ALBANY, The Bahamas — The whole world’s at hyper-speed now. Remember when Tiger ended his ohfer and won his 80th Tour event? That was a little over two months ago. It was, for golf and by far, the biggest win of the year. Bigger than Pat Reed at Augusta and even Brooks I and Brooks II. But did that win linger? First there was Paris, and the Ryder Cup hangover. Then there were the three stages of The Match, pre-game, game, post-game. And now we are here, November turning into December, and finally there’s a chance to breathe. This is a good place to breathe. Tuesday morning, Tiger’s cart was parked in front of the spa entrance here, his bag strapped loosely to the back, his golf shoes, their soles covered in sand, laying haphazardly under the steering wheel. Maybe Tiger was getting a smoothie. You can get them in any color you want here. Player dining here is like Easter brunch at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, and the caddies have the run of the place, too.
This is Tiger’s event, a four-round invitational, 18 players, hole ‘em out for a 72-hole score. The very thing that made Tiger Woods Tiger Woods. It’s called the Hero World Challenge, the title referring not to soldiers returning from war but to a global motorcycle manufacturer based in India.
The chairman of Hero Motocorp is a trim little man named Pawan Munjal, a mechanical engineer by training, with gray glasses and a fine matching mustache, who ate a yogurt in the press-tent mess hall before he and Tiger took to a podium to discuss the event and its future. (This is Hero’s fifth year as the title sponsor and the company has signed on for four more.) But it was also, finally, a chance to hear Woods talk about 2018. Asked to describe it, Woods said it was probably “the most rewarding” year of his life. Given where he had been in 2017, it’s a completely understandable assessment.
On Tuesday, his win at the Tour Championship at East Lake finally got the attention it deserved. Woods said that a pitching wedge he hit from a bunker on the 10th hole of the fourth round at the British Open was his shot of the year, because he thought at the time if he pulled it off he would win. He pulled it off but he didn’t win. Another opinion is the pitch shot he hit from over the 17th green on Sunday at East Lake, after making two straight bogeys and trying to hold on to a two-shot lead, was his shot of the year.
Roger Maltbie, walking the fairways there for NBC, got to the green ahead of Woods, considered the lie, looked at an old familiar face and tilted his chin toward his right shoulder, twisted his mouth and raised his eyebrows. He was thinking what others were thinking: from where Woods was, anything could happen. If Woods had failed to close out the win, who knows how that might have rattled him, short-term and maybe long-term, too.
“The lie was tough because most of the lies we had around East Lake that particular week were all pretty gnarly, pretty high grass,” Woods said. He has a hacking cough but was answering questions, as he has for most of the year, with real detail and insight. “There really wasn’t a bottom and so we were playing more splash shots. That one I hit over was to a sparse part of the rough, where my bounce was going to get exposed and I just didn’t want it exposed too much. So I used a little bit more leading edge on that shot than normal, and especially for all the shots I had been playing the entire week. So that part was tough, and the fact that I only had a two-shot lead. If I don’t get this up-and-down, it’s a one-shot lead. Playing the last hole with a one-shot lead is a little different. Playing with two, I can handle that. And that’s why it was important to get that up-and-down, because I just bogeyed the last two holes coming off that. Last thing I wanted to do was make three straight bogeys and have a one-shot lead on the last hole and make a mistake again. There were a lot of things going through my head, a lot of different scenarios, like there always are. I’m just running through different scenarios, and the easiest scenario was this: Get this thing up-and-down and go win it up 18.”
There’s so much in that answer, you hardly know where to begin. You can see the mind of the player, this particular player at work, two months and a week after the fact.
Woods got that ball up-and-down. He made a par on the last and won by two. Pawan Munjal was flying from Delhi to Budapest, on a private plane, when Tiger was trying to win at East Lake. The plane’s Wi-Fi was down and he lost his live-streaming feed. He used a satellite phone for updates every 15 minutes. A reporter asked what he did when he got off the plane and had learned that Woods had won.
“What could I do? I was in Budapest. I wished I was in Atlanta.”
Woods smiled. He was in Atlanta, his slender fingers gripping a silver Calamity Jane putter, the trophy you get for winning the Tour Championship, a win that makes the prospect of the 2019 golf season even more interesting. Woods will play L.A. He’ll captain the American’s Presidents Cup team. In between, he’ll play in all four majors. This should be interesting.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]