Jon Rahm on a Tiger-like tear as Woods continues to persevere

LOS ANGELES – One last obligation remained for the world’s most famous player-host.

His back tight, his ankle swollen, his foot howling, Tiger Woods had just wrapped up a respectable tie for 45th at the Genesis Invitational in his first competitive appearance in seven months. But he couldn’t just clean out his locker and jet back to South Florida. As much as he would have loved to plunge into an ice bath to calm the inflammation in his right leg, he was still needed for the trophy presentation with champion Jon Rahm. And so, two hours later, Woods remained in his Sunday uniform at Riviera: A black vest and red shirt, with black pants concealing layers of athletic wraps and padding.

Woods has won just about everything in the sport but never an event at this historic venue, just like Jack Nicklaus before him. “We’ll try again next year,” he smiled. As Rahm conducted his on-camera interviews, Woods stood nearby on the practice putting green, hands stuffed in his pockets, dutifully listening to instructions from his foundation team members. He posed for pictures with a few volunteers. He hugged and congratulated Max Homa on a hard-fought runner-up showing. Then he was tapped on the shoulder: It was time for him to crown the newest tournament champion, the guy who is starting to make a habit of such things.

Woods carefully descended the 52 steps toward Riviera’s 18th green. He applauded the opening remarks. And then he grabbed the microphone.

Full-field scores from The Genesis Invitational

“Jon is the best player in the world, and he showed exactly why,” Woods boomed. “The heart, the grit and the fight – that’s one of the things that we’re coming to learn about Jon.

“So, please, understand and respect how good this guy is. He’s just getting started in his career, and we all get a chance to watch it.”

But Woods isn’t just watching it – he’s experiencing it, too. Rahm’s recent rampage through the Tour has coincided with Woods’ final comeback, and the message is clear: Reaching the summit, again, is only getting harder.

Rahm: 'Gratifying' to be able to rally at Riviera

Every Tiger Woods round these days feels momentous because of its scarcity. At Augusta and St. Andrews and Riviera, fans outside the ropes are literally yelling, “Thank you, Tiger!”, though for what is not exactly clear. For showing up? For fighting through excruciating pain to entertain them? For his impact on the game? Who knows, but Woods acknowledges them all the same, more grateful than he’s been at any point in his career.

The Genesis was his first non-major round since fall 2020. It’s unknown how many more he’ll play in the future. Chances are, not many.

“I just can’t,” he said Sunday. “That’s going to be my future. That’s just my reality.”

While Rahm is in the process of realizing his monster potential, Woods is squeezing every last drop of what’s left of his. That’s why each round feels like something to savor. Even Tour security personnel this week was sneaking photos of the GOAT – you know, in case it’s one of the last tournaments he plays.

That Woods competed at all here in L.A. registered as a mild surprise. Sure, there were selfish reasons to play – the tournament benefits his foundation – but it was also a test run of sorts. He can hit balls at home, he can chip and putt at home, he can shoot 65 at home – but he can’t simulate the in-game experience of a tournament. And so before he headed to the Masters for a Hail Mary bid at major No. 16, he needed to see how he stacked up against the best regular-season field of the year.

Tiger Woods caps 72-hole week at Genesis with closing 73

These days, Woods’ greatest challenge is figuring out how to manage his rest versus his rust. There is no guide for this; his body aches in different areas, in different ways, each day. But over the past year he is learning what a tournament start will demand.

“I pretty much lay in ice all night,” he said.

Ice baths. Treatment.

Another ice bath. More treatment.

“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard mentally. It’s hard physically.”

When Woods won the Masters in 2019, he played five warmup events, building momentum at each. His biggest hindrance then was a fused back. Now, there are myriad issues: There’s the back, still, which is shouldering even more of the load since he’s unable to use the ground for power. Woods still possesses plenty of pop, but his clubhead and ball speed registered a few ticks lower Sunday (172 mph) than in the first three rounds (cruising around 178-180 mph), a telltale sign that he was wearing down after walking 90 holes in five days. Now two years removed from his serious accident, that balky right leg limits his preparation time, balloons with swelling by the end of the day and requires an intensive post-round regimen. It’s why he’s played just 13 competitive rounds in 10 months. It’s why the best-case scenario this year would be about 24 rounds.

Deep down, he surely knows that to contend at the Masters – to do more than just make the cut – he needs to play another tournament, just to sharpen his scoring skills. The question is whether he can handle it.

