The word “comeback” has been thrown around a lot this year. This very website used it to group together some of our favorite stories and moments of 2018; we’ve had comebacks in football games and comeback kid baseball teams; hell, even the band Hootie & the Blowfish has established a comeback narrative as they’ve reunited for a 2019 tour.
But after what unfolded this September at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, “comeback” feels like a word that should have levels to it — one that needs some outside clarification, or an independent counsel to determine when it’s appropriate to use. Or maybe we just need to invent a new word altogether. It doesn’t seem right to describe what Tiger Woods did in 2018 with the same word we use to describe the guys who sang “Let Her Cry.”
A little over 18 months ago, Woods released a statement that sent his fans into a tailspin and transformed golf writers into armchair physicians. “Tiger Woods announced today that he has undergone successful back surgery to alleviate ongoing pain in his back and leg,” the statement began. Subsequent paragraphs explained that this was his fourth back surgery in three years, and the final straw after half a decade of trying to manage his pain. “When healed,” Woods wrote, “I look forward to getting back to a normal life, playing with my kids, competing in professional golf and living without the pain I have been battling so long.” But at the time, none of that was a guarantee.
If you’ve followed Tiger Woods’s career at all, chances are good you’re familiar with his injuries, personal life drama, substance abuse issues, and the resulting implosion of his golf career. You may have tracked his latest recovery effort, one that, interspersed with Instagram clips of him working on his swing, included a DUI arrest and comments made during last year’s Presidents’ Cup tournament that he may never play competitive golf again. Woods’s winding career road did eventually lead him back to the golf course this year, where he played in more than 15 tournaments for the first time since 2013, and said he hasn’t “felt this good in years.”
His season has been full of highlights: from winning his first tournament in five years to recording his best finish in a major (second place at the PGA Championship) since 2009. Many fans once thought a comeback from Tiger was impossible. Now, it’s a reality — and there may be even more winning to come next season. So to close out the year, here are the five moments that best exemplify Tiger Woods’s extraordinary run in 2018.
The 71-foot Birdie Putt at Bay Hill
The prime of Woods’s career was long over by the time memes hit the internet lexicon. But nonetheless, he’s had plenty of experience going viral — remember when he introduced the world to Mac Daddy Santa last year? This year, though, was perhaps the first time that Woods’s golf skills have matched up perfectly with internet #content creators, and led to the memeification of something Woods did on the course.
Back in March, Tiger was playing in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational when he lined up for a 71-foot birdie putt at the par-3 seventh hole. At that time Woods was still in the infancy of his comeback, having played in just four tournaments since the start of the year, but the hype had started to build around him after his T-2 finish at the Valspar Championship a week prior. The crowd surrounding the green was quiet as Woods tapped the ball to start its motion, and seemingly no one made a sound until the ball rolled into the cup a full eight seconds later. As the crowd started to roar, Woods couldn’t help but laugh. And almost immediately, this image started flying around the internet:
The expression was decidedly un-Tiger-like, the first of a year’s worth of reactions ranging from silly to disbelief. This was one of our first signals that the stone-faced Woods of the past was gone, and in his place was a guy that was just happy to be good at golf again. Later in the year, as the competition increased and Woods got closer and closer to winning, that ultra-competitor would return. But at Bay Hill, Woods just looked glad to be there.
Tiger’s Shanked First Tee Shot at the Masters
Ask any golf writer or fan and they’ll tell you: Tiger shanking the ball off the first tee of a tournament is almost too on the nose at this point. His opening hole jitters are well-documented — articles have been written on the subject, and prop bets made guessing whether or not Woods would hit the fairway with his first tee shot. In his prime, Woods’s game was mechanical. He closed out almost any tournament he led after 54 holes, and he did so in ruthless fashion. But his issues on the first tee remained and have became something of an illustrated kink, one that more often than not was harmless but made him seem at least somewhat human in the process.
Tiger missing the fairway from the first tee is a box you want on any tournament bingo card, so when he stepped up to the tee at this year’s Masters — his first appearance at the tournament in three years — and did this, it was almost nostalgic:
Somehow the prop bet around this going into the Masters favored Woods landing his tee shot in the fairway — seriously, where have you people been? — but I like to think most everyone was rooting for it to miss. Woods didn’t have much success in the tournament overall, finishing T-32, and never gave himself a chance at the win. But in a way, him biffing the first shot of the tournament was as much a throwback as seeing him in red on Sunday.
