ATLANTA – A year ago, Tiger Woods simply was hoping that there would be more golf to play in his future. Any golf. But meaningful golf? That seemed many weeks, months and galaxies away.
When he tumbled outside of the top 1,000 in the Official World Golf Ranking late last year, working diligently to find a way back from a fourth back surgery, Woods could give himself a ticket to play alongside other world-class players at his own Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. That’s his tournament, his show, and he doles out the exemptions.
But the Tour Championship is different. It’s not some offseason hit-and-giggle affair on an island. There are no free passes. A player must play well to get here, very well, and earn his way inside the top 30 over a long season and three FedEx Cup playoff stops. As good as these young guys are, staying inside the top 30 and making the Tour Championship is no given. Just ask Jordan Spieth, who is home in Texas this week after finishing each of his first five seasons at East Lake.
Because it’s so difficult to get here, and such an honorable badge to wear, that makes the moment that much more satisfying for a 42-year-old golfer who has done virtually everything there is to do in this game. You’ll have to give him some latitude should he view the accomplishment as significant. Because it is. For him. For the overall energy that he brings to the game.
“I think the season itself has been amazing, to be able to play this well after coming off of what I came off of,” Woods, now ranked 21st in the world, said at East Lake Golf Club, where the Tour Championship begins today (tee times). “I didn’t know how many tournaments I’d play in – and next thing you know, here I am, in the Tour Championship.”
At the Presidents Cup last fall, Woods acknowledged the possibility that his playing days might be over. Done. He was hitting 60-yard shots at the time. When the calendar turned, he started off slowly enough. A T-23 at Farmers, a missed cut at Genesis. Those two events alone doubled his rounds from the previous year. He kept on pushing. He wondered if he’d make it through the Florida Swing in March.
We’ve had some nice glimpses in nine months. A Sunday run at Valspar, a magical closing 64 at Bellerive at the 100th PGA Championship. Six times since that slow start Woods has finished T-6 or better, including a back-nine lead at Carnoustie in the British Open and that stirring second to Brooks Koepka at the PGA.
“He comes back, and gets right in the competitive mix quickly, probably faster than everybody thought but nobody was willing to admit,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “He comes into the mix, and you have this question of, ‘How are these guys we’ve been watching for the last couple of years performing at an extraordinary level, how are they going to compete when he’s back in the mix?’ And similarly, ‘How is he going to compete against them?’ ”
April and Augusta cannot get here fast enough.
Before we get there, however, Woods, surprisingly (health-wise) and maybe not so surprisingly (given his insatiable drive to compete) has two big tournaments left before closing the books on his 2017-18 season. He has the Tour Championship this week at East Lake, marking his 18th start of the season, the most since 2012. He says he is here for the one thing his season has lacked: One of his “Ws.” The next one will be the 80th of his PGA Tour career. Then it’s on to the charter that will take the U.S. team to the 42nd Ryder Cup next week in Paris, Woods' first Ryder Cup as a competitor since 2012.
From “Hello, world” and a two-victory rookie season in 1996 all the way through 2005, Woods didn’t miss a Tour Championship. From Southern Hills in Tulsa to Champions in Houston, and then on to East Lake for the very first time in 1998 and beyond, he was as sure of a bet as death and taxes. Then he went through a personal scandal and a Harvard Medical School’s scroll of injuries, requiring surgeries from his knees to his back. He last played at East Lake five years ago.
Given the background, what Woods has done this season has been highly unexpected and mightily impressive. It can only get better if he finds a way to compete at East Lake. You could tell he hadn’t been here in a while – he went out to play the front side on Tuesday and forgot that the nines at East Lake had been flipped. (“I still think 18 is a par 3,” Woods said, grinning at the thought.)
Woods is too proud to tell anyone that this season would rank up there with his best, regardless of the obstacles he faced. You won’t hear that from a guy who has won nine times in a season (2000), or eight times in a season (twice), or won three majors in a season, or four majors in a row, or won five or more titles in a year 10 times. That's right, gather the grandkids around.
The currency of this season isn't in shiny trophies, but mettle. And hard work. And belief.
“To have accomplished what I’ve accomplished and have gotten through what I have gotten through to get back to this point is something I’m very proud of,” he said.
East Lake gives him one last chance to add that elusive victory which he seeks to make this climb back a little more complete. And then it’s on to the Ryder Cup. The last time Woods played for the U.S., he was standing in the 18th fairway at Medinah six years ago, having fought hard to turn a 1-down deficit into a 1-up lead against Francesco Molinari heading down the final hole. Ahead of him, up on the green, he watched as Martin Kaymer holed a putt and Europe broke out in wild celebration.
It left a sour taste. He was able to savor a U.S. victory in 2016, but that was as a vice captain. He didn't strike a shot. So, in this, his season of reclamation, there remains some unfinished business, too.
Two big events await. Is he ready? It would appear so. A hungry Tiger always is the most dangerous, don’t you think?
Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jeffbabz62