ATLANTA—Only Tiger Woods could cause a riot on a golf course.
Woods had just fired his second shot over the water on the 18th hole at East Lake Golf Club. He was just seconds away from winning the Tour Championship, his first victory in more than five long, ragged, injury-ridden years. He was keeping himself together – he only led by two strokes, and stranger things have happened on the 72nd hole – but the Atlanta gallery around him couldn’t hold back.
They surged forward, over and under the thin rope lines that keep usually sedate golf galleries contained, a mass of golf-shirt-wearing, cell-phone-bearing, LET’S-GO-TIGER-chanting bros a thousand strong, all pushing forward to get close to Woods in his most unexpected triumph.
You could name on one hand the athletes who could inspire this sort of stampede. And of that handful, you’d have a hard time finding one who could come back from all that Woods has suffered, both medical and self-inflicted, and once again win.
So let’s go ahead and call this what it is: the greatest comeback in sports history.
Too much? Let’s talk about the four back surgeries Woods has undergone since he last won on the Tour. Let’s talk about the fact that as recently as a year ago, he was reckoning with the possibility of never playing professional golf again. Let’s talk about the fact that he wasn’t sure if he’d ever even live without pain, much less swing a club.
“I was beyond playing,” Woods said after the tournament, recalling his lowest point of the last five years. “I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t lay down without feeling the pain in my back and my leg … This is how the rest of my life is going to be? It’s going to be a tough rest of my life.”
True, there are other megastar athletes who’ve returned from catastrophic injury. It’s a short list. Peyton Manning’s multiple neck surgeries. Serena Williams’ pregnancy complications. Kobe Bryant’s shredded knees. In golf, Ben Hogan’s disastrous injuries sustained in a car accident. All of them career-, in some cases life-threatening. All of them requiring superhuman will and determination to overcome. Like Tiger, any of those stars could have walked away from their chosen sports and held their heads high. None of them did.
Granted, power-ranking athletes’ pain is a dangerous hot take for those of us outside the ropes to attempt, but this much is obvious: no one’s fallen from the heights where Woods once stood, remained down for so long, and still returned to the mountaintop. It’s a phenomenal feat, and only the fact that we’re in the moment – plus the fact that Woods has engendered some pretty passionate criticism – keeps anyone from seeing this masterpiece for what it is.
The remarkable moments of the afternoon piled one atop the other. Take out the cell phones that every member of the gallery held high – “the art of clapping is gone, everyone’s holding a cell phone,” Woods said afterward – and this could just as easily have been 2008 or 2003 or 1997. Woods showed up at East Lake wearing, of all things, a backward baseball cap and a sleeveless T-shirt, looking like he’d just leaped out of a Limp Bizkit video. He changed into his traditional Sunday red, and now that he was carrying a lead into the final round, this wasn’t just the Halloween costume it had become during the past half-decade.
Woods was paired with Rory McIlroy in Sunday’s final round, and you had to feel a bit for McIlroy. He was the goat in “Jurassic Park,” the first sacrifice to the wave that was Woods. McIlroy is one of the finest players of his generation, a four-time major winner and already a certain Hall of Famer. But on Sunday, he was an opening act, nothing more.
“Hurry up and putt so Tiger can make it!” one patron shouted at Rory beside the first green. And when Woods did make that putt – a birdie to put him four clear of McIlroy – the explosion of noise was a physical thing. It wouldn’t get any better for McIlroy, or Justin Rose, or Dustin Johnson, or Jon Rahm, or Billy Horschel, or Justin Thomas, or any of the half-dozen greats of the late 2010s who took a run at Woods on Sunday.
That brings up a key point in Woods’ comeback: the quality of his opposition. Since Woods last won a tournament, 119 players have won on Tour. Sixteen players have won majors. Every one of them grew up watching Woods storm the competition, and decided, I’d like to do that too. The talent pool, at this very moment, might be broader than at any moment in golf’s history.
We’ve always wondered how today’s top players would react to Woods on a full-on Sunday locomotive charge. Sunday, we got our answer – and, just like in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it all ended with the field cast aside and Woods rolling to victory. Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy, meet Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. All of you can compare scars.
By the time the tournament finished out, though, Woods wasn’t playing against any one player. The only player with a chance to beat him – Horschel – was in the clubhouse with a -9 before Tiger even finished the 16th hole. So at that point, it was just Woods against himself. Woods against the course. Woods, alone, with the entire tournament in his hands. And given how he’d handled the last five years, how he’d fought and scrapped to get back to this moment, was there any doubt how this would end?
Which brings us back around to that near-riot, that exuberant stampede up the 18th fairway. Woods had begun walking down the fairway alone, but as the crowd surged forward – swallowing up cameras, media, and course marshals like a wave – a police officer stepped close to Woods, and he took a moment to look back at the tide following him.
“I could hear it,” Woods told Yahoo Sports. “I just didn’t really see much. I was kind of looking forward, and I figured that security would hold them back.” Not so much. They rounded the bed of the lake, swarmed over the sand traps and the fringe, and watched as Woods finished out his round.
“I kept telling the cops, ‘as long as they don’t trample us, let them keep coming,’” Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie, told The Caddie Network. “Why not? It’s fun. That’s what golf needs, right? They don’t do it for anyone else, so why not? I thought it was ok for a while and then they started coming a little quicker. So, I said ‘screw it, I’m outta here.’ And the cops didn’t seem to be doing a whole lot, so I just thought ‘let me get my butt up there.’ If somebody trips in front of you, it’s over.”
Will we ever see anything like that again? Unlikely. Tournaments are going to quadruple security whenever Woods is in the mix – those tournaments that don’t already have means of dealing permanently with miscreants, that is, like Augusta – and everyone will remain safely outside the ropes. When there’s another win – and there almost surely will be – we’ll all know how to play our parts.
As nostalgic and familiar as a Woods victory seemed, there were still plenty of signs that this was 2018. When he tapped in his final putt, Woods didn’t uppercut the sky or rattle his fists like he was pulling a jail door off its hinges. No, he just raised his arms–glad, perhaps, that the longest winless drought since infancy was done. And as he waited through the interminable post-round speeches and photos with sponsors, he stretched his back, ankles, and wrists, grimacing as he tried to keep old muscles from revolting on him yet again.
He’s now off to France, on a plane with the rest of his Ryder Cup teammates. He laughed and declined to answer how that flight would go, other than saying that “we’re going to sleep well.” Beyond that, who knows? He declined any attempt to get a sense of his 2019 schedule – other than the Masters, of course, which is already the most anticipated golf tournament in a generation.
“Just to be able to compete and play again this year, that’s a hell of a comeback,” Woods said. “Just [to] be able to play golf again and enjoy being with my kids and living that life. And then lo and behold, I’m able to do this and win a golf tournament.”
Hello again, world. Tiger’s back.