ATLANTA – Tiger Woods has won bigger titles on bigger stages and done bigger things.
He once held all four major championships and all four major-championship scoring records at the same time, a feat unlikely to be matched. He won a breakthrough Masters, a U.S. Open on a broken leg and a Grand Slam.
But he never won a tournament that meant more than the Tour Championship at East Lake on Sunday. It means something far greater than simply career victory No. 80 on Woods’ lengthy resume.
It means Tiger Woods lives.
That’s no small feat, given the frenzied crowd that swarmed up the final fairway with him and around him in Sunday’s early twilight. He and an overmatched security detail were nearly swallowed up for a few tense moments. “I just didn’t want to get run over,” Woods later said jokingly.
When Woods finally got in the clear near the 18th green, it felt like history recycled in living color. I thought of the 1962 British Open at Royal Troon when Arnold Palmer, after a lengthy delay, finally burst out of a surging gallery that had rushed to encircle the hole. Palmer took a few limping steps, feigned a bad back and then flashed the crowd his trademark charismatic style.
This scene is history for a new generation. Woods did it his own way, trying to keep his thousand-yard stare intact along with his concentration and ignoring the chaotic chase in progress. “I didn’t see it,” Woods said of the crowd’s pursuit, “but I could hear it.”
Woods said it reminded him of the 1997 Western Open at Cog Hill, where he led a calmer gallery pied-piper-like down the final fairway. “It wasn’t to this fevered pitch,” Woods said. “I guess the art of clapping is gone. You can’t clap when you’ve got a cellphone in your hand. So, people yelled. They’re going to be hoarse.”
He didn’t say it, but he had to know it was a flashback moment, like Palmer at Troon. Rory McIlroy, who was paired with Woods, looked back at the crush of fans and told Woods as they walked to their third shots that the scene looked like Jack Nicklaus at Baltusrol in the 1980 U.S. Open.
Woods replied with a smile, “Yeah, I just didn’t have the tight pants and the hair.”
Each generation has its defining moments. For East Lake members, Atlanta residents and Tour Championship TV viewers, this is one of them (scores).
The important takeaway from East Lake is that Woods still can play winning golf. This comes as no surprise in September. We’ve seen Woods get better and better all year. It’s been like watching a man carefully finish a jigsaw puzzle. Now it’s complete.
Eighteen months ago, no one expected to see Woods competing in golf again, including Woods. Due to his back problems, he was staring at a life with constant pain – when he sat, when he walked, when he lied down.
“This is how the rest of my life is going to be?” said Woods, recalling a low point. “It’s going to be a tough rest-of-my-life. I just didn’t want to live that way.”
The back-fusion procedure, his fourth back surgery, turned his life around. This past year has been a gift to Woods while his return to golf has been a gift to golf fans. No one saw this coming a year ago, but we all saw it coming in the preceding months.
The Tour Championship matters because it means the legend of Tiger Woods lives, that he’s not done winning yet. Johnny Miller said on NBC’s telecast what I was thinking, so I’ll credit him. “I was pretty sure Tiger would win in the last part of his career,” Miller said. “Now he’s looking like it’s not just a couple more wins. It might be a lot more.”
Woods rarely has looked so human in victory. He conceded fighting back tears several times on the final hole and on the final green. Not quite like when he cried into the shoulder of caddie Steve Williams after winning the 2006 British Open at Royal Liverpool, Woods’ first major title after the death of his father, Earl. But it made Woods look human and, therefore, more likable than ever.
His view of this comeback isn’t quite like ours, either. Woods was asked by a media member if this victory made his comeback complete or does he have to win a major to do that. Woods said, “Just to be able to compete and play again this year, that’s a hell of a comeback.”
The exciting undercurrent of the week at East Lake is that this could be the start of something more. Woods led the British Open at the turn at Carnoustie, and though he didn’t go on to win, showed that he could. He reinforced that at the PGA Championship at Bellerive. There was a closing 64 that came up short of Brooks Koepka, but Woods made a run. And his 72-hole total was better than all but three players in PGA Championship history. It just so happened that Koepka was one of them that week.
The atmosphere in St. Louis for the PGA Championship was electric, but Atlanta and East Lake topped it. The crowds were large, and they bounded after Woods all weekend.
What he did at the Tour Championship was successfully hijack 2018. It was a very good year of golf, with suspenseful majors, good winners and high drama. And now that’s all overwhelmed in Woods’ wake.
The new No. 1 highlight of this year is his Tour Championship victory. The defining moment of that was when he opened the third round with birdies on six of the first seven holes and threatened, if briefly, to shoot 55 or something. That was when East Lake began to sizzle and when Woods practically broke the Internet.
You want to recount the next four most memorable moments of the golf year? Let’s be honest: There was Woods and that 40-foot must-make putt on the 71st hole at the Valspar Championship, and he poured it in. There was Woods looking like he might make a quick breakthrough at Bay Hill, where he had a chance to win until he knocked a drive out of bounds on the 16th hole in the final round. There was Woods leading at Carnoustie after the turn on Sunday and, of course, Woods chasing Koepka at the PGA.
Koepka and two majors, Patrick Reed and a first Masters, Francesco Molinari and a ball-striking clinic at Carnoustie were all very nice. They were terrific. But the public will tell you, they aren’t Woods. We’re totally spoiled.
I’m not sure Woods grasps how the public perceives him. Saturday, he got ovations simply for arriving at some greens, the kind of thing usually reserved for the final years of Nicklaus and Palmer. Woods still plays with blinders on, such as when he walks past outstretched hands inches away en route to the green at the par-3 16th, ignoring fans trying for a hand-slap tribute. There was still golf to play, though.
Maybe he hasn’t given up on the numbers, either. Sam Snead holds the official PGA Tour record for victories, with 82. Woods allowed as to how he got very emotional on the last green after McIlroy tapped in because he’d put his bunker shot onto the green, virtually assuring victory.
“The tournament was over, and I’d won 80,” Woods said. “Eighty is a big number. I’ve been sitting on 79 for five years now. To get to 80 is a pretty damned good feeling.”
Getting to 80 puts Snead’s mark back in play. It puts everything back in play for Woods. Nicklaus and the 18 majors? Yes. Nobody else on Tour is playing for historic numbers like Woods.
Sure, Phil Mickelson needs a U.S. Open title and Jordan Spieth needs a PGA Championship to complete the career Grand Slam. Woods, who hasn’t won a major title in a decade after piling up 14 majors in 11 years, suddenly appears to have enough game again to restart the Chase to Jack.
The Tour Championship ranks among the finest hours for Woods, because of what he’s gone through. But he had long ago already arrived at where he needed to be. Before the 2001 golf season started, after Woods had won three straight major titles the year before, future Hall of Fame golfer Ernie Els said of Woods, “He’s a legend in the making. He’s 24. He’s probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he’s in his 40s.”
Woods is 42. Yes, he’s bigger than Elvis. Even better, he apparently hasn’t left the building.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle