Surely we’d all seen the signs. Some hot spurts in Florida in March, a back-nine Sunday lead at a major championship in Scotland in July, his red-hot finish and Sunday 64 at the PGA Championship in St. Louis last month.
Tiger Woods was knocking, and the noise was getting louder and louder. Slowly, he was inching closer to where he is accustomed to being. This week, under the broiling southern sun at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, he was able to pull all the pieces of his game together, both physically and mentally, closing out victory once again not with his best stuff on Sunday, but by working for everything in a final-round 71.
“It was a grind out there,” Woods said afterward, the sweat dripping off the brim of that familiar black TW-logoed cap. “I loved every bit of it.”
He was a champion again. Finally. His two-shot victory over Billy Horschel at East Lake Golf Club was Woods’ 80th on the PGA Tour, but his first in more than five years, since the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. This day was byproduct of lots of pain, and doubts, and hard work and perseverance, all of it. That made this one as sweet or sweeter than any of the first 79.
And just when you thought the anticipation for this week’s 42nd Ryder Cup in Paris could not get any higher, Tiger Woods headed to France on top of the golf world for the first time in five years. If the U.S. is to win a Ryder Cup away from home for the first time in a quarter-century, Woods will be a major part of it. Sunday at East Lake was old times. Good times.
“I can’t believe I just won the Tour Championship,” he said standing on the 18th green after accepting the winner’s Calamity Jane putter from PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan.
Some of his Ryder Cup teammates, the ones who kept inviting him out to play at home when he was struggling to find a swing, were there to congratulate him, and that meant so much. Justin Thomas. Rickie Fowler. Justin Rose, the newly crowned FedEx Cup Playoffs champion, embraced him in a hug. You can bet that U.S. team charter headed for France at 10 p.m. would be buzzing, as will be the entire sports world once fans get back to the office on Monday morning. Tiger Woods, at 42, and having battled back from four back surgeries, is a champion once again. Hard to believe.
“This is big for the game of golf. Not just Tiger, but the whole game of golf,” said NBC analyst Johnny Miller during Sunday’s telecast. “It gets a lot of people revved up – revved up for the Ryder Cup next week, too.”
Woods will be partaking in his eighth Ryder Cup, but once again, it’s been a while since he last competed. The last time Woods played for the U.S. was in 2012, when it lost a Sunday heartbreaker at Medinah, outside Chicago. He was standing in the fairway, taking on Francesco Molinari in the day’s anchor match in singles when he watched Europe break out in celebration up at the final green. Europe would be keeping the cup.
Two years ago at Hazeltine, Woods was part of the winning mix, but he didn’t hit a shot, serving as an assistant captain to Davis Love III. He still considers himself to have left some business unfinished.
“I missed playing in it, missed competing in it,” Woods said earlier this week at East Lake. “I missed that rush of going out there and trying to get a point for my team. I was a part of it in a different way in '16, which was very different, because I had been a part of these teams since '97 as a player only.
“And to have looked at it from a different angle and a different side, or actually had been forced to … put it this way, I really want to play in it. I've been a player my entire career. I've been a part of these teams now for the better part of 20 years, and to have earned the confidence in my teammates and my Captain to have been selected is something that gives me a lot of excitement going into the Cup.”
At East Lake, Woods drove the ball great. In building a three-shot lead through 54 holes, he putted it better than anyone. Three rounds, 54 holes, 78 putts. On Sunday, he put his course management skills and grit to the test. On the front nine, as his closest pursuers were making mistakes, Woods made an opening birdie and followed it with eight pars. He struggled late, and made the final margin a little close for comfort, holding off on high-fiving his caddie, Joe LaCava, until after he splashed his third shot from a greenside bunker to 7 feet below the hole at East Lake's par-5 18th.
From there, he needed two putts, but it was enough to get the job done. Another trophy was his. It was difficult for Woods to keep his emotions in check as the massive crowd at East Lake made its way up the fairways behind him, as fans once might follow Arnold Palmer up the last hole at an Open Championship. They surrounded the green afterward, 10 and 12 deep, chanting “Ti-Ger! Ti-Ger!” He’d waited a long time for this moment, as had they.
“As crazy as it sounds, a guy with 79 wins, I said maybe on Thursday or Friday, he’s got to learn to close again,” said former Masters champion Trevor Immelman. “I almost felt silly saying that. But from what we saw from Florida (during the Florida Swing), the way we saw him take the lead at the Open (at Carnoustie), and then give it away with a few holes to play … It was like, ‘Wait. Has age caught up with him? Is he doubting himself in these moments? Doesn’t he trust his swing? Are his hands a little shaky in those moments?’
“But man, they’re not. He’s got it.”
He’s got it. Eighty PGA Tour victories, and all kinds of momentum as he settled into his seat for the long flight to Paris. So where does this one rank?
"It's certainly up there," Woods said, "with all the major championships I've won, (the) Players, World Golf Championships. This is under different circumstances. As I explained throughout the year, I just didn't know when this would ever happen again."
Earlier this season, when asked to describe being able to compete once again, competing on the PGA Tour and doing what he loves to do, Woods used a singular word: Blessed. On Sunday, he was a champion again, and off to play in the Ryder Cup.