CHIBA, Japan — The week started with questions—about his health, about his captaincy, about his game.
It finished with history.
When the world least expected him to, Tiger Woods won the inaugural Zozo Championship for a staggering 82nd career PGA Tour victory, tying Sam Snead for the all-time record. Woods polished off the win Monday, completing his last seven holes in one under for a final-round 67 and a three-shot victory over home-country-hero Hideki Matsuyama.
“It’s about being consistent and doing it for a long period of time,” Woods said of tying a record that once looked patently unattainable. “I’ve been very fortunate to have the career I’ve had so far.”
On a brisk but sunny Monday morning at Narashino Country Club, Woods bogeyed his first hole of the day but bounced back with a crucial 15-footer for birdie on the par-5 14th. He added another, his 27th of the week, at the finishing hole. The scene on 18 wasn’t as chaotic as East Lake, not as climatic as Augusta. But that didn’t make it any less historic.
The first win came way back at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational. The 82nd came halfway across the world, 23 years and too many surgeries later.
“To have won this tournament in Japan—it’s just so ironic, because I’ve always been a global player,” Woods said. “I’ve always been all around the world. To tie the record outside of the United States, it’s pretty cool.”
This “W” was as unlikely as any of the 81 prior. Or so it seemed.
The conventional wisdom coming into this week went something like this: Woods was making his first start in more than two months. He’d just had surgery on his left knee for the fifth time. He’d only been cleared to practice a month ago. He hadn’t had much success at all since winning the Masters. His three previous starts resulted in a missed cut, a withdrawal and a T-37 out of 70 players. He looked shaky in Monday’s Skins game. He was the main attraction at the PGA Tour’s maiden event in Japan, of course, but he wasn’t a realistic threat to win the thing.
Through three holes on Thursday, those doubts seemed justified. Woods’ opening tee shot of the 2019-'20 season was a high, spinny 5-wood that hooked into the water. Bogey. He also bogeyed the next two and found himself three over par as he departed the 12th green, fresh off a three putt. In his own words: “I hadn’t hit one good shot yet.”
Woods didn’t panic. Neither did those who had seen him grinding away back home in Florida, who knew how huge a difference the knee procedure made.
“His second practice session that I saw, his swing, his ability to practice as long as he did, that was the most impressive thing,” said Rob McNamara, vice president for TGR ventures and an ever-present second set of eyes for Woods’ game. “He hit the ball great, but the fact that we were able to practice for four or five hours on his second full day back just showed that—OK, if he’s upright, if he’s able to prepare, he’s as good as anyone.”
Perhaps something clicked on a long walk through the foliage between the 12th green and 13th tee. Woods fired a short iron right on the flag on the par 3, and while he couldn’t convert the birdie effort, that iron shot was a preview of what was to come the rest of the week.
The putts also started falling, which Woods attributes to a simple tip from McNamara—to move his hands further forward—and, interestingly enough, the knee operation.
“The fact that I could get down and read putts again, it was something I hadn’t been able to do in months,” Woods said. “It’s something very subtle and simple like that, but it makes a difference. And then I felt more comfortable with my putter, just because I was able to make a better stance.”
Armed with his normal array of iron shots and a hot putter, Woods was in full flight over the last 14 holes on Thursday, making nine birdies and no bogeys for a most unlikely 64. That delighted the massive, and remarkably respectful, crowds that were overjoyed to see the game’s biggest star return to compete in Japan for the first time since 2006.
Woods had to wait nearly 48 hours to hit another shot as record-setting rainfall wiped out play on Friday. (He saw Joker and ate Domino’s pizza on the off day). After an additional delay to let the course dry on Saturday morning, Woods put together a second-straight 64—this one witnessed only by a select few, as fans weren’t permitted on the waterlogged grounds—and he carried a two-shot lead into the third round. He was halfway home but had a marathon to come.
Woods teed off at 8:30 on Sunday morning and shot a ho-hum 66, which resulted in a three-shot lead heading into the final round. That was awful news for his competitors, as Woods entered the week 43 of 45 when carrying a solo lead into the final round, and 24 of 24 when that advantage was at least three shots. There is no one more comfortable sleeping with a lead.
But there would be no sleeping on this lead—after finishing up the third round, Woods took a 45-minute break for lunch and a high-profile shirt change, then headed right back out to the course to squeeze in as many more holes as possible before sunset. He managed to get through 11 and played them in two under, preserving a three-shot cushion heading into the final 7.
It proved anything but routine. Woods bogeyed his first hole of the day, the difficult par-4 12th, then missed an eight-footer for birdie on 13. Playing in the group in front, Matsuyama had a short birdie putt on 14 to close the lead to one.
He missed. Woods birdied that hole to push the lead back to three, and three straight pars from 15-17 meant all he needed to do was avoid disaster on the par-5 18th. A 3-wood found the center of the fairway, and a second shot into a front bunker allowed Woods to enjoy a walk to victory and a walk to history. He holed a 10-foot birdie putt for 67.
Weighing golfers’ resumes against each other is a tricky business, particularly so if they’re from different eras. Today’s game bears little resemblance to the one of decades past. The dynamic of professional golf has morphed throughout the years. More emphasis is placed on majors now. Tournaments were smaller then. There are simply too many variables for an apples-to-apples comparison. Judgments are best left to the historians.
We can, however, say this definitively: No one has won more than Tiger Woods. And he has no plans of stopping now.
“Certainly, the future looks brighter than it has,” Woods said. “I hope I can be as good as consistent as [Snead] was, well into my 40s and 50s.”