Reliving Tiger Woods’ record-tying victory at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
October 18, 2021
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
After Tiger Woods’ opening shot of the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP, no one could have guessed a performance for the ages was soon to be unleashed.
Woods had not played since limping out of the FedExCup Playoffs months earlier, undergoing another knee surgery shortly after. The ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP was his first start since, and he started it with three consecutive bogeys.
But from that point on, Woods produced a ball-striking display reminiscent of his prime.
Over five days – thanks to a mega storm that canceled Friday’s play – we witnessed history as Woods outlasted a challenge from local hero Hideki Matsuyama to win by three shots and take his place alongside Sam Snead atop the PGA TOUR’s all-time wins list. The two legends are tied with 82 wins apiece.
We do not know what the future holds as Woods recovers from his February car accident, but we can take a trip down memory lane with some of those who were closest to the action in Japan two years ago. This week’s ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP marks a return to the site of Woods’ historic victory after the COVID-19 pandemic forced last year’s event to be held in California.
Here are the accounts of those players who had the best seats in the house as Woods won No. 82.
Players on Tiger Woods' 82nd win at 2019 ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
After his opening three bogeys, Woods rebounded with four birdies to close his first nine holes. Then he took things up a notch with five more in his last seven holes for a 6-under 64. Nine birdies were his most in a round since 2013 and he had three more birdies than any other player. He birdied four of the five par-3s and sat tied for the lead with Gary Woodland.
Playing partner Tommy Fleetwood: “It was a cool atmosphere. I loved being there. … His start, … it was interesting. You never know what a round of golf is going to unfold and he hit it in the water off the first, hooked a tee shot off the next, and then he bogeyed the next and he was 3 over.
“But from that point on… it probably is the best round of golf I've ever watched. Like just the way he conducted it. The way he played, the control he had of his golf ball. I shook his hand and I was like, ‘Tiger that was really good today’. And he just looks at me and he went, ‘How about that, huh?’ with that big grin of his. And at that point I was like, man, even he knows it was so good. So yeah, it was very, very impressive.”
Playing partner Satoshi Kodaira: “He’s my idol so it was quite nerve-wracking playing with him, but I definitely learned a lot by just being around him. … While it’s hard for me to say it was a great couple days with the way I played, it was a huge opportunity for me to spend some meaningful time around him.
“To me there’s nobody bigger or better than him, so to play with him was just so exciting. But also at the same time, realizing that he’s also watching me play as well made me extremely nervous.”
Tiger Woods' Round 1 highlights from ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
After Friday’s play was called off due to a large storm, players returned for the second round on Saturday to play without spectators. After encountering huge galleries in the first round, players now faced near-silence, except for the fact some fans tried climbing trees and looking through fence gaps. Woods produced another 64, this time by producing five birdies on his back nine. At the end of the round, he led by two over Woodland.
FLEETWOOD: “We went from 20 deep to playing a round of golf with no people. Look at the contrast. I played golf with Tiger Woods on the return to Japan, and that special atmosphere, and then at the same time, the next round, I play golf with Tiger Woods where there's nobody around. And both are equally as cool because it's just so amazing. There were still guys like lining up on the roads at any sort of opportunity that they had to find a gap and they were all out there cheering for Tiger Woods.”
KODAIRA: “I talked with him a bit. I told him, ‘I’m a big fan,’ and he said, ‘Thank you.’ I think the happiest moment for me was when he called me by my own name. Simply put, it was amazing. … His rhythm stayed consistent the entire time. From the start of the week right down to when he was in contention to win, his rhythm never faltered. It was truly amazing to watch.
“I learned so much from that experience. Since then, I’ve tried to be more conscious of playing with a consistent rhythm. I don’t get panicked or upset now. I’ve taught myself to play my rounds with better rhythm, and that’s all thanks to being able to play with him.”
Tiger Woods takes the solo lead at ZOZO
With time to make up, the decision was made to play in threesomes for the final two rounds without a re-pairing. Sunday would see a round and a half played for the final group of Woods, Woodland and Keegan Bradley before they returned Monday to finish the final seven holes. Matsuyama, Corey Conners and Daniel Berger were the group ahead.
Woods shot a 66 in the third round to be three clear of Matsuyama when they turned around and headed back out for the start of the final round.
