ATLANTA—It wasn’t the tap-in or ensuing raised arms from Tiger Woods that signaled the unbelievable just occurred. Not that security said, the hell with it, allowing thousands of fans to march with him down the 18th fairway to a deafening ovation that gave anyone with a pulse goose bumps. No, it was over when the sign bearers, charged with carrying the roaming score board inside the ropes, exchanged high fives after Tiger’s par putt on the 17th disappeared.
They are supposed to be stoic, sign bearers, to do their duty with impartiality. That waved bye-bye the moment Tiger’s save sent a boom across East Lake, across the sport.
Not that anyone cared. Who could be stoic at a moment like this?
“This is crazy,” said Jack, one of the sign bearers. Echoed Cameron, the other: “There’s so many people. Never seen anything close to this.”
Neither has golf.
How else do you explain the unexplainable? Tiger Woods, 42 years old, removed from so many surgeries and clean-ups he gets his next one free, a champion again on the PGA Tour. The Tiger that missed two years’ worth of majors, and claimed he might be done with competitive golf. That Tiger. The one and only.
"It's certainly up there with obviously all the major championships I've won, Players, World Golf Championships. But this is under different circumstances," Woods said, fighting back tears. "You know, I've explained throughout the year that I just didn't know whether—when this would ever happen again. If I could somehow piece together a golf swing this year, 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.
"But somehow I've been able to do that, and here we are."
To be fair, the victory had been coming into focus. The near-misses at Innisbrook and Bay Hill and Carnoustie, the charge at Bellerive. Woods showed he had the firepower. Only a matter of the cylinders firing at the same time.
Atlanta proved to be that confluence. Tiger shook off an opening bogey on Thursday to shoot 65, earning a share of the lead thanks to a marvelous display of shot-making. Friday was an exercise in grit, overcoming a wayward driver to grind out a 68, staying atop the leader board. Saturday’s round went right into the Hall of Fame, opening with six birdies in seven holes to set up the spectacular. And on Sunday, Woods didn’t disappoint.
Following a raucous welcome at the first tee, Tiger found the fairway, some 292 yards from the box. Playing partner Rory McIlroy’s drive was farther, but Woods paid it no heed. That’s something that couldn’t have been said earlier this year, with Tiger trying to keep up with the likes of Rory, Justin Thomas, Jason Day. He’s learned to control himself off the tee, and it’s paid dividends in his second-shot prowess.
Evident on the next shot, Woods putting his approach to 10 feet while McIlroy, some 30 yards ahead, barely found the green. McIlroy had a nice two-putt for par. Nice wasn’t going to cut it on a day like this, not when fans were crawling up trees to catch a fleeting glance of a legend. Woods rolled in the birdie, and turned the crowd volume up to 10.
"A couple of guys thought someone holed out on No. 1," Woods smiled. "It was just me making a putt." His lead was now four.
Woods followed with eight consecutive pars, which may convey a routine, workman-like trek. The latter is partially true, not so much the former. Nothing about the scene that engulfed Woods on Sunday said “routine.”
The masses that follow Woods have often been described as a circus. Please. The Ringling Brothers wish they had this turnout. Fans packed the Georgia property, hooting and hollering as Woods made his way around the course. They roared at his good shots. Treated sensible lags like fairway hole-outs. Any sign of a misstep, they were there to pick him up were shouts of encouragement. Spectators were 12-to-15 deep in each direction, gaining in loudness as the day went on.
Even at Tiger’s peak dominance—he won the 2007 Tour Championship by eight strokes at 23 under—it was never like this at East Lake. “Now would be a good time to be a thief,” a marshal told me on the third green. “Because everyone in town is here.”
That McIlroy went south, touring the front in 39 to fall well out of contention, is a not a surprise. The crowds weren’t hostile to Rory, and gave his birdie at the fifth the applause it deserved. But whenever Woods wasn’t hitting, fans were running into position to see Tiger’s next shot—marshals’ pleas for “EVERYONE STAND STILL!” were disdained like a dentist at a candy convention—and the sounds those shots conjured would rattle anybody. On one hole a fan yelled, “It’s not your fault, Rory,” and said it with all sincerity. McIlroy wasn’t targeted Sunday; collateral damage happens.
Back to Tiger: He didn’t have his fastball on Sunday. It's okay. Part of it was defensive play—the lead called for it—many of his irons avoiding the flag, instead favoring the fat part of the green. Conversely, his putter, the one that’s been maligned all year yet magical this week, wasn’t producing fireworks. Still, he finished the first nine one under for the day, and five clear of the field. The competition had turned into a coronation.
At least, it wanted to.
Woods, whose struggles with the final nine have been well documented this summer, bogeyed the 10th, a tee shot to the right forcing a punch out, and Woods couldn’t get up-and-down from 77 yards. It barely registered at the time, and was ostensibly wiped clean when Tiger hit his approach on the par-4 12th to 13 feet, converting the meat left on the bone for bird.
He played the 14th without incident; the same could not be said of the 15th and 16th. Woods barely crossed the water on the 200-yard par 3, his tee shot down in the greenside rough. Though his chip was serviceable, he didn't clean up the remaining eight feet. Billy Horschel had played his final seven holes in three under to get to nine under, cutting Woods’ lead to three. Then the 16th, that cruel mistress which Woods doubled on Friday and bogeyed on Saturday, again wreaked havoc. Tiger's drive found the heavy stuff, forcing a lay-up. His third went over the flag and into the fringe, spinning slightly back, yet leaving 16 feet. His par attempt went 16 feet, just not on the right line. Lead, to two.
