As Tiger Woods walked toward the 18th green on the final day of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta on Sunday, there was only one thing that could keep him from victory: If one of the thousands of fans who’d stormed the fairway behind Woods kidnapped him and prevented him from finishing the tournament.
That didn’t happen, despite what seemed to me to be some close calls. And after a sand shot and two putts for par, Woods won the 80th PGA Tour victory of his career and his first in more than five years.
There probably have been greater scenes in sports, though they’re not coming to mind right now. I’m not sure there’s been a better comeback.
Woods entered the final round with a three-stroke lead over Justin Rose, the No. 1 player in the world, and Rory McIlroy, one of the few true candidates for heir to Tiger’s former alpha status within the game. Back during his peak when Woods had a lead like this, he would play conservatively and dare other competitors to catch him with aggressive play. They tended to wilt instead. But Tiger’s peak was a long time ago, and a run for the title was expected from either Rose or McIlroy (or both).
Instead, Tiger played conservatively and the competition wilted, just like old times.
Neither Rose nor McIlroy could keep the ball in the fairway, and with the lush Bermuda grass at East Lake, any tee shot into the rough was an automatic bogey. Woods, meanwhile, hit most fairways and stayed away from dangerous pin positions, giving himself chances for birdies here and there.
Woods was playing as his best, most boring self. The most impressive shots Woods hits, to me, aren’t those approaches that he knocks to three or four feet from the cup when he’s trailing and gunning for every pin. It’s a shot like, say, his approach on the lengthy 14th hole on Sunday. Faced with 210 yards to a back-right pin position, he hit a fading mid-iron that stopped 21 feet short of the hole, leaving himself a straight, uphill putt, away from a series of dangers to the right and past the green. That was exactly where he meant to put it.
It wasn’t all clinical. On the next hole, Woods seemed to feel some of the pressure of holding a lead with four holes left for the first time in ages and needing to carry a tee shot 200 yards to a peninsula green. I couldn’t even watch the shot; what must it have felt like having to hit it? When I opened my eyes, I saw his ball sitting about a yard from the water. Jesus. He bogeyed that hole and the par 4 after it, leaving himself a two-stroke lead with two left to play.
He parred the 17th, and by the time he got to the last green, it finally had the feeling of the mere formality of a Woods victory. Tiger claimed the win by two strokes over runner-up Billy Horschel.
Had Rose shot one stroke worse, Woods would have won the season-long “FedEx Cup,” too. Here’s the thing about the FedEx Cup, though: No one cares.
After winning, Woods hugged McIlroy, his caddie, his girlfriend, his agent, and some fellow players. In his post-round remarks, he explained why he had become so emotional seeing those fellow players, like Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler.
“Some of the players I saw after there on the 18th green,” he said, “some of them knew what I was struggling with” over the last couple of years. Maybe he just meant the injuries. Maybe he meant something else.
Woods won’t have too much time to celebrate. He and the rest of the American team head to France on Sunday night, for the Ryder Cup that begins on Friday. After that, he’ll put the clubs away for a couple of months and let his body recover from a season that went on longer than anyone, including himself, expected it to. He went out on a high note, but he’s just beginning what could be one of the most productive chapters of his career.
Obviously, I wish I had gone to this one instead of the last one.