He was bigger than an NFL Sunday, which seems perfectly apropos. In his prime, Tiger Woods was bigger than everything and everyone. Why not win a head-to-head with America’s modern pastime in his return to the winner’s circle as an aging, balding man?
Whether you were in Lincoln Financial Field to watch the return of Carson Wentz, or in any other stadium where outsized athletes in helmets and pads took turns pancaking each other, you had to keep one eye on the nearest TV, the other on your phone. Why? Woods was doing far more in Atlanta than finishing off his 80th PGA Tour victory, that’s why.
He was becoming Eldrick Tont Woods again, Tiger to you and me and the rest of creation. He was becoming the best of the best one more time, protecting a 54-hole lead of at least 3 shots for the 24th time in 24 tries. He was returning as Mozart and Michelangelo in a red shirt and spikes, all the way back from the golfing dead.
The scene on the 72nd hole was stunning, as a huge parade of fans at East Lake marched up the fairway behind Woods, nearly inspiring him to cry. The crowd around the green chanted “U-S-A … U-S-A” for a golfer who never thought he had a prayer of being part of this year’s Ryder Cup team. Then Woods hit his bunker shot onto the green that sealed the deal. He tapped in his second putt, raised his arms to the sky, and hugged Rory McIlroy and then his own caddie, Joe LaCava, as the fans started chanting his name.
We never thought we would see the artist return to the peak of his powers, and for good reason: Tiger never thought he would see the artist return to the peak of his powers, either. But in July he held the lead at The Open with eight holes to play, and in August he quieted his old, achy bones in ice baths at the PGA Championship and beat all the younger, fresher stars who grew up idolizing him — well, all except Brooks Koepka.
And now in September, NFL season, the 42-year-old Woods wasn’t going to let Rory McIlroy or Justin Rose or anyone else deny him his Tour Championship triumph. All those back surgeries and an everyday life of searing pain had made the vision of Tiger holding another trophy seem almost unfathomable.
“Oh God,” Woods had said at the PGA Championship, “I didn’t even know if I was going to play golf again.”
He played golf in Atlanta like he played it in his dynastic prime. The better news? Woods nailed down No. 80 as a different human being, as a kinder and gentler update on the programmed assassin he used to be. Tiger has mellowed some with age, offering the head nods and eye contact he rarely bothered with during his scorched-earth prime. Back in the day, the legend Tiger has spent his life chasing Jack Nicklaus, altering his act, too, after growing tired of playing the villain while his neighborly rival, Palmer, basked in the gallery’s love.
Woods? He didn’t change because the fans had fallen hard for someone else. He changed because parenthood always changes young dads and moms, and because his staggering physical and personal breakdowns inspired him to reassess his tee-to-green purpose. Many of Tiger’s wounds were self inflicted, and a fan is entitled to feel about the man the way he or she sees fit. But no matter how you judge his character, Woods is indisputably one of the finest athletes this country has ever produced. And what he has pulled off in the early stages of recovery from what he called “some really dark, dark times” ranks among the greatest sports comebacks ever.
Do you remember the last time Tiger won any tournament? Do you? It was only five years ago, yet it feels like 15. Woods dominated the field at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone, claiming his eighth title at Firestone and his fifth victory of 2013 before almost immediately wondering aloud how often he’d won at least five times on tour in a single season.
“Eight or nine?” he asked.
Ten, he was told.
“That’s even better,” he said. “That’s something I’m very proud of, is how many tournaments I’ve been able to win consistently, year in and year out.”
Tiger’s sheer volume of victories made people forget just how hard it is to win just once on the PGA Tour. Golf might be the world’s most maddening game — just ask any recreational player dumbfounded by his or her standard two-way miss — and yet Woods regularly reduced it to a springtime walk in the park. He conquered a game thought to be unconquerable, and flattened dozens of opponents he wasn’t allowed by the sport’s bylaws to blitz, tackle or defend in any way.