Against the world’s best players, and on a tricky, springy course, Woods finished the week ranked outside the top 20 in every major statistical category. Can every facet of his game be tightened up on the range and while zipping around in a cart at Medalist? Sure. Probably. But not to the extent that’ll be required in the sport’s most exacting test. Try as he might at home, he can’t simulate the eight to 10 miles of walking … and the focus and concentration … and the surges of adrenaline. An extra start at The Players would put him back in that competitive environment and allow him to more accurately assess the state of his game, with the added benefit of perhaps the easiest walk of the year at TPC Sawgrass.

Woods, though, said he’s undecided on his next appearance: “Honestly, I don’t know.” His golf is “fine,” he said, but his brittle body is not. Much will depend on the next few days and how he responds to treatment.

That process is foreign to Rahm, and to the rest of the world’s best.

The only recovery Rahm needs is to pop a few Advil after another victory celebration.

Chamblee gives Tiger's Genesis performance an A

Rahm was nervous before the final round of the Genesis, and it was easy to understand why.

He had never before won three times in a Tour season, and now he was 18 holes away from accomplishing a career first – on Feb. 19.

He could return to world No. 1 for the first time in a year.

He knew all about Hogan’s Alley, the list of winners at this storied venue.

And, of course, there was the Tiger factor.

“I’m a human being, after all,” he said, “and I’m aware of the magnitude of this moment.”

Now in his sixth year as a pro, Rahm already has some shared history with Woods.

It was at Woods’ old tournament, the Quicken Loans National, where Rahm made his pro debut in July 2016 on a sponsor exemption. A tie for third that week helped propel him to a Tour card that he likely won’t surrender for, oh, the next two-plus decades.

In his first Ryder Cup, in 2018, Rahm drew Woods in Sunday singles. He was so shaky before the match that he had to consult with his captains, assistants, teammates and mental coach – and then, after pulling out a narrow victory, he openly cried in front of Woods. Afterward, he gushed, “It’s going to be tough to beat that moment in my life.”

A few months later, Rahm routed the field in Woods’ exhibition in the Bahamas, posing with the trophy, for the first time, with his boyhood hero.

“What’d I admire?” Rahm said. “All of it. Every single aspect of his game and mentality.”

But if he could single out one aspect, Rahm said, it was this: “For the better part of 15 years and even in 2019, he seemed to have the ability to make the putts that he needed to make when he needed to make them on the back nine.”

The clutch gene has defined Rahm’s early career, too. Take your pick: The marathon eagle putt to seal his first Tour title at Torrey Pines in 2017. The sidewinding putt to deny Dustin Johnson at the 2020 BMW Championship. The back-to-back birdies to nail down his first major at the 2021 U.S. Open. He’s won in every conceivable way, all over the world, but in each there seems to be a seminal moment when he rises to the occasion.

Rahm's best shots from final round at Genesis

On a sun-splashed Sunday at Riv, in a taut duel with the Cali king, Rahm twice surrendered a three-shot lead to Homa, but he still wouldn’t be denied. Adding to his list of highlight-reel moments, Rahm drained a 40-footer from the back fringe on 14, punctuating the unlikely birdie by raising his putter and then punching the air. His knockout blow came two holes later, when he skied an 8-iron at the flag, his ball skirting just past the cup and finishing 3 feet away. Clutch. Again.

"He's a tremendous golfer," Homa said. "He has zero weaknesses. He's been this dude for a long time."

The two-stroke victory was Rahm’s third win of the season, but also his fifth title in his last nine worldwide starts.

Since last fall, he has competed against a total of 1,025 players. He has lost to just 19 of them.

At last, the much-maligned ranking system has caught up to the eye test.

“I don’t need a ranking to validate anything,” he said. “I’m having the best season of my life, and hopefully I can keep it going.”

Jon Rahm holds on to win at Riviera and return to No. 1 in the world

It’s the best season of Rahm’s life … and yet he’s self-aware enough to view his achievements with the proper historical perspective.

Especially this week.

And especially with this host.

Woods, after all, posted 13 seasons of three or more wins. Reciting some of Woods’ mind-bending stats out loud, Rahm could only laugh.

“I’ve been able to match a very small aspect of it,” he said, “and hopefully I can keep doing a lot of great things this year to put my name up there to one of his years.

“I’ve been able to appreciate Tiger for a very long time and admire him, but it’s taken me six years as a professional to get to this point. To see that he did it so quickly and so many times is really remarkable.”

Back at the trophy presentation, Woods had finally ticked off his final obligation. He shook Rahm’s hand one last time, then ceded the stage to the game’s newest alpha. As Rahm cradled the trophy and posed for pictures, Woods trekked back up the 52 steps, holding the railing for support.

With Woods about to disappear into the clubhouse, a lone voice shouted from the clubhouse balcony.

“Tiger! Augusta! This April, baby!”

With his opportunities dwindling, Woods will try like hell to be ready. Rahm will be there, too, standing firmly in the way.