Chapter 9: The Great Comeback, Part II
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After four back surgeries, including the spinal fusion surgery in the spring of 2017, Tiger shows he still knows how to win
Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR
For all the times during the 2017-18 season when it was mentioned how Tiger Woods was working on his seventh winless season since 2009, a voice in the back of your head begged perspective. The winless campaigns of 2010-11 and 2014-17 had involved a grand total of just 40 tournaments, for goodness sakes, and there had been a litany of issues, most of them circled around injuries.
But this comeback in 2017-18? It just felt so different, starting with the fact he teed it up in 18 PGA TOUR tournaments, the most since 2012, and continuing into his competitive pulse, which was alive and throbbing like it hadn’t been in years. In those other seasons when he hadn’t won, Woods had rarely gotten into the mix, with just five top-10s, but never a second or third.
In the early months of 2018, however, he was competitive in two of his first three starts, then came a pair of Florida stops – the Valspar Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard– when he went deep into Sunday with a flicker of hope. Other top 10s followed, including The Open Championship when he seized the outright lead in the final round, then in August it nearly all came together at the PGA Championship, when he finished second, his best finish in five seasons.
He was close. No one had to say it; everyone could feel it.
Trouble is, the ladder of a 2017-18 season was on its last rung when Woods arrived at his first TOUR Championship since 2013.
Win No. 80: Sept. 13, 2018 – TOUR Championship
Tiger Woods wins 2018 TOUR Championship
It was easily forgotten that Woods opened this tournament with a bogey when he concluded his first-round 65 with an eagle at the par-5 18th. And as ho-hum as his second-round 68 was to again share the lead, a third round that featured an electric six birdies in the first seven holes seemingly had everyone thinking we were in a Woods time tunnel.
“I wasn’t sure he’d play again, much less have a chance to win,” marveled heralded swing coach Butch Harmon.
Building a three-stroke lead after his second round of 65 in three days, Woods made David Duval sound prophetic. Earlier in the season, to all the young stars who opined how they wanted Woods to return to form so they could play against the best at his best, Duval shook his head and cautioned: “The hell you do.”
True, Woods hit some turbulence down the stretch with bogeys at the 15th and 16th holes, but his final-round 71 for 11-under 269 did more than record a two-stroke win. It unleashed a scene like few had ever seen, one that was reminiscent of those days of The Open Championship when spectators were given the right to follow in behind the final golfers on the march toward the 18th green.
“I’ve played here a handful of times and never seen crowds like this,” Keegan Bradley told reporters, in awe of the thousands of fans who filled the 18th fairway behind Woods and Rory McIlroy. “I’ve never seen half this many people. That’s a small example of what he does.”
The Twitter world was filled with praise from fellow sports icons – from Jack Nicklaus to Emmitt Smith to Michael Phelps – and Woods’ peers stuck around to offer their respect.
“It wasn’t whether he could win,” said Rickie Fowler. “It was whether he could stay healthy.”
And from Justin Rose, who cemented his victory as season-long FedExCup Champion and understood why it took second billing: “I think that we’ve all been waiting for him to win, and we’ve been wanting him to win.”
As a result, Tiger’s chase of Sam Snead’s record has resumed.
By the Numbers: Tiger Woods has now won five different PGA TOUR events in three different decades (1990s, 2000s & 2010s).
Win No. 81 – April 14, 2019, Masters
Tiger Woods' 81 victories on PGA TOUR
History will always note about the 2019 Masters that for the first time ever, tournament officials pushed up tee times in the final round to combat dangerous afternoon weather.
Little did the officials know they were turning back the years, too, to a time when an incomparable force dominated the PGA TOUR.
But Xander Schauffele was among those who took note.
“I just witnessed history,” he gushed, and he wasn’t referring to the round of 4-under 68 that he shot to finish in a tie for second in his second Masters. No, he was shining the spotlight on Tiger Woods, who trailed after each of the first three rounds, then closed with a 2-under 70 to win by one.
“With what we just witnessed with Tiger coming off 18, it was a throwback, seeing him in red. It’s what I saw as a kid, and it was just really cool to know him a little bit now and congratulate him coming off 18.”
It was Woods’ fifth green jacket, but there had been a gap of 14 years since his previous one. It was Woods’ 15th major championship, but there had been a gap of 11 years since his previous one. To Brooks Koepka, though, it provided a resounding message, that the gap in his career has been completely closed.
Said Koepka, when asked what the first come-from-behind major victory of Woods’ career means: “Eighteen is, I think, closer than people think.”
The message was clear. Now just three behind Jack Nicklaus’ record for most major championships (18), Woods is back on the chase. And with TOUR win No. 81, he’s nipping at Sneed’s heels, too.
Win No. 82: October 28, 2019 – ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
Re-visiting Tiger Woods’ 82nd PGA TOUR win at 2019 ZOZO Championship
You could travel the roughly 5,000 miles from Las Vegas to Tokyo in 12 hours by air. Or, for a more historic and athletically compelling route, it is possible to journey 23 years, 354 PGA TOUR tournaments, and meander through countless peaks and valleys.
Tiger Woods chose the latter and it could be said that an endless line of global golf fans are thrilled that he did, captivated as they have been on so many occasions by the man’s competitive genius. Just 20 years old when he won the Las Vegas Invitational on Oct. 6, 1996, in his fifth PGA TOUR start, Woods is now 43 as he savors the spotlight following his triumph in the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP to pull even with the legendary Sam Snead for career wins.
What is sandwiched between TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas and Accordia Golf Narashino CC outside of Tokyo, of course, are incomparable accomplishments too-many-to-count, but it’s the latest entry that deserves our full attention.
He achieved his 82nd win in his 359th start, opposed to Snead, who was 52 when he won No. 82 in his 425th start. But that minutia aside, this was the eighth time in his illustrious career Woods won his first tournament of the season and the fact he showed serious rust – he was choppy in a Skins Game on Monday, then started Round 1 of the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP bogey-bogey-bogey – is a tribute to his patience and uncanny understanding of the competitive arena.
He followed his awful start Thursday with nine birdies over his final 14 holes to share the lead at 64 with Gary Woodland. What followed was a performance worthy of another chapter in his legend, rounds of 64-66-67 that threw the rabid Japanese fans into a serious quandary. On the one hand, Woods (19-under 261) fought off the local hero, Hideki Matsuyama (16-under), who became the 76th different player to finish second to Woods in a PGA TOUR tournament; but forget nationalism, this was history they got to witness, and in the first-ever PGA TOUR tournament held in this golf-crazy country, no less.
Talk about a grand entrance.
“It was loud. It was very loud,” said Woods, who hadn’t played in Japan since 2006. “The people here in Japan have come out and supported this event and it’s been a lot of fun to play in front of them again.”
Though he was playing for the first time since having minor knee surgery in mid-August, Woods treated fans to a ball-striking clinic (he hit 55 of 72 greens, 76.39 percent, T-3) and vintage putting (he averaged 1.636 per green in regulation, second-best) and led by three at 54 holes. Forced to play his final seven holes Monday morning, Woods re-started with a bogey, but minutes after Matsuyama missed a 6-foot birdie try at the par-5 14th that would have cut the deficit to one, Woods was center-cut with a 12-footer at that same hole to get back in front by three.
Never has he lost a 54-hole lead with at least a three-shot lead and Woods wasn’t about to do that with just four holes to play. Not with tens of thousands of Japanese fans noting his every move, not with a global audience watching, and most assuredly not with a history he has been stalking for 23 years at stake.
Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.