How Tiger Woods improbably became Tiger Woods again

Now, not only is he part of that team, but it is fair to argue that he might be the best player on it. Perhaps not in numerical rankings, but via the eye — and maybe the ear — test that was on display over the weekend in Atlanta.

The spectators who swarmed Woods and shouted his name as the closing moments unfolded at East Lake were but another reminder of Woods’ popularity and the cool redemption story that has unfolded in 2018.

That he won the Tour Championship and capped a remarkable return to competitive golf this year with his 80th PGA Tour victory is simply magical stuff.

While two of the year’s major championship winners, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka, finished near the bottom of the leaderboard — with longtime nemesis and now made-for-TV-foe Phil Mickelson finishing dead last — Woods bolted to the top on Thursday with a 65, remained tied through 36 holes, then forged ahead on Saturday, never to be matched again.

Although Sunday’s performance was not dominating, it was a reminder of a time when Woods routinely got the lead, then played precision golf while others faltered. He shot 71 and made just two birdies, but his closest challengers could not push him.

And to think that Woods himself, just 18 months ago, thought he was “done,” the constant back and nerve pain making him miserable. Golf was an afterthought.

“Probably the low point was not knowing if I’d ever be able to live pain-free again,” Woods said. “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.”

That Woods was somehow able to emerge from it after spinal fusion surgery in April of 2017 and win again is every bit as impressive as some of his greatest victories. The golf might not be as transcendent as his 1997 Masters win, nor as awe-inspiring as his 2000 U.S. Open title, nor as dramatic as his 2008 U.S. Open victory on a broken leg. But it undoubtedly ranks among his greatest wins.

“I guess you don’t put anything past him. He’s capable of anything. I think that’s where the hope lies. Nothing would surprise you.”Steve Stricker

And to think, just a few weeks ago, there were plenty of questions about whether, at 42, he should be a captain’s pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

It wasn’t long ago that Woods was innocuously asked about the hypothetical possibility that he could play just well enough to garner consideration for one of U.S. captain Jim Furyk’s captain’s picks. Having already been named a vice captain, what would Woods enjoy more, being an assistant captain or a player?

“Why can’t I have both?” Woods said.

Pressed to pick one, or if he could even do both, Woods stuck to his answer.

“I like both,” he said.

PGA Tour win No. 80 was extra sweet for Tiger Woods, who waited more than 1,800 days to return to the top.

That was nearly eight months ago, and some 5,600 miles away at the Genesis Open, near Los Angeles, where Woods was making his second start of 2018. He had played a grand total of four rounds of golf, having tied for 23rd at Torrey Pines, after which he was ranked 539th in the world. He was 104th in the Ryder Cup points.

Now look at him.

Woods has played 64 rounds since that day at Riviera, a total of 18 tournaments in 2018. He is ranked 13th in the world and finished 11th in the final Ryder Cup standings — and would have been eighth had points only counted in 2018. Were there no minimum tournament divisor used in the formula for the world rankings, Woods would be ranked No. 1.

Furyk announced him as one of his captain’s picks on Sept. 4, but nearly six weeks earlier, when Woods led at The Open during the final round and ended up tied for sixth, it was apparent he was going to be playing — and not assisting — on this team at Le Golf National as it tries to win for the first time in Europe since 1993.

“It’s incredible, it really is,” Woods said. “To look back at the start of the year and to now have accomplished a goal like that, to be a part of this team, and now to be a player, is just — it’s beyond special.”

In truth, when Woods was named in January as one of Furyk’s vice captains, the idea of him playing nine months later would have seemed preposterous. Furyk didn’t name him thinking Woods would be a player. In fact, Woods has been replaced as a vice captain by David Duval, which means a dual role was not in the plans.

And it didn’t look much better for Woods a few days later, when he missed the cut at Riviera.

