When that long-awaited, oft-debated and sorely-doubted next win did come for Tiger Woods, it was so deceivingly simple. It required nothing more from him than to be steady while all others at East Lake were losing their minds.
Just stand strong in a swirl of the very chaos his presence atop the leaderboard created – you know, be Tiger Woods – for 18 more holes and maybe the best golf comeback story since Ben Hogan vs. the Greyhound bus would have its proper next chapter.
From a modest round of 1-over 71 Sunday came a most extraordinary turn of events at the Tour Championship. Woods won for the first time in five years. And drowned out in the roar of a gallery turned to a mob were the murmurs that he’d never add to his cache of 79 PGA Tour victories following his 2017 spinal fusion.
“Eighty (as in wins) is a big number,” he said. “I’ve been sitting on 79 for about five years now and to get 80 is a pretty damned good feeling.”
In the backwash of history, Justin Rose birdied 18 to shimmy up the leaderboard just enough – finishing tied for fourth at 6 under – to claim the season-ending FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus.
A nice little perk for him. A priceless experience for the thousands who followed Woods around East Lake jostling for a decent view of the Woods Revival. And while they all strained to get closer to Woods, those inside the ropes who were supposed to make things hard on him couldn’t get out of his way quickly enough.
It could be argued that Woods won this thing Saturday, with his run of six birdies over the first seven holes. For his last 29 holes, he was 2-over par, but nobody could make anything of the opportunity. And for the 54th time in 58 tournaments in which Woods had at least a share of the third-round lead, he closed the deal. The most remarkable number of this day.
The two who began Sunday three strokes back of Woods just evaporated in the heat of the moment. Rose shot 73, while Woods’ playing partner Rory McIlroy shot 74. It was up to Billy Horschel, coming up from nowhere, shooting 66 and pushing to within two shots of Woods (11 under for the week) at the end, to give Sunday the least bit of competitive edge. It otherwise was a coronation.
Woods arrived for his 2:05 tee time like a star for his big film debut. All that was missing was the red carpet. His every step to the tee box was through a cordon thick with people, and as he approached, their voices were a rising wave of noise that Woods practically could have ridden to No. 1 had he packed a boogie board in his golf bag.
Cooks in their tall while hats and caterers in their aprons came down from their stations to capture the day’s first shot on their phone.
He was wearing his usual Sunday red and black, just like he did when that used to mean something. Sorry Bulldogs fans, he owns that color combination today, same as in the earlier years of this century.
Meanwhile, just yards away at No. 10, the defending U.S. Open champion, Brooks Koepka, was making the turn, striding down the fairway as relatively alone as a lighthouse keeper.
And as Woods came up 18, the great crowd closed in around and behind him. East Lake has never seen the likes of such a stampede, and may never see it again. To all that was added the sound effect of a SEC football crowd turned to golf, chanting, “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger.”
Even for a player who has gone a career inciting big noise on the golf course, the scene at 18 was remarkable. He’s heard plenty, “but not to this fevered pitch,” Woods said. “I guess it’s different now because the art of clapping is gone, right? You can’t clap when you have a cell phone in your hand. So, people yell. And they were yelling. They’re going to be hoarse.”
After hitting his second shot to the par-5 18th into a greenside bunker, Woods recalled his thoughts: “I’m having a hard time not crying. I said, ‘Hey, you know what, I can still blade this thing out of bounds. Just suck it up and hit some shots.’”
He splashed onto the green, took his two-putt par and loosed what was the most restrained celebration of anyone in the East Lake Zip Code.
In between these opening and closing scenes, the golf itself was rather tame.
Woods rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt on his opening hole to immediately expand his lead to four shots. Considering his game plan, that had to be comforting: “I just wanted to shoot under par today. I figured that would be the number. This golf course was playing hard.”
The grinding nature of his round was evident on the par-4 fifth hole, when he saved par from the bunker – he was 7 of 9 for sand saves this week – and McIlroy couldn’t. That, along with the fact that McIlroy seemed to much prefer the shade of the East Lake woods to the sunny swaths of fairway, defined the difference between the two.
Woods wobbled at the end with bogeys on Nos. 15 and 16 – coming oh-so close to splashing his tee ball to the par-3 15th into the actual East Lake.
No one will long recall any of that. They’ll remember Sunday as the day Woods returned to that island that he alone used to inhabit, a retreat of calculating calm and winning golf amid a tumult unlike any other in his game.
Woods was solid and measured to the end.
“Some of the players have seen what I’ve gone through and they know how hard it was just to get back to playing golf again, forget the elite level,” he said. “Just to be able to play golf again and enjoy being with my kids and living that life (was enough).
“And then, lo and behold, I’m able to do this.”