Tiger Woods is back, but wait until next year
The 2018 PGA TOUR season had to end like this.
So much of this season has been about Tiger Woods’ comeback, not just to playing golf, but to a full season. His close calls and missed cuts alike drew an audience golf hadn’t seen in about a decade. Any tournament Tiger played in, he became topic number one, regardless of the improved quality of the field around him or the stories around any individual tournament.
It ended the only way it was ever going to end: Tiger Woods lifting a trophy and completing the comeback. Woods cruised to the Tour Championship on Sunday, coming in with a lead and never falling back enough to be reasonably caught. It was him at his best, and his 80th win on Tour followed.
The final score was -11, despite a final round at +1. His smallest lead on Sunday was two strokes, and even on a day where red numbers were hard to come by the living legend survived with lag putting and keeping himself in the best position possible. He nearly holed a shot near the middle of his round, and hit into the trees shortly thereafter.
The comeback was not easy. Golf never is and never will be, that’s the point of the sport itself. Coming back from surgery on one’s back is even more difficult, and paired with prior surgeries and injuries to the back and knees, it seemed insurmountable. So much so that, a year ago, Tiger Woods looked like he could be finished.
Little did we all know that the comeback began right there, at rock bottom, where all comebacks truly begin. Once he came back, progress was incremental before it was gigantic.
First, Tiger had to prove to himself that he was healthy. Coming off all those surgeries, and all that has happened since 2013, it was a question of whether he could hold up to playing often enough to get his game back in shape.
After that, it became a matter of when, not if. Every tournament he played, it was obvious that Tiger Woods was fighting rust, and fighting bad habits that developed as a result of that rust. The putter ran hot and cold. The short game in general was a little off for most of the season.
The so-called Tiger Effect was tested at times, as Woods came close to the lead at tournaments as varied as the Valspar and the Open Championship, but somebody always held him off, often his own flat stick.
What was never in question was his health. There were no tournaments from which Tiger withdrew, no poor performances chalked up to a bad back. This year for Woods was all about his game, and getting more consistent.
It was rare that Tiger Woods struggled in 2018. He was not always in contention, but part of that should be chalked up to a PGA TOUR field that has followed the example he once set. Length was no longer an overwhelming advantage, nor was his work ethic.
It became clear early on: For Woods to get back in the winner’s circle, he would have to be all the way back. Nothing short would do. In prior eras there might have been an early season tournament he could have just won with an average performance, but those days are gone.
In that spirit, he won on a week where the entire field was sure to be on its game. To make it to the Tour Championship at all, one has to have a great overall season. That Tiger made it to Atlanta was remarkable enough. He did more than that.
Because of a long day on the part of world number one Justin Rose, Woods nearly won the entire FedEx Cup and the ten million dollars that comes with it. While he only had one win on the season, one which came at the end, it shows how consistently good Woods had been in 2018, and how many tournaments the famously aloof fortysomething coming off a major back surgery played.
Woods was in the mix at every major and seriously threatened on Sunday at the Open Championship and the PGA. He showed flashes in March, in May, in July, in August, and finally in September to break through.
All the while we saw a slightly different version of the Stanford golf all-timer. The energized golf crowds of 2018 swelled for Tiger, and he smiled in appreciation. That crowd’s rowdier demeanor never got to him. Really, it seemed like the great golfer enjoyed the game more than ever before, appreciating every swing, every fan in a way he never could as the force of nature he was in younger days.
The win at East Lake completes the journey. Now Tiger is healthy, and his game is in tune. That makes the 2019 PGA season, just hours into the wait, perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated season in the Tour’s storied history. Sports fans no longer have to ask about Tiger’s comeback, and now they’ll be able to focus on where he finishes.
Right now, the betting favorite to win the 2019 Masters is exactly who you might have guessed. Only a couple of months ago, people were still wondering if Woods would ever be consistently right again, but now the imaginations run wild. Tiger’s 42 years old right now. The contemporary he was most often pitted against, Phil Mickelson, is 48. If Phil can still be competitive throughout the season, it makes one wonder if Woods could have five years left as a true contender.
Five years, of course, means twenty major championships. Woods is four away from Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 such trophies. Tying Jack is still a long shot, but after Sunday the optimist might see Woods’ path. Four titles in, give or take, five years? Nearly impossible, but the all-timers deal in that exact trade.
For now the focus shifts to the Ryder Cup, where Woods will of course be included in the US team as they try to retain the cup. An associate captain the last time around, 2016 was where Tiger Woods first saw the best golfers in a changing field crafted in his image. He had a ball as a non-player then, and he looks to have an even better time in France this year.