Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
One thousand eight hundred seventy-six days later, not to mention the 268 Sundays tucked in there, he emerged through the roped-in chute around quarter to 6 p.m. Sunday and turned leftward up to the 18th tee, and it seemed almost like olden days. His facial muscles remained as unbudging as ever, even through a raucous splotch of fans chanting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” He grabbed a towel.
Soon, Tiger Woods would blast a drive that made one viewer say, “Pure,” and he was off in his Sunday red down the 18th hole at East Lake Golf Course, this onetime harbor of Bobby Jones, and the scene that erupted behind him and playing partner Rory McIlroy would have to qualify as momentous even in a sport absurdly rich in moments. Droves of fans streamed under the ropes and in behind him, a spectacle you would expect at a British Open and not on a Sunday in September in Atlanta, and they managed to construct a great, compelling torrent. He strained to stanch the tear ducts.
The man once associated so intricately with winning won again, in the Tour Championship, by two shots over Billy Horschel, who lent Woods’s nerves some late inconvenience. Woods won more than five years after winning the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational by seven shots to lavish a fifth PGA Tour victory upon a fantastic season that seemed chirpy at the time. He won after he complemented his four left knee surgeries with four back surgeries between 2014 and 2017, the last an April 2017 artwork of spinal fusion which does seem a feat.
He won, and when he won, a historic scoreboard frozen for so long at 82-79 nudged to 82-80, the former Sam Snead’s record total of PGA Tour titles, the latter a measure of Woods’s freshly nibbling chase. “I’ve been sitting on 79 for about five years now,” he said, “and to get 80 is a pretty damned good feeling.”
He won, and as he won, it seemed to rev up something deep within those spectating.
The roars swept around the place in gales, occasionally almost Southeastern Conference in their sound. Onlookers packed three-, four- and 10-deep at the ropes, their T-shirts bearing slogans such as “The Return,” and “He’s Back,” and “If Anyone Can,” plus the regrettable “Make Sunday Great Again.” Woods’s at-last win happened to come before galleries rich in the gear of Georgia (Bulldogs), Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, the Atlanta Braves and the Masters, before children in Julio Jones jerseys. Horizon after horizon around the course proved compelling for the sheer, populous depth of feeling. The people wanted to witness a slice of golf history, but they also seemed to comprehend, for one thing, the value of struggle.
He played a course on which he had won one of his two previous Tour Championship titles, he did relish the grind and the fight even as he did not relish “where I kept leaving myself.” He had spent the week playing what he called “very conservative” golf, aiming to “make sure I dump the ball 30, 40 feet from the hole and trust my lag putting,” yet still registered 65-68-65. While Sunday was almost a Woods throwback, suspense-less while not pointless, his bogeys at Nos. 15 and 16 conspired with Horschel’s closing birdie to whittle off 60 percent of the five-shot lead. It would become drastically different from his 65 of Saturday that included an opening — 3-3-3-3-3-4-3, with six birdies in the first seven holes.
He sent an obedient beauty to within safe range and thought, “I can handle that from there.” Then, as McIlroy finished up, and before Woods would tap in for par, tap the putter to the ground and raise his arms, he would ward off emotion as he claimed to realize at last one towering “at last.” He realized he would win.