ATLANTA — 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.
“You know, I’ve explained throughout the year that I just didn’t know whether — when this would ever happen again,” Woods said. “If I could somehow piece together a golf swing this year, I felt I could do it. My hands are good enough, and I just didn’t know if I could piece together a golf swing.
“But somehow I’ve been able to do that, and here we are.”
“It’s huge,” top-ranked Justin Rose said, adding, “The comeback is for real.”
That comeback cemented itself atop the leader board next to a score of 11 under par, even after a 1 over par 71 on a grinding Sunday. He won even though he surrendered three-fifths of the five-shot lead he carried through much of the day, a lead so gaping it appeared he could have finished up tidily using a wooden spoon and a spatula. He won even if he did not quite win the FedEx Cup, the four-tournament aggregate event that went to Rose.
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 familiar “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.
“Probably the low point was not knowing if I’d ever be able to live pain-free again,” Woods said afterward. “Am I going to be able to sit, stand, walk, lay down, without feeling the pain that I was in? I just didn’t want to live that way. This is how the rest of my life is going to be? It’s going to be a tough rest-of-my-life. And so — I was beyond playing. I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t lay down without feeling the pain in my back and my leg. That was a pretty low point for a very long time.”
He still describes himself accurately as “42 years old with a fused lower spine.”
“You know,” the veteran Horschel said, “Rory and I were discussing it yesterday a little bit. He never lost his game. His game went away because of injuries. It wasn’t like he was a healthy guy and he mentally lost it and just couldn’t figure out how to play golf. There’s a lot of guys through the history of golf that have won some events and then the game struggles and they disappear. It’s not because of health reasons; they just lose their game. But he just had injuries and everything and a lot of stuff to deal with.”
So as 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 — of which he said, “Good Lord.”
Then came a save from the rough at the par-4 No. 17, which Woods would tout as “a lot bigger than people think.” Then he emerged at the kind of No. 18 he had wondered if he ever again would see, after an uptick of a year with six top 10 finishes and two seconds but nothing resembling this, and then came that deluge of humanity in its 21st-century human posture: raised phone cameras. (“I guess it’s different now because the art of clapping is gone,” Woods said. “You can’t clap when you’ve got a cellphone in your hand.”) He heard the commotion before he saw it, he said, but . . .
“But the tournament wasn’t over yet,” he said. “I still had a two-shot lead, but anything could still happen. I still needed to play the hole, and once I hit the ball into the bunker” — which caused a large sigh — “I tried to miss it right of the flag. I was able to do that. And once I got the ball onto the green, then the tournament was over. When I was hitting that bunker shot, just like every weekend hacker, just whatever you do, ‘Don’t blade this thing out of bounds.’”
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.