After Tiger Woods won for the first time in more than five years in the Tour Championship at East Lake on Sunday, the exuberant reaction of both the fans and the media is a strong indicator that all is right in the golfing world.
Woods had not won since the World Golf Championship event in 2013 at Firestone, which hosted that tournament for the last time this year. That was the last of his five PGA Tour victories that year, his final one as a world class golfer before he spent the next four years dealing with an increasingly debilitating back injury that threatened to end his career.
But after spinal fusion surgery finally gave Woods relief from the pain and the ability to swing a golf club with sufficient speed and movement to again compete against the game’s best players, he has regained his status as one of golf’s elite after a highly successful 2018 showing.
Woods played in exactly one official PGA Tour event in 2016 and ’17 before returning to action early this year in San Diego. In his fourth start, he finished one shot back in a tie for second in Tampa on a course that was almost totally foreign to him. The next week, he tied for fifth at Bay Hill, one of the courses that he owned before his back issues sidelined him after 2013.
The next time Woods appeared at the top of the leader board came in the British Open at Carnoustie, where he held the lead briefly on Sunday before tying for sixth, three shots behind unflappable Italian Francesco Molinari.
Less than a month later, Woods made another run at a major, firing a final round 64 in the PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis to finish two behind Brooks Koepka, the 2017 and ’18 U.S. Open champion.
Prior to his Tour Championship win at East Lake, Woods had not done much in the FedExCup Playoffs other than a tie for sixth on a mostly defenseless Aronimink in Philadelphia, the final stop before Atlanta.
Woods ended the regular season 20th on the FedExCup points list and was still 20th after the first three Playoffs events to qualify for the Tour Championship for the first time since 2013. Woods had made nine appearances at East Lake prior to last week, winning in 2007 and placing second four times between 2000 and 2009.
The only time Woods won at East Lake came in a year when the putting surfaces were heat stressed and damaged and the course was taken apart by the 30-player field, especially Woods. He shot 23-under 257, by six shots the low 72-hole total in tournament history, to win by eight. The greens were converted to an improved surface the next year and no one has shot lower than 267 since, with Woods’ winning total this year 269.
One of Woods’ four runner-up finishes came in similar fashion to his 2007 victory. Journeyman Bart Bryant played the tournament of his life in ’05, shooting a then-record 263 to finish six in front of Woods, who skipped the Tour Championship the next year to rest up for a late-season cash grab in Asia. Woods returned to East Lake in ’07 to clinch the first FedExCup title with his victory, the only time in four tries he won the Tour Championship in the 2000s when playing in the final group on Sunday.
In 2000, Woods was tied with Vijay Singh after 54 holes, but wound up losing by two to Phil Mickelson, who shot 66 the final day to Woods’ 69. Woods was also tied for the 54-hole in 2004, this time with Jay Haas, but was run over by Retief Goosen, who closed with a 64 to go from four behind Woods at the start of the day to four ahead at the end. Woods (72) and Haas (75) were the only players among the top 14 finishers to shoot over par in the final round.
Woods did not have the lead after three rounds in 2009, trailing Kenny Perry by two. Like Singh (73) and Haas before him, Perry struggled in a final Sunday pairing with Woods, closing with a 74. Woods settled for a final round 70 and was again overtaken by Mickelson, who fired a final round 65 to finish three ahead of Woods after beginning the day four off the lead and two in back of Tiger.
For most of his career, Woods has clearly impacted the play of other contenders the final day, and Sunday was no exception. Woods began the day with a three-shot lead over Europe’s top two players – Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy. Rose shared the second round lead with Woods at 133 and shot 68 when paired with Tiger in the third round.
Woods moved out to a three-shot lead after 54 holes, shooting his second 65 on Saturday. He was paired in the final group Sunday with McIlroy, who moved into a tie for second with Rose after a Saturday 66.
Even with the Falcons hosting the Saints in downtown Atlanta that afternoon, the Tour Championship attracted what was likely its largest number of spectators ever on Sunday, with most of them following the Woods-McIlroy pairing.
The boisterous gallery witnessed a final round devoid of high quality play and tense drama, unlike those in attendance at the Falcons game, a back-and-forth shootout that was decided in overtime.
