Chapter 8: The Great Comeback, Part I
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Nearly 2-1/2 years removed from his last win and challenged like never before, Tiger makes a dominant return to form
Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR
He had been down this road before, unfortunately, but that gave Tiger Woods the proper perspective. It was, he said, blanketed in optimism, this return to competition after months on the sidelines.
“I think that what’s exciting is, before the break that I was forced to take off, I felt good about where my game was,” said Woods, who returned to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February of 2012, having not played since October. A brief respite, but one that Woods felt he needed “to get healthy.” The 2010 and 2011 seasons had been rough, physically and mentally, the first winless campaigns of his brilliant career.
It prompted plenty of stories of his demise, which he embraced as motivation like he never had before. When he arrived at Pebble Beach, a different sort of entrance for him to a season, for sure, Woods would remind anyone who mentioned his winless skid that he had, by the way, triumphed at the Chevron World Challenge in December.
He was right, of course. But for the record, the media reminded Woods that he had not won on the PGA TOUR since September of 2009. Begrudgingly, he let the media have its say – then he set out to give them other storylines to write.
Storylines that sounded awfully familiar.
Win No. 72: March 25, 2012 – Arnold Palmer Invitational
For the record, it had been 30 months and 923 days since Woods’ last victory, the BMW Championship of 2009, but he measured it differently. “It’s been a lot of hard work,” he said after rounds of 69-65-71-70 provided a five-stroke triumph.
Woods had become accustomed to winning almost at will, so after his 2010 and ‘11 seasons -- zero top-10s in a combined 21 starts -- it was a shock to his system and his confidence.
But on this week, “he was a man on a mission,” said caddie Joe LaCava and the fact that Bay Hill was such a comfortable arena didn’t hurt. In the end, it was his seventh triumph at Arnold Palmer’s home club, though this one might have meant the most, given the emotional ride Woods had taken.
From where he sat, alongside Woods in the final pairing, Graeme McDowell appreciated the moment. “Great to have a front-row seat watching maybe the greatest of all-time doing what he does best – winning golf tournaments,” said the 2010 U.S. Open champion.
By the Numbers: Was the 6th event in the ShotLink era where Tiger ranked inside the top 5 in SG: Approach & SG: Putting in a stroke-play victory.
Win No. 73: June 3, 2012 – Memorial Tournament
Tiger Woods recounts iconic shot from 2012 Memorial
For the third time in his career, Woods follows a win in Arnold Palmer’s tournament with a victory in Jack Nicklaus’ event. Only by doing so, Woods pulled even on the career victory list with Nicklaus himself and that provided some good banter.
“Boy,” said Nicklaus, “he had to rub it in my face right here, didn’t he?”
Then, he laughed and grew serious. “If he’s going to do it, which he was obviously going to do, I’d like to see it happen here.”
It was a most improbable victory, too, as Woods trailed Rory Sabbatini by two strokes with three holes to play. At the par-3 16th, Woods hit a delicate flop shot from a brutal lie and watched it go in. “The most unbelievable, gutsy shot I’ve ever seen,” Nicklaus said on television. A par at 17 was followed by a birdie on 18, and when Sabbatini played those final three holes in 1-over, Woods won.
“It’s obvious,” said Woods’ playing competitor, Rickie Fowler, “he loves being in the moment.”
By the Numbers: This was Tiger's 5th win at the Memorial Tournament in 13 starts.
Win No. 74: July 1, 2012 – AT&T National
Tiger Woods wins 2012 AT&T National
If you want a heavy dose of “the Tiger factor,” consider how a runner-up, usually dejected to tears, could see things this way when the battle has been lost to Tiger Woods:
“That’s why you travel 30 weeks a year, why you get up in the morning, and why you make the sacrifices that you do,” said Bo Van Pelt. “To have the opportunity to play the best player in the world in the final round with a chance to win a tournament.”
He had started the final round tied with Woods, but fell short, 69-71. Still, Van Pelt held his head high. “I was looking forward to it.”
With the victory, Woods moved into solo second on the career win list, trailing only Sam Snead, but he chose to focus only on what these wins in 2012 meant. “I remember there was a time when people were saying I could never win again,” he said.
By the Numbers: The win pushed Tiger past Jack Nicklaus for 2nd on the all-time PGA TOUR victories list.
Win No. 75: Jan. 27, 2013 – Farmers Insurance Open
Tiger Woods wins 2013 Farmers Insurance Open
It is a lengthy list, the young golfers who experienced the bumps and bruises that come with being paired with Woods on the weekend and two more names were added at Torrey Pines: Brad Fritsch and Erik Compton.
Starting four (Fritsch) and five (Compton) back of Woods was a tall task for the final round, and both stumbled home with 75. Ah, but the experience. Priceless.
“I handled playing in front of Tiger,” smiled Fritsch, who finished T-9. As for Compton, he of the incredible perspective that goes with being a two-time heart-transplant patient, there was this: “We’re all thrown into this environment and we’re kids compared to him.”
