Tiger won the Memorial with his old swagger -- bet against him at your own risk

Tiger won the Memorial with his old swagger — bet against him at your own risk

Tiger was at his Sunday best en route to a 67, clinching his 73rd PGA Tour title.
Fred Vuich/SI

Welcome back to the corner of Tiger Woods and History. We’ve been here before, and yes, here we are again, probably sooner than expected. Steel yourselves for what’s coming next, people. Tiger Woods is back.

Back to what? We don’t have the answer to that. This is not a prophecy of Tiger Slams or a dozen more majors or an era of dominance waiting around the corner. Let’s leave it at this, with a triple helping of anticipation: Tiger Woods is back to playing brilliant golf. He’s back to holing clutch putts and hitting miracle shots. He’s back to giving us adrenaline rushes like no golfer has before or can today.

More significant, Tiger is back to winning. What he did on a sunny Sunday at the Memorial Tournament was rediscover his game, revitalize golf and create a deafening buzz heading into next week’s U.S. Open. Everything you thought you knew about this Open at Olympic Club has changed in the wake of Tiger’s closing five-under-par 67 at Muirfield Village, where he birdied three of the last four holes to steal the victory.

You were expecting the Open to fall into the hands of Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world; Rory McIlroy, the defending champ, the boy king who is the No. 1A player in the world; or frequent Open-runner-up Phil Mickelson. Not anymore. Donald, fresh off his European PGA victory, wasn’t a factor last week, even though a closing 68 gave him a backdoor top 12. McIlroy shot 79 last Friday, missed the cut for the third straight time and looks as if he should be asking, Tennis, anyone? Mickelson withdrew after an opening 79, citing “mental fatigue.” He played three events in a row followed by a week’s vacation in Paris and Italy, then stopped on Long Island for a corporate outing on the Tuesday before Memorial. Memo to Phil: You’re 41. You can’t skip nap time anymore.

That leaves Tiger. You wrote him off after 40th place finishes at the Masters and the Players and a missed cut at Quail Hollow? That appears to be a mistake on the order of the one made by Phil’s travel agent.

Lest we forget, we have been down this road before. Remember how Woods won by five at Bay Hill, then followed with that head-scratching showing at the Masters? But here’s why the Memorial victory is different: Tiger’s got his groove back, and most important, he knows it. That alone may be the only information you need. Woods is again the clear-cut best American golfer, ending a short-lived and uninspired debate over Tiger versus somebody-or-other. The fact is, Woods is a superior golfer, one of the two greatest of all time. The other is a fellow named Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host who on Sunday handed Tiger the Memorial trophy—for a fifth time. The win was Woods’s 73rd on the PGA Tour, tying him for second on the alltime list (Sam Snead leads with 82) with Nicklaus, who joked during a press conference with Woods, “He had to rub it in my face right here, didn’t he?” Woods couldn’t hide a grin.

Even before a wild weekend, Golf Channel analyst and SIGolf+ columnist Brandel Chamblee made note of something obvious that had been overlooked during Tiger’s slide from relevance. Chamblee, a vocal critic of Tiger’s game over the past two years, said on Friday, “I like the way Tiger is swinging now—it looks really good.” Then he added, “Tiger is still twice as good as anybody when he’s half as good as he used to be.”

There it is, the bare truth. There is no clearer sign that Tiger is back than his displaying his shot -making skills, which far surpass those of his contemporaries. Woods is the Ben Hogan of his generation—at least, he is when he’s healthy. As much as possible, Tiger plays the shot that is called for. When he drove it too far on the short 14th hole on Friday and his ball ended on a downslope at the end of the fairway, he played a chippy little British Open–style bump-and-run that landed 50 yards in front of the green and trundled onto the putting surface, 25 feet short of the pin. The shot was brilliant, and no other American would’ve tried it. Only Tiger pursues perfection as much as he pursues winning.