Woods did little on Sunday to capture his first PGA Tour victory in over five years, playing more like Nick Faldo in his prime (lots of fairways, greens and pars until late in the final round). Woods produced the grand total of two birdies Sunday and shot 1-over 71 with three bogeys on East Lake’s back nine.
Fortunately for Woods, both McIlroy and Rose struggled noticeably. McIlroy made three bogeys and a double bogey in a five-hole stretch on the front nine and shot 74, needing a birdie on the par-5 18th to tie for seventh at 275. He hit just three of 14 fairways Sunday, missing several of them by considerable margins, and just eight greens.
Rose wasn’t much better with four fairways and 10 greens, closing with a 73. The only highlight on Sunday for Rose was a two-putt birdie at the 18th that gave him a tie for fourth, which was barely enough to finish ahead of Woods in the final FedExCup standings.
Coming into the Tour Championship, Rose was second behind Bryson DeChambeau, who won the first two Playoffs events. Rose finished second in the third Playoffs event, giving up the lead with a bogey on the 72nd hole before losing on the first playoff hole to Keegan Bradley.
Rose remained on top in the FedExCup standing s for most of the final round, but trailed Woods coming to the 18th hole after three bogeys on the back nine. The closing birdie gave Rose the $10 million bonus for winning the FedExCup, which was a partial gift from DeChambeau.
DeChambeau needed to finish in the top half of the 30-man field to take home the $10 million bonus provided Rose did not win, which was never a realistic possibility on Sunday after the first hole. Following a second round 75, DeChambeau was one shot from last place, but a third round 66 gave him a chance the next day.
With birdies at 9, 11, 12, 13 and 14, DeChambeau moved into the top 15 and could have claimed the FedExCup trophy with a decent finish. Instead, he bogeyed the island green 15th after splashing his tee shot and three-putted from 11 feet for bogey at the 17th. He missed a birdie putt from inside 10 feet at the 18th for a 67 and finished 19th at 1-under 279. He was third behind Rose and Woods in the final standings.
With seven of the eight players in the final four groups shooting over par Sunday, the lone person to make any sort of move on Woods was 2014 Tour Championship winner and FedExCup champion Billy Horschel. With three of his six birdies coming on the final seven holes Sunday, Horschel shot 66 to finish second outright at 271, two behind Woods, who did not exactly provide his vocal, celebrity-obsessed, selfie-taking followers with a scintillating finish.
Holding a comfortable 5-shot lead on the 15th tee, Woods barely cleared the water with his tee shot and made bogey, had to pitch out after an errant drive at the 16th for another bogey, and again missed the fairway and green at 17 before saving par with a nice chip.
With thousands of rowdy spectators pursuing Woods down the 18th fairway a la the finish of the British Open, Woods had one last chance to elicit a mighty roar from them. But he missed a 7-footer for birdie after hitting his second shot on the par 5 into a greenside bunker.
His fans didn’t care. They cheered just as lustily when he tapped in for par and the victory.
Given the play in the final round of Rose and McIlroy, Woods had already won the tournament before he teed it up Sunday. Thanks to an eagle on the 18th Thursday, he shared the opening round lead at 65 with Rickie Fowler, who also shot 65 on Sunday to tie for seventh at 275. Hideki Matsuyama shot 65 Sunday to tie for fourth at 274 and his Friday 66 was the only bogey-free round of the tournament.
Woods overcame a double bogey Friday at the 16th with a birdie at 18 for a 68 and a share of the second round lead with Rose at 133, two in front of McIlroy in third.
The tournament was decided on the front nine Saturday when Woods birdied six of the first seven holes, the last five in succession. Two of the birdies came on putts from outside 20 feet, the other four from eight feet or closer.
Woods played his last 11 holes that day in 1-over and his last 29 holes of the tournament in 2-over but it didn’t matter. No one was going to deny him his 80th career victory and first in more than five years, especially with his East Lake antagonist from the 2000s playing like he wished he was already in Paris.
Mickelson finished last in the field by three shots, beating out Ryder Cup teammates Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed for the honor.
With the victory, Woods became just the second player to win the Tour Championship at East Lake twice, sharing that honor with Mickelson.
After beginning the year outside the top 650 in the World Golf Rankings, Woods is up to 13th. Dustin Johnson regained his spot atop the rankings, inching past Rose after shooting a final round 67 to finish third in the Tour Championship at 273.