Things got tight, really tight, when he yanked his drive left on the 17th, in the rough and into a depression. The issue, out of seemingly nowhere, was in doubt. An approach over the green didn’t alleviate that tension, as Horschel’s score became increasingly formidable by the second.
But Woods, from 40 feet or so off the pin, made a nifty chip to four feet. If you were playing a casual round with friends, you might have picked it up. But it was a testy four feet, and for three minutes, no one on the course could breathe.
Then Woods’ par putt dropped, with exhales and exclamations and Cameron and Jack's high five filling the air.
"That putt was bigger than people think," Woods said. "I at the time 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. But a two-shot lead playing a par-5 which I can hit driver-iron to, that's a totally different ballgame."
Woods was two strokes up entering the final hole, one of the easiest at East Lake. The crowds knew it. Woods did too, grinning from ear to ear after smoking his drive on the 18th. Throughout the day he had been serenaded with his name, but now it had become an unending chant: “TIGER! TIGER! TIGER!”
At least, those who could speak were chanting. Some were choked up, speechless. Some couldn’t muster words, just screams. In that pandemonium, Woods could be seen telling McIlroy, “This is something.”
It is, in so many ways, to so many people.
It is something for the regulars at Charlie Yates Golf Course, a nine-hole joint that sits across the street from East Lake—actually used to be East Lake’s No. 2 course—where a round costs just $10. Yates was renovated in the early '90s, aimed to be a safe haven for a community that had fell victim to white flight and urban decay. When it re-opened in 1998 as the home to the First Tee, Tiger hit the ceremonial tee shot.
Yates’ audience is as diverse as you’ll find in the sport; every race, sex and age represented on its range Sunday morning. They were harmonic, though, in conversation (save for a little Falcons chatter), Woods providing a tune everyone can sing to.
“These guys for years kept saying he was done,” said Bob “Ruck” Rucker of Kirkwood, 60, ridiculing his friends in the Yates parking lot. “Now they’re acting like they never had a doubt.”
“(Expletive) you, you were saying he was done after Shinnecock,” fired back Angel Dee, 62.
One group unanimously decided to cut their scheduled 18 holes to nine, hoping to be off the course by noon. Didn't want to miss a date with history.
It is something for Kay Parrish, 28, who snuck her son Jason through a service road behind the 13th green on Saturday so they could watch Tiger. “My friend’s working hospitality,” she said off the 16th green during the third round, explaining her secret passageway. Kay said Jason, 9, is starting to hit balls in the backyard and watches Tiger on TV whenever he can.
“I thought, ‘If he’s really into this, he’s got to see this in person.’” Even though it was Saturday, Jason was wearing a red polo, because what else would he wear. Jason was too shy to talk. Or maybe his tongue was awestruck. Seeing your idol will do that.
It is something for all the fans that never left his side. That watched him miss cuts and still treated him like the icon he was. That flood social media with Tiger jokes and gifs and, most importantly, support, and defended him from assertions he was gone, never to come back.
About that. On Saturday, as Woods made his way to the range, a patron yelled, “Tiger! Back from the dead!” Couldn’t be further from the truth. He was away for a time, yes, but never really gone. Not when he still dominated almost every discussion, his non-update updates treated like breaking news. In absence, Tiger was more alive than most will ever be.
But there were low points, and they were low. The 85 at Muirfield Village, topped shots at Chambers Bay, a disastrous PR stunt at Congressional, the aforementioned missed majors. Most would point to his Memorial Day arrest as the nadir. It might have been a year ago when Woods, one of the most famous people on the planet, was relegated to using a bedpan, his body so wrecked he couldn’t make the 10 steps to the bathroom. That will humble the most powerful of kings.
While there is legitimacy to the above, at its heart is something far more elementary: Tiger Woods didn’t know if he'd ever feel good 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," Woods said. "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."
Maybe that explains why this comeback, this Tiger, has been different. Woods has been the biggest draw since he told the world “Hello” 22 years ago. But he wasn’t loved like Arnie, or hallowed like Jack. The only reason “Tiger vs. Phil” was a thing is because Mickelson engendered such a strong rapport with fans. A rapport Tiger had no interest in building or maintaining.
Not in 2018. His guard has lowered, ever so slightly, finally figuring out fans don’t want a piece of him. They want to be with him, good times and bad. He’s not as defensive, and quicker to smile. Maybe the fans have changed too, more appreciative of the greatness they took for granted. The acknowledgment by both parties has spurred an interesting dynamic, fans treating his rounds with welcome, excitement, genuine love. Tiger, for the first time in forever, reciprocating the sentiment.
Which made his march up the 18th so apropos, Woods and the people, walking together as one.
"The fans and the commotion, no" Woods said, when asked if he could remember anything like it. "Not to this fevered pitch."
Perhaps this is the new reality, Tiger Woods back to being Tiger Woods. If you’re one for recency bias, evidence is in your corner. Or win No. 80 might be it. As Tiger’s past has proved, the present is no guarantee of the future.
That’s discussion for another time. What matters in this moment is what happened Sunday, to Tiger, to all of us. When his final putt found the bottom of the cup, arms went up. Tiger Woods was a winner once more. Off the green, Cameron and Jack could be seen smiling.
We all were.