Then, of course, there was the Shot of the Tournament, the one you’ll be watching replays of until, and probably during, the Open. The 51-foot shot was a delicate flop from behind the 16th green, from a nestled lie in wiry rough, over a crest to a pin on a downhill slope. The ball trickled like a gentle putt before toppling in, and Tiger reacted with his traditional upper-cut, golf’s best touchdown dance. He holed a pair of theatrical flop shots from behind the 14th green during two of his other Memorial wins, but this one was the Holiest Toledo of them all.

“If he’s short, the tournament’s over, and if he’s long, the tournament’s over,” Nicklaus said. “He lands the ball exactly where it has to land. And he puts it in the hole. That’s the most unbelievable, gutsy shot I’ve ever seen.”

There was also a vintage Tiger shot from the deep fairway bunker at the 17th hole a day earlier that amazed playing partner Scott Stallings. “He hit a wedge over a 20-story building out of a fairway bunker to 10 feet,” said Stallings. “I thought he was going to lay up. I almost pulled out my phone and tweeted it.”

Woods’s reaction to the shot: “Tasty.”

Tiger felt his game was falling into place when he visited Olympic for an Open preview on the Tuesday of the Memorial. By the time he teed it up on Thursday at Muirfield Village he was sure his ball striking was where he wanted it. “I had it all week,” Woods acknowledged after his win. “From the word go, yeah.”

One other thing. Woods didn’t attack the par-5 holes on the weekend, because he was more comfortable shaping a cut, a left-to-right shot, with his driver, and the wind was blowing in that direction. He used driver sparingly on the weekend, but on Thursday and Friday he wielded it effectively. Even with a cut, which takes a little distance off the shot, he bashed a couple of drives well over 300 yards. Granted, with its wide fairways, Muirfield Village isn’t a thorough test of driving ability—not like any U.S. Open and its bowling-lane targets. Still, the possibility that Tiger’s long-errant driver might once again become a useful weapon should be a chilling thought for his competitors.

Woods won the Memorial because of his shot-making and his ball striking. He led the field in greens hit in regulation but ranked only 41st in the Tour’s strokes-gained putting statistic. That leads back to the original point about Tiger’s being back. Still to be determined is the state of his putting. He holed the must-makes, but he missed his share too—he was 0 for 7 from seven to 15 feet on Saturday. Then again, he was battling a 102° fever that he said finally broke late that night.

Plain and simple, Tiger will go as far as his putting will take him. Tom Watson, a Nicklaus rival who got teary-eyed during a pre-tournament ceremony when an equally choked-up Nicklaus celebrated him as the Memorial’s annual honoree, said, “The dirty little secret is that I was probably about the best putter out there. I broke a lot of people’s hearts with that putter. You can’t putt average, you have to putt well to win. You just do.”

Thus it has always been. Woods is 36 and has a lot of miles on his stroke. He is almost to that age when most golfers stop pouring in those clutch eight-footers that had always seemed so easy. How well can he still putt over 72 holes on the game’s biggest stages? We’ll see. He has a miss-left stroke on the occasional five-footer that he needs to address. With his swing honed, he now has time to do just that.

One last thing in Tiger’s favor is that he seems to be in a good place. He was sick early in the tournament with a combination of allergies and a flu bug. “Thank God I had a big towel,” he said only half-jokingly after the first round. When Tiger hacked repeatedly on Saturday, Stallings facetiously asked, “Are you going to make it? Should I get you a cart?”

Post-fever, Tiger looked refreshed and energetic. Maybe even happy. One reporter saw Woods duck into the Marriott’s concierge lounge on Sunday morning to fix two coffees—one with cream, one without—and then return to his room.

Asked in the post-victory press conference if he thinks he’s back after two wins in 10 weeks, Woods said matter-of-factly, “I won.” There were a few laughs, but to Tiger winning is the answer to most questions, the only answer that really matters. The U.S. Open is a week away, and Woods suddenly looks ready. History is waiting.