The victory had been crystallizing, after years of overcast and doubt. Thrillers at Innisbrook and Bay Hill offered hope, charges at Carnoustie and Bellerive inspired belief. Of the many iterations of Tiger Woods’ comeback, this one changed the prospect of victory from "if" to “when.”
After three steamy days in September, that answer was in reach.
At the season finale, the 2018 Tour Championship, Woods' opening 65 earned a share of the Thursday lead. Tiger overcame a wayward driver on Friday grind out a 68; Saturday’s round sent a boom across the sport, submitting another 65 for a three-shot lead.
Tiger's advantage grew to four following a birdie at the first on Sunday. A mostly mundane eight holes—as mundane as fans climbing trees and police officers exchanging high-fives with fans can be—ensued, Woods making the turn five clear of the field to set up the spectacular.
It consummated in an indelible and emotional moment on the final hole, one that resonated well outside the game. As the tour returns to Atlanta this week, hear from the voices that experienced that moment, inside the ropes and out.
PROLOGUE: THE 17TH GREEN
As much as fans wanted the celebration to commence, it was slightly delayed. The back nine was not a stress-free trek for Woods, after he made three bogeys in his first seven holes. His lead was down to two on the 17th tee, and when he pulled his drive, the win was suddenly in doubt. Woods’ approach over the green didn’t alleviate that tension.
Tiger Woods: (Following his round) The 17th was a lot bigger than people think. At the time I could have dropped down to a one-shot lead playing the last hole, hit a bad tee shot, pitch out; a lot of things can happen.
Roger Maltbie (NBC on-course reporter): Things were tense. There wasn’t a person that wasn’t pulling for Tiger in that moment. It felt like we were about to watch someone perform open-heart surgery.
Martin Stephenson (tournament director, Tour Championship): It’s funny from my perspective, I was actually watching him make a couple bogeys coming down the stretch. And I was starting to think, Uh-oh, what if we’ve got a playoff here?
Woods: The lie I had was not that great. It was sitting down, it was hard underneath there, but it was sparse, and so I couldn’t quite hit it as hard as I wanted to. I had to try to play for a little bit of a heater there. And it came out a little bit warm, which was great, and rolled down next to the hole. But that was a big hole for me.
Maltbie (NBC on-course reporter): I know now what it sounds like when 30,000 people exhale simultaneously.
Woods converted the four-footer for par and headed to the final hole with a two-shot lead.
THE 18TH TEE
Golf’s history is littered with final-hole trainwrecks, but the 18th at East Lake is no monster. Since the tournament switched nines, it has been the second-easiest hole at the Tour Championship. That week, the field posted a 4.5 scoring average on the 572-yard par 5. No one in the 14 groups ahead had bogeyed the hole on Sunday. A good drive would give Tiger the win.
Aaron Trujillo (fan): We're originally from New Mexico, been living in Atlanta for six years, and we always come to the tournament. That Sunday with Tiger was like nothing else. Once we got later into the day, we made sure we went and got a spot at the 18th, because we felt like it would be special.
Stephenson (tournament director, Tour Championship): The crowds were crazy. They love Tiger, but something was different. Even in Tiger’s heyday, I can’t ever recall a time where everyone was rooting for Tiger Woods. There were a lot of circumstances that went into it. We had not seen Tiger in Atlanta in five years. There was all this anticipation of the comeback. … It was this energy that was just bursting.
Woods: The tournament wasn’t over yet. I still had a two-shot lead, but anything could still happen. I still needed to play the hole.
Maltbie (NBC on-course reporter): The 18th at East Lake goes downhill and runs to the left. It can be an easy hole, but you need to keep your drive on one of two shelves to play it properly.
Josh Burk (fan): When Tiger gets to the tee, I’m watching closely. I see that he hits a decent drive. What happened next … It was just a madhouse, just electric.
Chad Parker (East Lake general manager): I was standing on the porch that overlooks the 18th, and I just was in awe for a second and kind of took it in. And then, from a distance, I started hearing people chanting his name.
Maltbie (NBC on-course reporter): Tiger just spanked it, 350 yards. As soon as his ball came off the face, you could see Tiger knew. The fans did, too, hollering and screaming his name. The party was on.
THE FANS GET FREE
As Woods and playing partner Rory McIlroy moved to their approach shots, so did the gallery, ropes and marshals be damned. Tournament officials and police officers did their best to keep the crowd contained.
Woods: I could hear it. I just didn’t really see much. I was kind of looking forward, and I figured that security would hold them back. When I got down to the golf ball, looked back, and I think the left half of the fairway was covered but not the right half.
Will Watson (fan): When Tiger was walking down the 18th, the first thing that I thought was to start filming. Rory and Tiger walking side by side, and I knew, right at that moment, as people were coming in behind him, that I could probably jump the ropes.
Maltbie (NBC on-course reporter): A Georgia state trooper turned to me and said, “What are we going to do about these fans?” I laughed and said, “Son, my old colleague Dave Marr had a saying for a moment like this: Ain’t no way you getting that puppy back on the porch.”
Trujillo (fan): All of a sudden you kind of see the crowd coming in. And everybody is just screaming. People are coming in from the ropes, and then you see them all just swarming.
Allison Fillmore (executive director, Tour Championship): I think the emotion kind of came over me at first, but then I went into executive-director mode, started running around making sure no one got hurt. Everyone was being smart about how they were holding the fans back, just doing it in the right way, and kind of keeping everybody else under control, seeing this large crowd coming at you.
Parker (East Lake general manager): It was sort of like the modern-day ticker-tape parade.
Rory McIlroy (four-time major winner): I started hitting a few drives left and right early, and I didn’t actually have quite a good view from the trees on Sunday. I couldn’t really see what was happening too much. [Laughs.]
Burk (fan): It just felt like this wave of electricity was moving our way.
Ian Lindsey (operations manager, Tour Championship): I look up, and all the fans up past Tiger start this jailbreak there and everyone starts running out, and I look over and scream at my staff. My main concern was Tiger getting closed in by fans. Thankfully he moved a little quick and got out of there just in time.
Amid chaos, Woods still has to hit his second shot, some 225 yards to the hole. His approach comes up short and right into a greenside bunker. After Woods’ shot, more fans run onto the fairway as the crowd turns into a caravan, marching with Woods toward the green.
Woods: I mean, I’m having a hard time not crying the last hole. I said, Hey, you know what, I can still blade this thing out-of-bounds. Just suck it up and let’s hit some shots.
Maltbie (NBC on-course reporter): He held himself together well, but knowing what was about to happen, after everything he’s been through, with that scene … you could tell it was starting to get to him. Hell, it was starting to get to me, and I’m just holding a microphone.
Ethan Cimma (fan): I live in Kentucky, and on Saturday night I’m watching sports recaps and see what Tiger’s doing. And I turn to my grandfather and go, “We got to be there.” So we got in the car at 5:30 a.m. and head down.
After watching a few holes, I realized I needed to be on No. 18 for his win. So we waited a few hours just to get seats in the stands, but I knew that’s where we needed to be. And then when he’s coming down the fairway, you realize, It’s happening. Everything’s coming true.
Billy Horschel (finished second at Tour Championship): It was insane. It shows you what he does for an event, and it’s exciting. We had missed it because there’s always that extra buzz, that extra energy around the course when he’s here.
Woods: I’ve never seen anything like the fans and the commotion. It was similar to the 1997 Western coming down the last hole. That was a little bit like that. But not to this fevered pitch.
Trujillo (fan): I was a little bit scared, not gonna lie. I was like, I’m gonna stay here, and I turn to my fiancee ... she was gone. She went inside the ropes with everyone else! [Laughs.)
Watson (fan): I was there with my wife and 8-week-old daughter. I was obviously concerned for my daughter, but as Tiger was walking through, all those concerns went out the window.
Stephenson (tournament director, Tour Championship): I was standing right by scoring as everything was coming down the hill. And we heard the commotion, I guess would be the best way to put it. I poked my head around the range house there, the scoring trailer, and see the sea of people coming together. And you have that moment of heart palpitation thinking, Please, Tiger, pop out.
Lindsey (operations manager, Tour Championship): All of our operations leadership, all of our security guys, police, all of them were out there pacing back and forth.
Woods: Between our second and third shots, Rory said, “This is like Jack in ’80 at Baltusrol.” I said, "Yeah, I just didn’t have the tight pants and the hair."
Maltbie (NBC on-course reporter): I know how it looked on TV, but everyone was so happy, there was never a point where I thought anyone was in danger. It was beautiful pandemonium.
