As Tiger Woods crushed his tee shot down the 18th fairway Sunday, all of them had had enough. Enough of being told to be quiet, enough of being constrained by ropes and golf etiquette. This is the South, after all, where it’s practically expected to rush onto the field following the biggest wins.
Even Woods was caught between smiling as he looked back and staying in the moment as a sea of humanity flooded the fairway behind him. Just like the field behind Woods this week, the security guards had no chance. As thousands of people drew closer, all of them chanting “Tiger! Tiger!” one of Atlanta’s elite golf clubs had suddenly turned into a scene straight out of a football game at Auburn or Clemson.
But who cares about decorum when Woods just won his first tournament in five years?
“This was different,” Woods said, acknowledging that the scene on the final hole was unlike anything he experienced in his previous 79 career victories. “I guess it’s different now because the art of clapping is gone. You can’t clap with a cell phone in your hand, so people yell.”
It may be the best description yet for why Woods’ comeback is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and why the emotion following him at every tournament this summer has been so intense.
In sports, we are used to eras ending, legends fading and passing the best parts of those memories down to the next generation while lamenting they never got to see that kind of greatness for themselves.
Until Sunday, that was going to be how we told the Woods story. It had been a long, long time since he was the most invincible athlete on the planet, and for the generation just now old enough to understand what it means to see that red shirt stalking the fairways on a Sunday, the idea that victory was inevitable had only been the stuff of fuzzy YouTube clips. As Woods acknowledged, his own children, ages 11 and 9, didn’t really understand “what their dad can do on a golf course” until he contended in the final round of the British Open two months ago.
But as Woods paraded up and down the course in the final round of the Tour Championship, the desperation of seeing him win one more time at age 42 finally met the inevitability of a decade ago.
Woods’ first PGA Tour victory since Aug. 4, 2013, his first triumph after being betrayed by his body so badly that it was uncertain he’d ever play again, was less a test of nerves than a rekindling of his muscle memory. Conjuring his old-school dominance against the best players on tour this year felt far more like a new beginning than a last hurrah.
While Woods’ pair of near-misses at the British and PGA Championship this summer certainly portended the possibility that he would win again — and soon — what happened here this weekend opens the door for something far greater.
Woods’ final chapter is never going to be as good as the one he authored from 1997-2008, but for the first time we can see a path between where he is now and a future that includes surpassing Sam Snead’s record 82 tournament wins, more majors, more weekends where what’s happening in golf feels relevant in popular culture. At this point, with Woods projected to shoot up to No. 13 in the Official World Golf Rankings, it’s not a huge stretch to think he can compete again to be No. 1.
“I feel like a chance to play some more golf and maybe i’ll keep chipping away at that number (82) and maybe surpass it,” Woods said. “I just think that with what I’ve gone through and dealt with, I’ve gotten lucky. I’ve gotten very lucky. I’m not playing a full contact sport. At 42 years old with a fused lower spine that’s not going to happen but in this sport it can.
“I’ve been lucky to have an opportunity to have the people around me to support me and work through this process with me and I’ve ground out a chance to win golf tournaments again.”
What has made the Woods phenomenon so fascinating during his 2018 comeback is that it only seemed to be partly about him. Woods always has attracted big galleries and drawn huge television ratings any time he played, but the desire to see him win again also has been about us.
If you are old enough to remember the early 2000s, the way Woods pounded field after field of elite players into submission became so familiar that we took for granted how quickly it would end. As soon as Woods stuffed his approach to 10 feet on the first hole, burying the birdie to take a four-shot lead over playing partner Rory McIlroy, everyone on the course knew it was over.
That Woods could give both his fans and critics that feeling again after so long, and show a glimpse of what it was like to those who weren’t around to see it, has to rank as one of the greatest achievements of his career.
“Just to be able to compete and play again this year, that’s a hell of a comeback,” he said. “Some of the people who are very close to me, they’ve seen what I’ve gone through. I’m just enjoying being able to do this again. I didn’t know i was going to do this again.”
Woods didn’t do anything spectacular Sunday in shooting 1-over 71, largely because he didn’t have to. Which was always the point, most of the time. Back in the old days, you’d wait and wait for someone to take a run at Woods after he had grabbed control of a tournament, and usually his opponents felt so much pressure to hit perfect shots they just fell apart.
It was hard not to think about that Sunday as McIlroy, who started three behind, carded 74 and sprayed shots all over DeKalb County. The only moment of pressure Woods faced came on 17 when his lead shrunk from five shots to two over Billy Horschel, but one good chip and a four-foot putt was good enough.
As has been the case with Woods over the last few years, the great unknown is whether his body will allow this feeling to last. He’ll be 43 soon, and someone who has endured surgery after surgery only has so many comebacks in them. It wasn’t so long ago, he said, that he wondered if he was going to be able to do anything — much less play golf — without experiencing brutal pain.
“I was thinking, this is how the rest of my life’s going to be?” He said. “Then it’s going to be a tough 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 leg.”
Given where Woods started when he came back to competitive golf last December, with moderate expectations and a spine that had been fused together, ending his season with a victory like this was amazing. But now that Tiger is officially back, it certainly seems more like the beginning of his last chapter than the end of his story.
Follow Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken