Tiger has done what many of us thought he would never do again. So, what’s next?
Tiger is back, and the simplest way to measure that was the boredom of Sunday afternoon as Woods cruised to victory at the Tour Championship. The most breathlessly anticipated moment in recent golf history, capping off maybe the greatest comeback in the annals of sport, turned into a yawner.
And that is exactly the point.
At the height of his dominance, Woods, 42, simply snuffed the life out of tournaments. The absence of drama became a calling card: Tiger knew he was going to win and so did his opponents, and all of the protagonists dutifully played their roles. En route to his 80th career victory — but first in five agonizing years — Woods was his old, intimidating self. He arrived at East Lake looking like he was coming straight from a Navy SEALs killhouse, in assassin’s shades and a sleeveless shirt that showed off his bulging biceps. He showed up on the 1st tee in a throwback blood red polo, and then played three perfect shots for a birdie that extended his lead and announced his intentions.
The day before, Woods had gotten in the head of world No. 1 Justin Rose by birdieing six of the first seven holes while they were paired together. On Sunday, Woods broke the spirit of playing partner Rory McIlroy by outdriving the game’s best driver, hitting more precise and adroitly-shaped iron shots and, crucially, holing some must-make putts early in the round, the kind of thing Rory seems to rarely do when in contention. McIlroy was a dead man walking before the end of the front nine, having made three bogies and a double in the span of five holes.
Rose, meanwhile, was still searching for the sense of self that had been diminished the day before; he lost control of his swing and his emotions, making five soft bogies in the middle of his round to tumble down the leaderboard. (A birdie on the 18th hole allowed him to salvage the FedEx Cup, but $10 million doesn’t change the hard truth.) Nursing a four- or five- stroke lead for most of the round, Woods put on a clinic of low-risk golf, splitting fairways, playing to the middle of the green and lagging birdie putts to gimme distance. It wasn’t exciting but it was wonderfully routine and familiar. Tiger didn’t make his second birdie until the 13th hole but it didn’t matter — the other guys had already beaten themselves, just as in the grand old days.
He might’ve started celebrating a little too early, making a couple of sloppy bogies on 15 and 16, but those little mistakes were long forgotten by the time of the emotional celebration on the final green. The fire hydrant, the 85 at Memorial, chip-yips, a DUI, hacked naked photos, shooting pains that brought him to his knees between the ropes, the layup on the 72nd hole at Valspar, the back-nine bogies at Carnoustie…you could see all of that in Tiger’s watery eyes. The fans were feeling it, too: The madcap scene at East Lake looked more like a religious revival than a golf tournament.
So, now that Woods has done what many of us thought he would never do again, what’s next? Tiger has famously had four back surgeries but it’s clear now that he still has more backbone than any other player in golf. During this season of reinvention two clubs had been holding him back: his driver and putter. (Woods had already reclaimed his title as the best iron player in the game.) But recent tweaks to the shaft and loft of his big stick have left Tiger swinging with more confidence and less bellicosity, and the way he dominated McIlroy off the tee on Sunday will long linger. No middle-aged warrior putts as well as they did during their halcyon 20s, but Woods was brilliant on the greens at the Tour Championship. Suddenly the ascent up Mt. Nicklaus has begun again, though up next is Sam Snead and his Tour record 82 victories.
But Tiger turns 43 before this year is out. Can his reconstituted spine hold up to the rigors of the Tour grind? Will this divorced father of two continue to chase his former glory with the same single-mindedness now that he’s proven to himself (and everyone else) that he is still a winner? Those are questions for another day. Let the record show that Sept. 23, 2018, is when Eldrick Woods became Tiger once again.