Stephenson (tournament director, Tour Championship): Those images, the king walking down the fairway, those are things that live forever.
Woods and McIlroy emerge from the masses just short of the green to shouts and cries, a moment normally reserved for the Open Championship. There are still shots to be played, but they are a formality.
Woods: When I was hitting that bunker shot, [I was] just like every weekend hacker, Just whatever you do, don’t blade this thing out-of-bounds. Just went for a little chunk and run, and I didn’t try to play the lobber all the way back to the flag. Just a little chunk and run, and the tournament was over.
Parker (East Lake general manager): At this point it was like getting in a car accident with as much adrenaline as I had. People were running through bunkers and people were jumping over things. I mean, it was unlike anything I’ve seen in golf, and something we weren’t ready for. But thankfully we had the marshals have the rope ready and everyone got out there as quick as we could and at least we were able to hold that line 50 yards from the green. We were just praying that they weren’t gonna try to push any further.
Trujillo (fan): There wasn’t as much clapping because people had their phones out. Including me. But I’m glad we did because we have those videos that we can look back on now and show our future children one day and share with our family members that couldn’t be there.
Parker (East Lake general manager): It was a very unusual sound as he was coming down, it was kind of like everyone was waiting for something to happen and the excitement level just got higher and higher and higher.
Woods: I guess it’s different now because the art of clapping is gone, right? You can’t clap when you’ve got a cellphone in your hand. So people yell, and they were yelling.
Cimma (fan): Having video of all the fans chasing, of him chanting his name, to see everyone going nuts. To be there in person … it’s something you can brag about for the rest of your life, and back it up.
Fillmore (executive director, Tour Championship): It was such a different dynamic at the Tour Championship. You saw phones, you see people cheering, jumping up and down. And it was such an electric feeling. The folks that were on the 18th in September of last year definitely have an up on those that were at the Masters this year because they got that memory captured and they keep it forever.
Woods: I was pretty emotional when Rory was tapping out. I looked around, and it was ... I’ve been sitting on 79 [career PGA Tour wins] for about five years now, and to get 80 is a pretty damned good feeling.
Stephenson (tournament director, Tour Championship): One thing that I think really sticks out at me from that day as Rory cleared the green on Sunday, again, I was standing right there by scoring. And he came in and locked eyes with a number of the players that were standing there and looking at Rickie [Fowler] and Justin [Thomas] and Jordan [Spieth]. And I was nervous, thinking,Hope he thought that was fun. How was Rory gonna react to just kind of what happened there? And Rory made eye contact with a number of players, and just mouthed, “That was awesome.”
Woods’ eight-footer for birdie somehow stays outside the cup. It is no matter: As Tiger’s tap-in drops, his arms go up. After five long years, he is a winner once more.
Woods: You know, celebrations aren’t planned. They just come out. They’re spontaneous. I don’t know, my arms went up.
Parker (East Lake general manager): I really was just overwhelmed with a lot of different emotions. And then I kind of turned to … I was like, Well, I hope no one fell in the bunker, or was pushed in the lake, or … [I] started thinking some operational things after that. But it was an unbelievable event that you were very, very pleased to be the site of where it happened.
Lindsey (operations manager, Tour Championship): Part of me right after was, Man I hope there’s no videos of me. Because I don’t know what I was telling everybody, but it wasn’t pretty.
Burk (fan): I mean, in the grand scheme of things, is a golf tournament that big of a deal? No, but it is cool to have fun experiences like that in life. And of all the fun experiences I’ll have in life, that’ll probably always be at the top for sure.
Maltbie (NBC on-course reporter):: Tiger Woods has done so much for the sport. The Masters [victory in 2019] now takes precedent in a lot of minds, but that Sunday at East Lake, the way everyone—and I mean everyone—showered him with love, it was the game’s way of finally thanking him.
Woods: It’s certainly up there with all the major championships I’ve won, Players, World Golf Championships. But this is under different circumstances.
The people who are close to me saw the struggles and what I was going through … the low point was not knowing if I’d ever be able to live pain-free again. 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.
But If I could somehow piece together a golf swing, I felt like I could do it. My hands are good enough, and I just didn’t know if I could piece together a golf swing. Somehow, I was able to do that, and here we are.
Special thanks to the PGA Tour's Michael Baliker for his assistance.