DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — No one ever doubted Tiger Woods’ heart or his head, although there were some lingering whispers about his rebuilt knee.
Now even those have evaporated.
Adding to his lore with birdies on three of the last four holes – not to mention a highlight-reel chip-in for eagle a few holes earlier – Woods climbed out of a four-way tie with a 7-under 65 to win the Memorial Tournament on Sunday. It was a record fourth time he had won the event created by his idol and measuring stick, Jack Nicklaus.
“Tiger Woods is always Tiger Woods,” said runner-up Jim Furyk, who finished alone in second, a shot back. “He can’t be 100 percent every week. But I’m sure he answered a lot of questions today.”
Woods had undergone knee surgery last June, a day after wincing his way to a victory at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. In a memorable performance, he caught Rocco Mediate with a birdie putt on the 72nd hole and then beat him with another birdie putt on the final hole of the 18-hole playoff a day later.
Then came eight months of rest, rehab and, eventually, practice before he came back to competitive golf in late February. Even though he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and was in contention in several other tournaments, some had wondered whether at 33 years old he or his reconstructed knee would ever be the same Tiger.
“For most people, that would be unbelievable,” Nicklaus said of Woods’ record since coming back. “For him, that’s not his best. But it’s still pretty darn good.”
Woods looked at the win on Sunday as confirmation of what he thought all along.
“I knew I could do this,” Woods said after collecting his 67th career victory with a score of 12-under 276. “It’s just a matter of give me a little bit of time. I just came off a pretty extended break, and I was close to winning, but the game wasn’t quite there when I really needed it on Sunday. I rectified that.”
Thousands of spectators followed every shot of the drama as Woods climbed the leaderboard at Muirfield Village. He started the day tied for seventh, four strokes back of co-leaders Matt Bettencourt and Mark Wilson with Jim Furyk, Jonathan Byrd, Geoff Ogilvy and Davis Love III also standing in his way.
Despite four birdies on the front nine he still trailed Byrd, who had holed an 82-yard wedge for an eagle at the seventh hole, by three strokes as he played the 11th hole. Woods, showing no signs of hesitancy or doubt, hit his drive 329 yards and then hit a 5 wood 253 yards that went through the green and into the deep rough.
“I didn’t see the lie but it had to be terrible,” said playing partner Michael Letzig, awed by Woods’ play and the circus surrounding him. “He had some wild, one-handed follow-through. I saw that out of the corner of my eye and then I saw how the ball was tracking. I just told my brother (Darren, his caddie) who was standing there, ‘Oh, my god!’ It was nuts.”
The roar echoed around the course. Every other one of the contenders heard it, too.
Still, he trailed Byrd by a shot and was tied with Wilson, with the others refusing to wilt.
By the time Woods hit his drive on the 17th hole, he was tied with Byrd, Love and Furyk at 10 under, and was playing a hole or two in front of them.
At the next to last hole, his towering 9-iron approach ended up 9 feet away and he rolled in the putt for birdie and the lead. Then at the closing hole, he hit a 3 iron off the tee – the 14th fairway he hit in as many tries – and then torched a 7 iron that rode the wind and ended up a foot away from the hole for a kick-in birdie.
“It was unreal. I don’t even know how to describe it,” Letzig said. “It was the best golf I’ve ever seen.”
Two shots clear of the field, he had just enough to hold off Furyk, a former Memorial winner himself who also birdied the final hole for a 69.
Asked if Tiger was indeed back, Byrd, who shot a 72 and ended up tied with Wilson (73) at 280, broke into a wide grin.
“It just depends on what you consider the word ‘back’ means,” he said. “I don’t know where he went.”
Furyk was pleased with how he played, but frustrated that he hadn’t been able to catch up with Woods. He joked that it was reporters’ fault for ever doubting Tiger.
“I just wish you all would just quit (ticking) him off, that’s what I wish,” he said in mock anger. “I wish you’d quit chapping him so he has to come back and keep proving stuff.”
As if he had anything left to prove.