For the very first time, a golfer was arguably the world’s most recognizable athlete. He bargained for himself an entirely new and unwanted level of global fame and infamy over Thanksgiving 2009, of course, when he drove his Escalade into a fire hydrant and a tree in the dead of night and ended up in the street unconscious and bleeding, his then-wife Elin standing over him with a golf club in hand. Woods’ serial infidelity was about to be exposed, and so were his vulnerabilities as a man and an athlete.
Woods ultimately lost his marriage. After checking into a treatment center for sexual addiction, he returned to the sport a far less intimidating force. He would win eight more times on tour over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, but he couldn’t recapture the major championship aura he lost at the PGA in 2009, when he finally stumbled on a Sunday (he had been 14-0 in majors when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead) and fell to a self-taught South Korean journeyman named Y.E. Yang.
Asked in 2015 why his vanquished foe had lost the eye of the Tiger in the majors, Yang told ESPN.com, “I, amongst many other players, believe that it has to do with his personal issues and that it is none of our business. Tiger is not a machine and is a person like all of us. I think once he gets his focus back, he will be fine.”
As it turned out, Tiger’s body was more fragile than his focus. One back injury after another left him bedridden at times, and at others unable to perform the basic physical functions of your average middle-aged dad. “I couldn’t even go out for dinner,” Woods said. “I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t get from Point A to B in the house.”
Woods couldn’t chip because of the pain he felt running down his leg when he bent over, causing his hands to shake. The cortisone shots and the epidurals didn’t give him relief. He couldn’t play pickup golf with his friends, and he couldn’t even play backyard ball with his kids.
“Coming back and playing golf was never in my thoughts,” Woods would tell ESPN in March. “It was just, ‘How do I get away from this pain? How can I live life again?’ That was driving my life. I felt like I couldn’t participate in my own life.”
Woods said the pain and sleeplessness caused him to over-medicate himself and led to his late-night DUI arrest near his Jupiter, Florida, home on Memorial Day in 2017, when he was found asleep at the wheel of his damaged car with the engine running. The mortifying roadside video of Woods’ interaction with police suggested the golfer was literally and figuratively lost, and maybe for keeps. The toxicology report would show that Tiger had Vicodin, Dilaudid, Xanax, Ambien and THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — in his system at the time the cops arrested him. Woods would seek professional help, he said, to “manage my medications and the ways that I deal with back pain and a sleep disorder.”
Woods could have killed himself, or someone else, after he started his car that night. He seemed almost irretrievably broken, and a million miles removed from the epic champion he used to be.
But the in-patient treatment that followed his arrest — along with his Hail Mary of a fourth back surgery, the spinal fusion surgery — ultimately changed his entire life. He arrived at the Masters in April calling himself a “walking miracle.” His smile was back, and so was his astonishing swing speed.
Woods decided he wanted to win for daughter Sam and son Charlie; he had joked of his children seeing him almost exclusively as a “YouTube golfer.” Sam and Charlie were forever asking him, “Daddy, when are you going to win the tournament?” and for good reason. Sam hadn’t seen her old man win a major since she attended the U.S. Open in 2008, when Tiger beat Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff on one leg. Charlie had seen his old man win only once, as a 4-year-old, when he attended the WGC-Bridgestone in 2013.
And then 1,876 days later, Sam and Charlie’s dad finally ended the biblical drought. By clinching victory No. 80, two shy of Sam Snead‘s record, Woods made Atlanta in September feel like Augusta in April.
The world has changed so much since Tiger won on tour for the first time, at age 20, in the fall of 1996, but its fascination with the golfer who is equal parts artist and assassin has remained very much intact. The game has never seen a force quite like him, and chances are it never will again.
Maybe this is the last time Tiger Woods will hold the winner’s trophy high, maybe not. Either way, the man in red outplayed the NFL on Sunday and, of greater consequence, delivered a vintage Tiger triumph as a new and improved man.