But he slowly worked his way up both the FedEx Cup and Ryder Cup lists, as well as the World Ranking: Finishing 12th at Honda, tied for second at Valspar and tied for fifth at the Arnold Palmer cranked up expectations. Then he finished tied for 32nd at the Masters, followed by a tie for 55th at the Wells Fargo, which showed there was still work to be done.

As late as June at the U.S. Open, where Woods missed the cut, he was ranked 79th in the world — the high hopes of winning an event, getting on the Ryder Cup team, quietly fading.

But since then, Woods has five top-6 finishes, including Sunday’s victory, in eight events and has not missed a cut. He twice contended at majors, including a runner-up finish at the PGA Championship.

“What I really love about this whole Tiger thing right now is this is not some ceremonial finish to his career,” said Paul Azinger, the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup captain. “He’s still got game, bro. Still got game. This is not a ceremonial walk, not at all.”

Bob Harig explains how Tiger Woods won the PGA Tour Championship and what the atmosphere was like on the course.

And who would have believed that? Certainly Woods had his doubts. As recently as last September, at the Presidents Cup, where he was an assistant captain to Steve Stricker, Woods said he did not know “what my future holds.” He had started hitting pitch shots following April fusion surgery. Pitch shots, that was it.

Even last week, Woods recalled his time away from the game, prior to the fusion surgery, when he seemingly tried everything to alleviate back problems.

“I didn’t think I’d ever play again,” he said. “When I was laying on the ground and couldn’t move for a number of months, golf is the furthest thing from my mind.”

Then there was the 2017 Memorial Day arrest for DUI. Woods had taken a concoction of sleep aids and pain relievers that eventually sent him to a rehab facility. Although he has not spoken in detail about the incident or its fallout, it was safe to wonder what impact that might have on his game.

Given all the physical and mental woes, the lack of golf over the past two years, the abundance of talent the game now produces, it would have been a reasonable goal for Woods to simply be playing competitive golf this year, never mind the results.

But winning?

“I guess you don’t put anything past him,” said Stricker, who is a vice captain for this year’s Ryder Cup team, was Woods’ partner in the Ryder Cup on six occasions, and was the captain of last year’s winning Presidents Cup team. “He’s capable of anything. I think that’s where the hope lies. Nothing would surprise you.

“I didn’t write him off by any means. It’s neat to see him back. Neat to see him excited to play and how engaged he is, not only with the [Presidents Cup] team last year, but with the fans and with the team again this year. It’s cool to see. It’s fun to be around him and see how excited he is.”

Woods’ Ryder Cup record will remain a source of conjecture. He is just 13-17-3 in his seven appearances, playing on just one winning team in 1999. (He missed the 2008 U.S. victory when recovering from knee surgery.)

Could he have made more of an impact? Certainly. He went 1-3-1 at his first Ryder Cup in 1997, and the U.S. lost by a point. He was 2-2-1 in 2002, when the U.S. lost by 3 points. It would be tough to put blowout losses on Woods in 2004 and 2006, the latter where he went 3-2. Same for 2010, a one-point loss at the K Club, where Woods went 3-1 as a captain’s pick.

His last Ryder Cup, in 2012, was very likely his most painful. With Stricker as his partner, they lost all three team matches. For the first time, Woods sat out a session, serving as a spectator on Saturday morning.

And then he watched helplessly from the 18th fairway on the final day, as his match with Francesco Molinari — Woods was 1-up — turned irrelevant, the Europeans celebrating their victory on the 18th green as Martin Kaymer won his match over Stricker to clinch.

“I thought my match would be the deciding point,” Woods said. “Some of the guys had some tough losses. I wasn’t feeling physically well that Ryder Cup; it’s where my back started bugging me.”

That was something Woods had not disclosed before, that the back troubles that led to four surgeries actually dated to six years ago, during a season in which he won three times, and into 2013, when he won five more times.

So much has transpired over those years, so much just in the past nine months. Woods said it was a goal to get here as a player, not simply as a vice captain.

Wishful thinking?

A dream?

It certainly has been an amazing road to the Ryder Cup, capped by a tournament victory that even he had difficulty envisioning.

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