One thousand, eight hundred, and seventy-six. It’s the number you’ll hear over and over after this week, and for good reason—that’s how many days it had been since Tiger Woods won a golf tournament. Children born the day of Tiger’s last win are kindergarteners now. The last time he won a golf tournament, we were all using the iPhone 5, LeBron was on the Heat and Ray Allen had just hit the shot, Derek Jeter had yet to retire, and Colin Kaepernick was six months removed from almost having won the Super Bowl. Since Tiger won the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, 118 players have won a PGA Tour event, but none of those wins felt like this one.
After an entire season of close calls, top-10 finishes, and streaky runs at majors, Tiger put together a dominant wire-to-wire performance in the final tour event of the year, beating the field at the 2018 Tour Championship in Atlanta by two strokes and a final score of 11-under.
Less than a year ago, Tiger admitted he’d thought about a reality in which he didn’t play competitive golf. “I don’t know what my future holds for me,” he said in a press conference, his first since his back surgery last April (which was his fourth back procedure since 2014). Tiger’s comments felt like a douse of both realism and pessimism given his seemingly eternal journey back from injury. Even Tiger, one of the most voracious competitors in the history of sports, doubted himself. And yet, here we are.
“My body was a wreck,” Tiger said in an interview with Jim Nantz that aired mid-round Sunday. In it, he said winning the tournament would be “one of my better accomplishments I’ve had just considering where I’ve been and what I’ve had to dig through and fight through.”
There was something eerily familiar about this win, something perfectly Tiger-esque about it. In the previous 12 PGA events where Tiger had held a lead or a share of the lead after every round, he had won. Always more comfortable in the driver’s seat than bringing up the rear, Tiger found himself in that position again, and he didn’t let up.
Tiger’s dominant weekend at East Lake felt like a throwback to his younger days. After finishing tied for the lead on both Thursday and Friday, he used moving day to zoom ahead of a crowded leaderboard, at one point leading the field by five shots, before regressing to “just” a three-shot lead by day’s end. Sunday was all about maintenance. Tiger shot a 71 and cruised through his final round as every potential competitor melted away while fans climbed trees to get a better view of him.
It was a vintage victory lap that turned into a party. As Tiger walked up the fairway on the par-5 18th hole, the crowd cheered and chanted his name, and Rory McIlroy grinned like a fan beside him. The galleries then spilled onto the fairway in a scene that can only be described as surreal. Following his second shot, everything devolved into pandemonium. A sea of fans ran after him on the walk-up to the green, and security stood by his side as if he was a rock star being escorted to the stage. It was an unforgettable scene:
“I loved every minute of it,” he said with an unceasing smile after finishing his final round. “I was having a hard time not crying.”
Tiger finished the tournament having hit 64 percent of all fairways, and he topped in the field in putts per green in regulation. He’s now 43-2 when holding leads after 54 holes in a PGA event.
But if Tiger’s game off the tee was the foundation for his victory, then his short game was where he separated himself from the field. It seemed like every iron was hit to a puttable range like darts to a board. As the weekend went along and the crowds around him grew, every whoosh from his wedge became a precursor to raucous applause; it didn’t matter that the crowd didn’t know whether the shot would be good or not. Most of the time, it was.
On the greens, he was deadly, draining a total of 18 birdies—tied for fourth-best of the tournament—and a slew of long pars to avoid a slump. Perhaps no putt, though, was more fantastic than the round-finishing eagle at the 18th hole on Thursday.
Tiger finishes his first round tied atop the leaderboard after this eagle on 18! pic.twitter.com/GWmClrkGfK— Stadium (@WatchStadium) September 20, 2018
It seemed like with every birdie—six of which came on the first seven holes Saturday—and every par save (he finished with eight bogeys, one a double, in the entire tourney), his confidence grew. He started walking in putts before they dropped and rolling out the famous fist pumps for the few longer ones. Finally, Tiger once again played like he knew he could win.
The win felt like the result of a push that’s been mounting all year, a year during which Tiger’s demeanor has shifted. The extreme frustration that accompanied his early appearances is all but gone. Now, there are plenty of smiles, laughs, and displays of joy that were once dampened by his competitive fire. But of course, we’ve seen plenty of the fire still. The two traits can now coexist.
Oh. My. Lord. IT'S OVER!!! pic.twitter.com/zkWVXgVXEm— Tiger Tracker (@GCTigerTracker) September 23, 2018
Tiger showed up Sunday with his patented red shirt in hand, hat backwards, flaunting his arms in a black Nike cut-off as if to say, Look at me now. And why wouldn’t we? Every time he steps up to a tee, we do look; galleries fill up and home viewers tune in. (Saturday’s round produced the highest TV rating for a third-round Tour Championship telecast in 15 years.) When Tiger is playing, everybody watches.
“I didn’t know what to expect this year,” he said in an interview that aired mid-round. “The energy from the fans … it has been unreal.”
The entire season was a grind for Tiger, a series of excruciating close calls at the Open Championship, PGA Championship, and a number of FedEx Cup events that closed the season. Seeing Tiger Woods claw at the top of the leaderboard felt at first like a miracle, then suddenly like a formality. Eventually, it felt inevitable that he would win. Sunday proved as much.
In many ways, it was fitting that Tiger got his first win in five years at a tournament that wasn’t a major. Winning again, which at times looked impossible, was once thought to be the ultimate goal—a summit Tiger was trying to reach just one more time. But this win feels more like merely a checkpoint along the way to the next greatest thing: a major win.
In 2018, Tiger has changed the mentality around his game more than once. It used to be easy to wonder whether Tiger Woods would ever win a golf tournament again. Now, so quickly, it’s easy to wonder What’s next? This isn’t the Tiger of old, just an older Tiger. But, finally, this Tiger is here to win too.