All claws – no pause!
Tiger Woods claims 1st win since 2013
by M. James Ward
ATLANTA, GA. When the American squad was ready to battle against an International squad last September for the President's Cup at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, NJ, the figure of Tiger Woods was present – in body. Not as a player but as an assistant captain. The future of Woods at that time went beyond whether Tiger was coming back as a competitor to if he was going to be able to do so. Keep in mind; this is the same person who was only given permission by his doctors to practice chips and putts in August 2017 after going through spinal fusion surgery earlier that same year.
His own words stated that there might be a scenario in which he would never return to competitive golf. Woods emphasized how his quality of life – the wherewithal to play with his two children – was more important than anything else.
Fast-forward to Sunday's thrilling win at The Tour Championship, his first in over 5 years, 1,857 days to be exact since winning the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club. His 269 total provided a two-shot victory over runner-up Billy Horschel and garnered his 80th victory. It also marked a clear comeback from the series of surgeries – four in total – that Woods has endured over the years. The emotions of the moment were clearly out in force with large galleries shouting "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger." Woods was equally moved, admitting when walking towards the 18th green that tears welled up in his eyes.
To give this some perspective in December of 2017 Tiger was ranked 1,173 in the world. He has not won a major event since 2008 at the US Open at Torrey Pines or a PGA Tour event since 2013. This is the same person who was arrested for a DUI (driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol) in 2017 and upon deeper review the toxicology reports indicated Woods "had five different drugs in this system." The police photo showing a disheveled Woods led many to believe that his golf record would be linked to his past with no real future happening. The greater concern, which Woods articulated was being able to walk and function normally rather than playing world championship golf again. The victory in Atlanta moves Woods to 13th in the world rankings and his impact was clearly a tsunami on the golfing stage.
Tiger was not his vintage self during the final round at East Lake, scoring a one-over-par 71, but he played solid enough golf for victory never to be in doubt. Whereas his two closest competitors, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy, both failed to do anything of note scoring 73 and 74 respectively. The lone bright spot was Rose claiming the FedEx Cup title with a final hole birdie and the $10 million prize. McIlroy's failure did not have a silver lining. Paired with Woods, his idol when growing up in Northern Ireland, Rory once again faded in a crucial final round. While not as disappointing as his meltdown this past April against Patrick Reed at The Masters, the question marks are starting to reach critical mass for Rory. For Woods, winning wire-to-wire over the 30 best players from the PGA Tour was a clear statement that he is rapidly moving back into the position he occupied for so many years prior to his personal issues and injury struggles.
Returning to The Tour Championship for the first time since 2013, Woods played top tier golf in the first round with a five-under-par 65 capped by a 27-foot putt for eagle on the 18th hole. Unlike the earlier FedEx Cup Playoff venues were birdies were coming fast and furious, East Lake proved to be a formidable layout. The dense Bermuda rough made it imperative that tees shots consistently find the fairways. The demanding venue clearly aided Woods in building his lead to three shots entering the final round.
Amazingly, as the year started, few could even remotely contemplate Woods would be a member of the USA Ryder Cup team and that his play would nearly result in a major championship title – both at The Open at Carnoustie where he held the outright lead after the 10th hole during the final round and at the PGA Championship at Bellerive where he finished outright 2nd and concluded play with a personal best major championship final round 64 before succumbing to eventual winner Brooks Koepka.
In recent years the golf cognoscenti had weighed in opining Woods inability to control his driver and display his renowned putting prowess would likely never return to anything close to his prime playing days. While Woods still hits the occasional stray tee shot, the overwhelming percentage has improved dramatically. And his famed putting stroke was spot on during all the key moments at East Lake.
Woods is now ranked 13th in the world and heading to next week's Ryder Cup Matches in Paris clearly provides a wave of positive momentum. There is no question Woods wants to have Team USA win for the first time on foreign soil since 1993. Keep in mind, Woods wishes to redeem himself from his hard to figure mediocre record of 13-17-3 in the event.
Tiger turns 43 at the end of this year. After winning his last major at 32 when claiming his 3rd US Open, it appeared inevitable Woods would eventually surpass the gold standard record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus. While that record looks safe, it is now more than fair to say that barring serious injury Woods is clearly able to add to that total and that could happen as soon as the 2019 Masters.
The golfer who won 14 majors by age 32 is no longer present. However, underestimating Woods has been something many have done. The future is never certain in golf but the Woods of today has shown real grit and deep down tenacity. The claws are sharp and the eye of the Tiger is once again keen for the competitive scene that he has long relished.
Tiger has now stoked the public and media's appetite for the next chapter to happen. Given the journey he has faced, the road from Liberty National a year ago to where he is now is nothing short of brilliant. No one in the sport moves the needle like he does. The ending chapters, which seemed etched in stone with his golf obituary, can now be seen as utterly premature. Many of today's young stars had only heard of the Tiger who relentlessly stalks his prey. While the young stars acknowledged the greatness of Tiger it was more out of respect to the past than present. Clearly they are now turning their heads and looking back over their shoulders anxiously witnessing the kind of pressure Tiger can bring to bear when his game is on form.
East Lake provided the launching pad – being satisfied is not within Tiger’s DNA. All claws – no pause. That is the Tiger mantra and he’s most certainly out of the "Woods." The world of golf has long missed such triumphs and wondered if they would ever be seen again.
Welcome back indeed.
Photos courtesy of the PGA TOUR