The coronation could finally occur as Tiger Woods made his way to the 18th green Sunday, a remarkable scene as thousands of spectators engulfed him on his walk to victory while chanting and cheering his name as he was about to put the finishing touches on his 80th PGA Tour win.
The final round at East Lake was not easy, but it paled in comparison to the treacherous comeback Woods endured in recent years as he tried to recover from multiple back surgeries.
That beaming Woods smile and arms raised in triumph after the final tap-in suggested it was worth all the hardship.
A 1-over-par 71 was good enough to capture the Tour Championship, the season-ending tournament on the PGA Tour schedule and one that gave Woods his first victory in more than five years. He won by two shots over Billy Horschel as Justin Rose captured the season-long FedEx Cup title.
“I was pretty emotional when Rory [McIlroy] was tapping out, he was finishing out,” Woods said. “I looked around, and the tournament was over because I’d already put the bunker shot on the green, and I’d won 80. 80 is a big number. I’ve been sitting on 79 for about five years now, and to get 80 is a pretty damned good feeling.”
A birdie at the first hole set the tone for Woods, who increased his lead over playing partner McIlroy and Rose to four shots at the point. In much the same manner he won numerous titles over the years, Woods played smart, methodical golf, doing all he could to limit mistakes while letting others make them.
His lead was never less than two, and it got that close only at the 16th hole, where Woods made a bogey while Horschel was already in the clubhouse.
“The game plan was to shoot under par, and I birdied the first hole right out of the gate,” he said. “Now, play the next 17 in even par, and we’re good to go. I was just grinding out there, and I was telling [caddie] Joey [LaCava], it felt like more of a grind today because of where I kept leaving myself. I had downhill putts virtually every single hole. The only three putts I made today at 1 and 4, the par putt, and 13 — those were all uphill. It seemed like I was downhill, down grain every single hole, and I was putting very defensive and conservatively all day.”
Rose, despite a final-round 73 that dropped him out of contention for the Tour Championship, birdied the last hole to capture the FedEx Cup and a $10 million bonus. Had he not birdied the last, Woods would have won his third FedEx title.
Clearly, winning the tournament was more important to Woods. It came only a few days short of a year since he told reporters, “I don’t know what my future holds,” months after spinal fusion surgery meant he was still unable to take full swings with a golf club.
“It is emotional for sure,” said Rob McNamara, Woods’ long-time friend who has served as his eyes and ears over the past year while the golfer played without a coach. “He made me cry, but I couldn’t be more proud of him, a true champion in every sense of the word.”
Woods is expected to go to No. 13 in the world after dropping as low as 1,199th late last year. It was his 18th start of 2018, and he has seven top-10 finishes. Woods also now trails all-time PGA Tour victory leader Sam Snead by two.
“I am extremely proud of him,” Jack Nicklaus said in a series of tweets congratulating Woods.
Woods played beautifully to give himself a three-shot 54-hole advantage, a lead he has never failed to convert now in 24 tries. He shot rounds of 65-68-65 to get to 12 under par, giving him his first three-round advantage since he won the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, his last victory.
It proved beneficial on a day when East Lake seemed particularly difficult. Just 13 players broke par, and those closest to Woods — McIlroy and Rose — manage scores of 74 and 73, respectively.
“It was a grind out there,” Woods said. “I loved every bit of it. The fight and the grind and the tough conditions and just had to suck it up and hit shots, and I loved every bit of it.”
McIlroy shot 39 on the front nine to fall out of contention and finished with a 74 and in a tie for seventh. Rose also struggled, falling four shots back by the turn and tied for fourth. It was then a matter of Woods getting to the clubhouse at East Lake, the home of the great amateur Bobby Jones, whose photos and memorabilia adorn the surroundings.
Horschel, who won the 2014 FedEx Cup, made a late push with a 66, but when he was in at 9 under par, Woods had only three holes to play.
Woods, 42, was basically out of golf for the past two years, playing just three tournaments worldwide as he attempted to alleviate back and nerve pain that led to four surgeries. When he returned at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, he was ranked 656th in the world, had not earned a single Ryder Cup point and seemed miles away from being able to compete with the game’s best.
On Sunday at the Tour Championship, five years removed from his last win and after multiple surgeries and scandals, Tiger Woods summoned his greatness one more time.
But Woods slowly gained form, posting six top-10 finishes coming into the Tour Championship, including at The Open and the PGA Championship.
“He’s played such good golf all year that it’s just not surprising,” Phil Mickelson said while Woods was on the back nine. “It was just a matter of time before he does win. He’s playing so well on a very difficult golf course. We all have been kind of expecting it. I’ve seen the way he’s been swinging the club and the way he’s been playing. We all knew it was just a matter of time.”
Woods has said many times that he has been touched by the outpouring of support he has received throughout the year from fans, many of whom had never seen him or had certainly not watched him perform at a high level.
He admitted that the conclusion Sunday was unique, as he was swarmed trying to get the bunker that fronted the green, from where he was able to blast on and complete the tournament.
“I appreciate it a little bit more than I did because I don’t take it for granted that I’m going to have another decade, two decades in my future of playing golf at this level,” Woods said. “It means a lot more to me now in that sense because I didn’t know if I’d ever be out here playing again, doing this again.”
And then, putting the length of his career into perspective — Woods won his first PGA Tour title in 1996 — he was asked how he thought the world would react, given that he had likely broken the internet.
“Well, when I came out here, there was no internet,” Woods said, smiling.
Woods is now the favorite to win next year’s Masters. Heading into the Tour Championship, he was 12-1 behind then-Masters favorite Jordan Spieth. By the end of the tournament, Woods’ odds had been trimmed to 9-1, ahead of Spieth’s, at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas.
Woods also is a minus-220 favorite over Mickelson in their match play event in November in Las Vegas.