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ATLANTA — We can all say it now, from the zealots to the haters: Tiger Woods is back.
The most improbable, remarkable comeback in sports history hit its apex Sunday afternoon at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, when Woods captured the Tour Championship, carding a final-round 71 to hold off Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and 27 more of the world’s best players. It marked Woods’ first win since 2013, and served notice that Woods — who not so long ago looked over and done — is once again a force in golf.
Woods made the end a bit dramatic even if he won by two strokes. He dropped a shot at 16 with a bogey and was two shots up with two holes to play. He scratched out a par on No. 17; incredibly important because it meant he had a two-shot cushion heading to 18.
After Woods drained his par putt on No. 18 to finish the day 1-over, he raised his arms in triumph. The relief of winning his first tournament in five years washed over him. Tiger Woods was a champion on the PGA Tour again. And everyone at East Lake loved it. As Woods walked up the 18th fairway he had mobs of fans following him.
Woods began the day three strokes ahead of McIlroy, his Sunday playing partner and heir apparent in Woods’ immediate post-scandal days. McIlroy’s one of the game’s great players, a surefire Hall of Famer, but from the first shot of the day, he was an afterthought. “Hurry up and putt so Tiger can make it!” a very-possibly-pickled patron called out just before McIlroy’s putt on the first hole. He did, and then Tiger birdied, and the explosion of sound that erupted was like a jet engine.
Like he did in Augusta, though, when he played the final Sunday in the final pairing, McIlroy spit the bit early in the round. A four-bogeys-in-five-holes stretch starting at the fourth effectively dropped him out of contention, rendering him invisible in his own pairing.
Woods’ day wasn’t perfect as the final holes showed. But he struggled the least of anyone who started the day at the top of the leaderboard. He absolutely muffed a chip out of thick fringe on 6 that went about as far as this sentence. And he came within a whisper of holing a long birdie putt on 5 that would have extended his lead to six strokes. And some of the biggest names on Tour right now edged their way up the leaderboard, as if sizing up Woods and deciding if it would be worth taking a run at him. Justin Rose closed to within four at one point, and Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm all nudged into the top five with Woods … even if they couldn’t spot him in the distance.
Elsewhere on the course, the battle for the FedEx Cup – the PGA Tour’s playoffs, the ostensible reason everyone was here – raged between Rose and Bryson DeChambeau. At stake: a $10 million first prize. DeChambeau, leading the race for the eight-figure check coming into this tournament, used a four-birdies-in-five-holes to make a run at Rose, who spent the day just under Woods on the leaderboard. In the end, Rose won thanks to a birdie on 18, a nice little accolade to go with his U.S. Open victory and his Olympic gold medal. But with all due respect to the PGA Tour, nobody outside of the trophy engraver and Rose’s accountant cared. This day was all about Woods. Had Rose not hit that birdie on the final hole, Woods would have won the Cup too.
Billy Horschel ended up second to Woods. Rose’s three-over round of 73 put him in a tie for fourth, good enough for the $10 million.
One of the more jarring aspects of Woods’ latest comeback is how thoroughly he’s stomped on some of the old legends that surrounded him. There was a time when Woods with a lead was bet-the-mortgage safe. There was a time when Woods with the lead on the back nine was a bet-the-whole-damn-house lock.
Not now, though. Not after a two-over-par final nine cost him a chance at the British Open, and after he couldn’t run down Brooks Koepka to win the PGA Championship. Now, back nines were treacherous territory for Woods, the place where all the recent can-he-really-do-its died a painful, public death.
So when Woods curled his tee shot on 10 down into a valley of trees and ended up with a bogey just as Billy Horschel – the latest challenger to the throne – started racking up birdies and drew to within four shots of the lead, you had to start wondering if maybe, just maybe, the wheels would peel off again. This is Atlanta, after all, where both the Falcons and the nearby Georgia Bulldogs have snatched defeat from the jaws of ultimate victory in recent months.
But then, lo and behold, a bit more of the old Tiger mojo seemed to settle over East Lake. Woods used to carry a rep for terrifying the opposition out of their spikes; every time he was on a leaderboard, the rest of the field sagged just a little. And so it wasn’t entirely surprising that Horschel – who won his first PGA Tour event four months before Woods won his last – would falter in the heat, skulling a punch out of a fairway bunker on the 16th. He’d par the hole just as Woods was birdieing the 13th, putting a fifth stroke between them.
The day wasn’t yet done with Woods, though. Just as Horschel was birdieing 18 to finish at -9, Woods bogeyed the water-guarded 15th. Woods’ tee shot hung up on the edge of East Lake, in the same thick rough that had bedeviled him back on the 6th hole, but he wasn’t able to convert an eight-foot putt. The lead was down to three strokes. It soon went down to two.
Still, with Horschel in the clubhouse, all Woods had to do was simply play par golf over the last two holes to win by more than a stroke.
Given where Woods was just a year ago — ranked 1,193rd in the world, unsure if he’d ever even play golf professionally again — this ranks as one of the most improbable, monumental victories in all of sports. His win puts a new charge into the entire sport of golf, and will make next spring at Augusta one of the most anticipated tournaments in a generation.
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