BRADLEY: “It was amazing. I was so excited to play with Tiger in those last two rounds, because we knew they weren't going to re-pair, so I was going to get to play with him both rounds, and we got to the first tee and they were about 10 deep on each side of the fairway. So it was pretty fun.
“After the third round, before we restarted for the final round, he went in and changed his shirt to the red Sunday red, which was so cool.”
WOODLAND: “He was playing beautiful. It was a ball-striking clinic. He just kept the golf ball in play, hit middle of the greens, two-putting with ease, just kind of worked his way around. It really was a clinic. And when he's not on he still hits it to 25 feet instead of 10 feet. And it's always pin high and that's what's so impressive. That's what we're all striving to do.”
Tiger Woods maintains lead into Round 4 at ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
Woods had three birdies and a bogey in the 11 holes of the final round that were played Sunday. He slept that night three shots ahead of Matsuyama. But he made a bogey when resuming the next morning and soon after stood in the 14th fairway as Matsuyama had a 5-foot birdie putt to move within a shot. The local star missed the putt and Woods would birdie the hole, setting up his 82nd triumph.
CONNERS: “I remember vividly finishing Monday morning. He was in the group behind me. There was a limited number of fans because of the rain, but on the 13th hole, a par-3, it was along the property line and there were all these fully-grown adults trying to climb the fence, or peek through the matting. I don’t know if they were trying to cut little holes in it so they could see through.
“The next hole was a par-5 and there was a backup on the tee, and I was kind of nervous hitting the tee shot because Tiger was on the tee. Who knows if he was watching me, but I haven’t played with him, and I was a huge Tiger fan growing up, so it was cool.”
MATSUYAMA: “Playing in front of him Sunday and Monday, there was a lot of pressure. I certainly felt that. When I was putting on 14 and Tiger was waiting back in the fairway to hit his second shot just standing there, … I could feel him watching. I could feel that pressure. It was a big learning experience.”
WOODLAND: “You could tell he'd not been in contention for a little while, … I guess since Augusta earlier that year. He hit one bad shot on 12 and Hideki was making a run. But from then on you can tell he kind of flipped a switch. He was kind of just on cruise control. From his bogey, it was vintage Tiger.
“At that point I was out of contention and he was trying to close. It obviously meant a lot to him to get to 82. You could tell that. I was trying to stay out of his way, but he talked the whole time on the back nine. I don't know if that's completely normal for him, but it was impressive.
“Not many guys get you to watch while you’re competing but he's one of them. You want to beat him, but when the time was over, when I could tell I wasn't going to win, I was rooting for him. When he's on, his distance control is better than anybody I've ever seen and that was evident that week. It was as good as I've seen ball-striking-wise, and then he hit the shots coming down the stretch that he had to do. That's pretty special.”
BRADLEY: “I was out of it so I wanted to watch him and sort of pick up on stuff that he was doing. I noticed a few things that I keep with me. … Him winning tournaments, it's so natural, so, so smooth.
“I just noticed that his gait, his pace was very much the same for all 36 holes, but mostly just how comfortable he looked and just how sort of at ease he was in the moment, which was what I expected, but it was pretty cool to see up close.”
Tiger Woods' winning highlights from ZOZO Championship
While Woods’ future remains unknown, to a man each interviewed player believed he can make it back to the TOUR if that was what he wanted to do.
BRADLEY: “Playing 82 PGA TOUR events is pretty good, let alone winning them. But he’s one of the greatest athletes, one of the greatest at his job of anybody in any profession. What he's done in golf is remarkable. You can never write off someone like that.”
FLEETWOOD: “I played with him when he won at East Lake. I played with him at ZOZO when he won. Clearly, I’ve been good to him in the latter part of his career. So if he wants to hire me when he makes his return, I'll play with him full-time. We can negotiate and talk about it.”
MATSUYAMA: “He’s been doing special things his entire career and I think we will see him do so again.”
WOODLAND: “If it is the last (win), it’s sad. You hope he finds a way to come back and if anybody can, it's him. He deserves it. The way he's been out here and the way he's carried his career and his game has inspired all of us. Obviously it was cool for him to get to 82, but I know deep down he wants 83.”