ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP returns to Japan minus Tiger WoodsVictory two years ago left him at 82 wins; are there more for the injured superstar?
October 18, 2021
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Players on Tiger Woods' 82nd win at 2019 ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
It’s a big question, with big implications, and it might be premature even now.
You try to put it out of mind, focus instead on the baseball playoffs, Scrabble, National Letter of Intent Day – anything to block out the question that gets louder the more you avoid it. Time passes.
And then you finally cave because you’re only human, just as he is.
Tiger Woods won the 2019 ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club, his 82nd victory leaving him level with Sam Snead atop the PGA TOUR’s all-time wins list. And this week the TOUR returns to the same site in golf-mad Japan for the ZOZO. And so you wonder:
What if that was his last win? Not last as in most recent, but last as in period, exclamation point, the end. What if that’s where this utterly spectacular gift of the last 25 years finally ends?
Tiger Woods discusses win No. 82 at ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
And there it is. The elephant in the room. The tiger in the room. The question.
We are coming to the end of a calendar year in which Woods was mostly out of sight, doing the hard work of rehab in private after a single-car accident in Los Angeles in February. His legs took the brunt of it, surgeons inserting a rod into his right tibia, which had multiple fractures, and screws and pins into his right foot and ankle. He wore a cast, then a boot, then a sleeve.
Initially, all that mattered was that he survived.
“Well, I think that the only thing that really matters now is his well-being,” PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan said in the sleep-starved hours immediately after the accident. “His recovery, his family, the level of support that we provide to him.
“Listen, when Tiger wants to talk about golf, we'll talk about golf,” he added.
Indeed, the big takeaway in those days was simply that Woods’ kids, daughter Sam, son Charlie, still had a father. Said a shaken Rory McIlroy: “Golf is … not even on the map at this point.”
Now, though, it is on the map, albeit as a distant blip on the horizon. From his vocal support of the U.S. Ryder Cup team to his upcoming Hero World Challenge to his recent sighting at a junior tournament played by his son, Charlie, Woods is starting to talk about golf in his own understated way, just a little. And because it’s Woods, a little means a lot.
So here we are. Let’s talk.
The first thing to know about Woods now is that he’s already won again, albeit unofficially, by reclaiming his health enough to attend his kids’ sporting events and graduations. That he’s still in that game is a victory in and of itself, given how tenuous it all looked back in February.
Next, you must embrace that it’s still early, relatively speaking, in his rehab. How much he’s been able to even chip and putt in his backyard remains unclear. What’s more, he has defied seemingly every prediction for him as he won across three decades and four U.S. Presidents.
“If we’ve learned anything over the years,” one of them, Barack Obama, tweeted after the crash as thoughts and prayers came flooding in, “it’s to never count Tiger out.”
True. Just look at victories 80, 81 and 82. When Woods won the 2018 TOUR Championship, he broke a five-year victory drought. When he won the 2019 Masters Tournament, after four operations on his back, including career-threatening fusion surgery, it was his first major since the 2008 U.S. Open. The ZOZO was his first start after another knee surgery, and he won despite bogeying his first three holes.
Then he went 3-0-0 as playing captain of the victorious U.S. Presidents Cup Team.
“The great champions do things you think are impossible,” Tom Lehman said at the father-son PNC Championship in Orlando last December, when asked to forecast the next five years for Tiger on the cusp of his 45th birthday. How many more wins, if any? How many more majors?
Even then, we wondered. It had been an atypical 2020, Woods looking tired after authoring three big wins, plus leading the charge at the Presidents Cup in Australia, in barely over a year. His mysterious ennui turned utterly bizarre as he hit three balls in the water and made a 10, the highest score of his career, at the par-3 12th hole at the (November) 2020 Masters.
Little did we know his back was hurting again, necessitating a fifth surgery, a microdiscectomy to remove a disc fragment that gave him nerve pain as Charlie stole the show at last year’s PNC.
Tiger and Charlie: Like Father, Like Son at the PNC Championship
Then came the car crash in early 2021, after which his concerned peers on multiple tours donned his signature red shirt for the final round of the World Golf Championship-Workday Championship at The Concession, the PGA TOUR Champions’ Cologuard Classic, and elsewhere.
That was when McIlroy said the golf didn’t matter, Adam Scott said, “He’s our hero out here,” and Tony Finau said Woods had “changed the course of my life.” Influential figures from the worlds of sports, entertainment and politics reached out to Woods via social media and other means.
Now we come to the ZOZO, when his presence will be felt no matter who wins.
Ben Hogan came back from a bus crash. Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines with stress fractures and a torn ACL in his left knee. The great champions do things you think are impossible. But what if this is it, and the winning is over? Woods is only human, after all.
“Eight-two is a lot,” he said. “That’s a big number.”
It is. Those five Masters, four PGAs, three U.S. Opens, three Open Championships, two PLAYERS Championships, two FedExCup titles, 106 worldwide wins – those are big numbers, too. The six USGA national championships before turning pro, two Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year awards, three AP Male Athlete of the Year awards – it’s a lot.
This week in Japan, fans will reminisce about the time they saw the great Tiger two years ago – his first start in Asia since the 2012 CIMB Classic – sometimes peeking through the screen-lined fence around the property. Kids will recall seeing him at a pre-tournament Nike function. The rest of us will watch the action at Accordia steeped in our own Tiger memories.
The sonic boomlet of his ’97 Masters win. The Tiger Slam in 2001 as he became the first to hold all four men’s professional majors at the same time. NBC announcer Gary Koch’s “Better than most” call as Woods won his first PLAYERS. Woods sobbing on caddie Steve Williams’ shoulder after winning the Open at Hoylake in 2006. And dodging fans in the 18th fairway at the surreal 2018 TOUR Championship at East Lake. And hugging Charlie after his emotional 2019 Masters win.
It really is a lot, all of it. Whether or not there’s more golf, Woods – whose 15 majors leave him three behind Jack Nicklaus – can rest easy. His transcendent career added life to our years. His 2021 was about adding years to his life. Whatever happens going forward, that’s a win any way you look at it.