Woods Finds His Family at the End of the Open Championship
Throughout his career, Tiger has kept his public persona very buttoned up, preferring privacy and giving generic answers in the press to revealing much about his life. But this season, as his health has returned and his game has soared, he’s opened up a bit (a small bit, mind you) and let people in on what got him through his recovery — namely, his children, Sam and Charlie. And we got the most touching glimpse of father-children interaction after Sunday’s round at this year’s Open Championship.
Heading into the final day of the tournament, Woods was in the hunt and looking to contend for his first major win since 2008. Before teeing off that day, Woods reportedly announced that he’d be playing for his kids, so that they could “see dad do what he’s done most of his life.” Previously, Woods had joked that his kids knew of his golf prowess only from YouTube — that’s how far removed they were from seeing and remembering him in his prime (Sam was 1 when Woods last won a major and Charlie was not yet born) — but they were in attendance at Carnoustie to watch his Sunday round.
Woods finished T-6 in the tournament, three shots back of the winner, Francesco Molinari. But after his round there were no tantrums, none of the visible signs of frustration we might have seen from a losing Tiger in the past. Instead, he walked off the 18th green and straight into the arms of his kids. “It’s pretty emotional because they gave me some pretty significant hugs there and squeezed,” Woods said after the match. “I told them I tried and I said, ‘Hopefully you’re proud of your pops for trying as hard as I did.’”
Tiger and Phil Mickelson Formally Announce “The Match”
Phil Mickelson first floated the possibility of a one-on-one competition with Tiger Woods in a July interview with Golf.com. Golf fans had long hoped for something like this: a chance to see two of the sport’s fiercest competitors face off in a format they’d never gone head-to-head in before. Though some criticized this competition for coming 10 years too late, Woods and Mickelson still upended a few of the conventions about the sport when they formally announced (complete with a few corny dad jokes on Twitter) in August that they’d be competing in a matchplay event titled “The Match”:
Ultimately the product didn’t live up to the hype — the two combined for just three total birdies on the front nine and the trash talk was … limited, to say the least. But they still pioneered a new golfing venture, one that was seemingly outside the purview of the PGA Tour (though the tour reportedly stuck its head in and limited some of the on-course gambling opportunities between Mickelson and Woods). It combined legal betting, independent TV contracts, streaming, pay-per-view, and a whole host of sponsors that would probably be up for doing something like this again in one fashion or another. They’ll get their chance: The Match is reportedly coming back in 2019 and 2020.
Tiger Woods is the closest thing golf has to a rock star. He’s the big name used to sell out tournaments, the guy who raised prize money to previously unseen heights, the person who controlled the scene for so long that it’s nearly impossible to remember what the sport was like before he came along. And on Sunday of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, his legend grew even bigger.
As Tiger walked up to the 18th green with the tournament lead, preparing to take home his first victory in five years, the crowd behind him was closer to a mob scene than a group of golf spectators. Woods was surrounded by security as he made his walk and people swarmed around him — all trying to create a memory, to be able to say they saw Tiger up close as he won his 80th PGA Tour title. It was an emotional moment, even for the announcers on hand. Dan Hicks could only laugh as the cameras panned from a closeup of Woods’s face out to the rows and rows of people behind him. It was like Jesus’s Feeding of the 5,000 mixed with the Shooter McGavin chase-down scene at the end of Happy Gilmore.
It was only fitting that this moment should come on the final hole of the final PGA tour tournament of the year. Sure, there were grander stages it could have happened on, and perhaps more meaningful venues, but whether people wanted it to be or not, 2018 was the Year of Tiger in the golf world, and his first win since completing his comeback was a powerful bookend to the season. There were many times this year when we wanted to claim Tiger was “back” — when he had his first successful round at the Hero World Championship, when he finished T-2 at the Valspar and was in contention on a Sunday again, and when he came close to winning two different majors in a season. But I don’t think we could have fully claimed Tiger was back until he got a win, the most quintessentially Tiger Woods thing he could do.