.
By the Numbers: 21st career final round comeback victory. In his career Tiger has come-from-behind in the final round to win in 23 times.
Win No. 71: Sept. 13, 2009 – BMW Championship
Tiger Woods' all-universe birdie at 2009 BMW Championship
To the list of favorite playgrounds that treated Woods well, Cog Hill didn’t get proper respect, but it surely brought a smile to his face. A third-round 62 – which began with a bogey at the opening hole, too – propelled Woods into a seven-stroke lead, which had even veteran players searching for superlatives.
“I felt like we had a tournament within a tournament,” said Jim Furyk, who wound up T-2, a whopping eight back. “It was a tournament for second.”
Aussie Marc Leishman, who shared second with Furyk, was too agog over Woods to be stuck on the huge deficit. “He was amazing,” said Leishman, who earned the right to play in the final pairing alongside Woods for the first time in his career. That he was never in position to challenge Woods and get into contention to win didn’t really bother him, either. The experience was what he treasured, even if he never envisioned someone getting to 19 under.
“But I guess when you’ve got Tiger in the field, never say never,” Leishman said.
Given that Woods had won six of 17 starts in 2009, the sixth time in his career that he had won at least six times in a season, you never would have believed it would be more than two seasons before he’d win again. But that is the inexplicable way his career turned just weeks after this dominating win.
By the Numbers: Tiger won by 8 strokes, marking his 10th career victory by 8 or more strokes on TOUR.
Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.