From the first perfect tee shot and signature club twirl to the final tap-in and arms raised in triumph, from the unprecedented flood of humanity populating the 18th fairway behind him to the tears he had to force back to finish what was on the 18th green in front of him, the images of what Tiger Woods did on Sunday were moving and memorable, telling a story we never knew could have this ending again.
Woods is back, his victory at the season-ending Tour Championship a living reminder to what he once was, evidence provided everywhere from those streaming fans refusing to be contained by a few overmatched security guards to the overnight ratings that were up 206 percent over last year, on an NFL Sunday. But even more, what Woods did Sunday is a promise of what he can be again, how that red-shirted, fist-pumping author of golfing dominance can re-ascend to the top of his sport, back on track for the four major titles he needs to match Jack Nicklaus’s all-time mark of 18.
Who would doubt him now?
Woods already has been installed a 9-1 favorite to win a fifth green jacket next April, his win in Atlanta prompting Westgate Las Vegas sports book to push him just ahead of former Masters champ Jordan Spieth (10-1). But it is his arrival in France for the upcoming Ryder Cup that does even more to fuel the belief he can once again channel the fearsome profile that made East Lake his 80th career PGA win (only two behind all-time leader Sam Snead). All those young golfing guns who wondered aloud what it would be like to face him down on a Sunday, all those fellow Americans who stand as his teammates now but are his competitors every other event of the year, all those opposing Europeans who tried to fill the gaping golf shoes left open in his absence?
He’s ready to see you now.
“Well, a lot of these guys, the younger guys were on their way in when I was on my way out,” Woods told reporters in France. “You know, they had never really played against me when I was playing well. It’s been, what, five years since I’ve won a golf tournament? And a lot of the players were just coming on to the scene, whether it’s J.T. [Thomas], Jordan, now Bryson [DeChambeau], Brooksy [Brooks Koepka] . . . a lot of these guys just had not played against me yet.
“I think that when my game is there, I feel like I’ve always been a tough person to beat. They have jokingly been saying that, ‘We want to go against you.’ ”
Then he smiled, and said: “All right. Here you go.”
Here we go. Sunday, there Rory McIlroy went. Once the strongest heir to the Woods mantle, a four-time major winner with a few just-misses at the Masters to make a career Grand Slam feel inevitable, McIlroy was no match for Woods in Atlanta. Paired with Woods for the final round, McIlroy faded fast, a 4-over day never a threat to Woods’s solid and steady 1-over winner. That’s the way it used to go with Woods, whose mere presence was enough to melt those around him.
It feels the same, but different, too. The “Here you go” comment in Paris? Tiger 1.0 would have said it with a death stare, showing no weakness and brooking no mirth. His version 2.0 smile says so much about what he has been through, about those years of physical pain and personal embarrassment and how they shaped the man he is now.
“Probably the low point was not knowing if I’d ever be able to live pain-free again,” he said in a news conference in Atlanta. “Am I going to be able to sit, stand, walk, lay down without feeling the pain that I was in. I just didn’t want to live that way. This is how the rest of my life is going to be? It’s going to be a tough the rest of my life. I was beyond playing. I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t lay down without feeling the pain in my back and my leg. That was a pretty low point for a very long time.”
To reach these heights again, how wouldn’t he describe it as, “up there with obviously all the major championships I’ve won, Players, World Golf Championships?”
And suddenly, all those goals are back on the table now. Tiger proved it Sunday. That he can do it as this new version of himself, with an edge tamed by time and perspective softened by life, well that’s just gravy. What a ride it promises to be, from as anticipated a Ryder Cup as any in recent memory about to tee off in France to a major season in 2019 that already feels electrified by Woods’s surging form. Not only does he bring back the generation of fans who grew up watching him crush competitors and fairways with equal ease, but allows those fans to turn to the younger ones who’d only heard of such exploits with a knowing nod.
Now those newbies can see what it was like, can sense the power of his presence, can feel the impact of a man who changed the game by his singular dominance, can understand why we spent so much time talking about the way he used to be, why we fretted the way we did over the state of his surgically repaired back, why we worried so much about the state of a personal life shredded by affairs and embarrassed by a mug shot. And even better than that, Woods’s own children can see their dad at his best.
“A lot of times they equated golf to pain because every time I did it, I would hurt, and it would cause me more pain. And so now they’re seeing a little bit of joy and seeing how much fun it is for me to be able to do this again,” he said. “They felt it, and they know what their dad can do on a golf course now.”
So do we. Majors here we come.
Tiger Woods’s 14 major wins:
■ 1997 Masters
(shot 18 under to win by 12)
At 21, he became the youngest to win the Masters. His 18 under was a tournament record until 2015.
■ 1999 PGA
(shot 11 under to win by 1)
He edged a 19-year-old Sergio Garcia for his eighth tournament win of the year.
■ 2000 US Open
(shot 12 under to win by 15)
At Pebble Beach, he tied or broke nine US Open records, including margin of victory.
■ 2000 British Open
(shot 19 under to win by 8)
At 24, he became the youngest to achieve a career Grand Slam.
■ 2000 PGA
(shot 18 under, won in playoff)
He defended his title by beating Bob May in a three-hole playoff.
■ 2001 Masters
(shot 16 under to win by 2)
He became the first golfer in history to hold all four major professional titles at the same time.
■ 2002 Masters
(shot 12 under to win by 3)
He became just the third player to win back-to-back titles at Augusta, after Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo.
■ 2002 US Open
(shot 3 under to win by 3)
He was the only player to finish under par at Bethpage Black in New York.
■ 2005 Masters
(shot 12 under, won in playoff)
A dazzling chip-in for birdie on the 16th helped him force a playoff with Chris DeMarco, which he won on the first hole.
■ 2005 British Open
(shot 14 under to win by 5)
He won his second British in three tries on the historic Old Course at St. Andrews.
■ 2006 British Open
(shot 18 under to win by 2)
An emotional win as he returned from a nine-week hiatus following his father’s death.
■ 2006 PGA
(shot 18 under to win by 5)
He became the first to win the PGA twice at the same venue (Medinah).
■ 2007 PGA
(shot 8 under to win by 2)
In triple-digit temperatures, he shot 68 on the final day and tied Bobby Jones for the second-most majors with 13.
■ 2008 US Open
(shot 1 under, won in playoff)
He battled through a stress fracture in his left leg and a torn ACL to force an 18-hole playoff against Rocco Mediate, then birdied the 18th hole of the playoff to force sudden death, which he won on the first hole.