Seizing the lead with a second-round 65 on the North Course, Woods built a four-stroke lead through 54 holes and still won by that many, despite playing the final five holes in 4 over. It was seventh time he began his calendar year with a win and gave him eight victories at Torrey Pines.
As for putting the turbulence of 2010-11 completely behind him and building on the momentum of 2012, Woods delivered a message “to the golf world and the other players,” said Nick Faldo. “He’s back.”
By the Numbers: This was Tiger's 7th title at the Farmers Insurance Open, three more than the next player (Mickelson has three wins).
Win No. 76: March 10, 2013 – WGC-Cadillac Championship
Tiger Woods wins 2013 WGC-Cadillac Championship
Frustrated with his putting, Woods turned to longtime friend – and heralded putter – Steve Stricker for some assistance. Scores of 66-65-67 were swiftly returned and Graeme McDowell, one of those who fruitlessly chased Woods at the Doral Resort, had to laugh.
“That was nice of (Stricker). I’m sure he’s regretting that lesson right now,” said the Northern Irishman, who patiently fielded all the questions about his third-round pairing with Woods. Given that Woods had built a four-stroke lead, McDowell understandably showered praise. Then, he realized Woods was standing nearby, so McDowell laughed again. “OK, that’s enough of that.”
Stricker echoed that sentiment after Woods closed with a pedestrian 71 to win by two. “You don’t have a lot of belief that he’s going to come back to the field,” said Stricker, who finished second. “His attitude looks very similar to what he was in the early 2000s.”
By the Numbers: Tiger needed just 100 total putts, his best performance in any of his four-round stroke play victories.
Win No. 77: March 24, 2013 – Arnold Palmer Invitational
Tiger Woods wins 2013 Arnold Palmer Invitational
“His intensity is the same on Thursday afternoon as it is on Sunday – and that makes Sunday a lot less different for him.”
So said Justin Rose, who joined a long parade of golfers who through the years has been asked for the secret formula to Woods’ magic. It continued at a favorite venue, Bay Hill, where 69-70-66 put him into the lead and a final-round 70 that started on Sunday and finished on Monday morning was good for his eighth win at Arnie’s place.
Given that Woods had won for the third time in five starts in 2013, that he had returned to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking after having been as low as No. 58, and that he had maintained his grip on Bay Hill, the headline of choice for newspaper was simple: “Seems like old times.”
No one would disagree.
By the Numbers: Tiger is the only other player besides Sam Snead to have 8 wins in a single event (Snead - Wyndham Championship).
Win No. 78: May 12, 2013 – THE PLAYERS Championship
Tiger Woods wins THE PLAYERS Championship 2013
As opposed to this stretch that offered winning moments at his cozy tracks – Torrey, Bay Hill, Memorial, Firestone – this might have been his most impressive, for it came at a place, TPC Sawgrass, the often handcuffed him.
“Any golf course that gives him difficulty does surprise me, but it might not fit his eye,” said Casey Wittenberg, who drew a pairing beside the icon for a second time in 2013. It didn’t go particularly well for Wittenberg, as Woods turned yet another 54-hole lead into victory, but there were no complaints.
“I’ve been on the wrong side of some really good golf by Tiger this year,” he said, “but it’s nice to be in the group and learn from it.”
In winning his second PLAYERS, Wood cleaned up on a pair of par-5s, Nos. 2 and 16, where he went 9 under. He was 4 under everywhere else, won by two, and reminded the media that at 37 he was not ready for the scrap pile.
“Am I surprised? No,” said Woods. “I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done, but I’m not.”
By the Numbers: This was Tiger's 2nd PLAYERS victory, joining five other players to have two or more PLAYERS titles. He is the only player to win this event in March (2001) & May (2013).
Win No. 79: Aug. 4, 2013 – WGC-Bridgestone Invitational
Tiger Woods wins 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational
It was always an uncomfortable position for a player to be in, second place, but miles behind Tiger Woods. It meant you were going to be asked to gush the winner and this week, Keegan Bradley drew the dubious distinction – and fared well, too.
“You know, I hate to sit here and go on and on about how good he is, but he is,” said Bradley, who joined many of his peers in conceding the competition after Woods blistered Firestone in 9-under 61 in Round 2. It produced a seven-stroke lead and it took a relatively new face to the scene to at least find fun in that.
“Quite noisy out there,” said England’s Chris Wood. “And you know when it’s Tiger.”
It was wall-to-wall Tiger on this week, with rounds of 68 and 70 leaving him seven clear of the runner-ups, Bradley and Henrik Stenson.
Most special, said Woods, was the chance to finally win with his son, Charlie, 4, in attendance.
Little did Woods know, it would be more than five years before he’d win again.
By the Numbers: To date,Tiger has 10 seasons with 5 or more victories on TOUR, marking the most seasons with 5+ victories of any player in history.
Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.