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How Tiger Woods Won His First Title in 5 Years

5 minute read

All year, Tiger Woods knocked. Tournament after tournament, the 14-time major champion contended for titles. Back in March, he finished tied for second and tied for fifth at the Valspar and Arnold Palmer Invitational, respectively. On the final day of the British Open in July, Woods ascended to the top of the leaderboard before a few hiccups cost him. At the PGA Championship in August, he thrilled in the final round, soaring up the standings despite driving the ball inconsistently. He finished second. Sunday ratings for the season’s last major jumped 69%.

All that was left was the victory.

On Sunday, at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, it came in what was once typical Tiger fashion. His sizzling start on Saturday — six birdies in the first seven holes — gave him a cushion; he entered the final round with a three-shot lead. Dressed in his Sunday red, victory red, Woods struck the fairways he needed. Almost everything went his way. On the 15th hole, his tee shot landed to the right of a water-lined green: his shot stayed out of the drip, barely. Things got a bit jittery on the 17th, as after two straight bogeys his lead had shrunk to two strokes. He faced a potentially disastrous chip shot, in some deepish rough, near the green. A camera distracted him before the shot; he stepped back and snipped. Recomposed, he stuck it to within four feet and saved par.

No one really threatened: Woods could for the most part enjoy a valedictory finish, the love of his stadium-sized galleries. “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” the people shouted. Woods won his first tournament in more than five years, the 80th of his career, finishing at 11 under par, two shots clear of Billy Horschel, who finished at 9-under. Justin Rose of Great Britain, on the strength of a 18th hole birdie, won the FedEx Cup playoffs, making him the season-long champion of the PGA Tour. Rose got a $10 million bonus for his efforts. Woods finished second in the FedEx Cup, good for $3 million.

Sure, the Tour Championship’s not a major, and we mostly remember the majors. But make no mistake: Woods’ win Sunday ranks right up there with other illustrious moments of his singular career.

As recently as April of last year, Woods needed his fourth back surgery in three years. His latest comeback, already tenuous as age and the golf’s wear and tear was catching up with him, hit another snag when, on Memorial Day of 2017, he was arrested for DUI near his home in Jupiter, Fla. Police found him alone and asleep at the wheel. Woods had five different drugs in his system. He later checked into a clinic to help him manage prescription pain medication and a sleep disorder.

Woods said he just wanted his life back. The surgeries made it hard for him to move around and lift his kids. Forget about golf. He never knew what was on the other side of his rehab. The result exceeded everyone’s prognosis, and now create even more fevered expectations.

Start with the Ryder Cup, the biannual international tournament which is being played outside Paris later this week. Woods has earned a spot on Team USA, which is trying to win back-to-back titles over Team Europe for the first time since 1993. Woods has never really starred at the Ryder Cup; for years, one knock on Woods was that he cared more about his individual play during the year than the international team tournaments (though can you blame him? Golf’s quite an individual sport). At his last Ryder Cup, in 2012 in Medinah, Ill., Woods finished 0-3-1 in his matches. His back, however, was bothering him that weekend. Six years later, he’s healthy and coming off one of the most memorable wins of his career. His presence should energize the Americans.

On the 18th hole Sunday in Atlanta, as Woods approached the East Lake Golf Club green with a win all but in hand, he walked beside playing partner Rory McIlroy, with a smile. Pandemonium trailed them, as hundreds of fans poured onto the fairway to witness Woods clinch the victory. They looked like acolytes following their leader. The scene was reminiscent of Tiger’s early days, when he captivated his sport like no one ever will. Who thought we’d see something similar two decades later?

“USA! USA!” some of them chanted, pumping themselves up for the Ryder Cup. “I just didn’t want to get run over,” Woods joked afterwards. He tried not to tear up on the green. He tapped in a par to win it, leaned over the hole to pluck the ball out — gingerly, so as not to tweak that back — and rose both arms into the air. A champion again. With the promise of so much more to come.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com