Atlanta, Georgia- Bobby Jones, the founder of East Lake Golf Club where the TOUR Championship is played, would have been proud of this final round. For one day, golf had turned back the clock. No, not to the time when Bobby Jones played golf. An era when a living legend dominated the sport, captivating fans from all corners of the globe.
It was 21 years ago when Tiger Woods won his first major championship at Augusta National, winning by a record margin of 12 shots. Flash forward 21 years at East Lake, about a couple of hours away from Augusta, and the Big Cat is once again back in the winner’s circle. One year ago, Tiger could barely move and was doubtful if he could ever play golf again. Now, Woods has won his 80th PGA Tour event, only two behind Sam Snead’s record of 82 wins.
“It means a lot. It really does,” says Woods. “The people who are close to me saw the struggles and what I was going through, and some of the players that I’m pretty close to. They’ve really helped throughout this process and the last few years. Their support coming off that last green meant a lot to me.”
Tiger Maintains Winning Aura Under Pressure
Only once has Tiger Woods ever lost after holding the 54-hole lead. That was to Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship. But never before has Tiger blown a 54-hole lead when ahead by three shots or more. Throughout this comeback season, Woods has put himself in contention come Sunday. The one unfortunate constant has been that Tiger has always had to battle from behind. Whether it was at the Players Championship at Sawgrass or the PGA Championship at Bellerive, the pressure on Woods was immense, as he not only had to shoot a good score but also needed some help with the leaders at the top.
Heading into the final round at the TOUR Championship, a different type of pressure would be felt for Tiger. There was no one in front of him as the 54-hole leader. He controlled his own destiny but needed to remind himself of how to win out in front, which he had done so many times in the past.
“The game plan was to shoot under par, and I birdied the first hole right out of the gate. Now, play the next 17 in even par, and we’re good to go,” says Woods. “I was just grinding out there, giving myself good looks on the downhill putts. And make those putts that are uphill, which I did.”
What was most impressive about Tiger’s week at East Lake was his iron play and putting. He was second in the event for Strokes Gained: Putting, sixth in Strokes Gained: Off The Tee and seventh in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green. In the past, when Tiger was out in front, he would solidify his lead by making more birdies. Today, he relied on solid play and not getting a huge score on a hole. Despite the thunderous stampede of people on the 18th, the tournament was not yet over as Tiger was hanging on to a two-shot lead.
“The tournament wasn’t over yet. Still had a two-shot lead, but anything could still happen. I still needed to play the hole, and once I hit the ball into the bunker, I tried to miss it right of the flag. I was able to do that. And once I got the ball onto the green, then the tournament was over.”
Justin Rose Secures FedEx Cup
Amidst all the buzz and hype surrounding Tiger’s elusive victory, a FedEx Cup needed to be crowned. While it became clear that Woods would be out of the running for this accolade, Justin Rose would hoist the FedEx Cup for the first time in his career, after shooting a final round 73. It is a feather in the European’s cap after a year that saw him get to World Number One for the first time in his career.
“I think as a kid I would have said I’m a major champion, that was the most important to me. The Olympic gold medal has become as important to me just based upon people’s reaction to it and how special it’s felt,” says Rose. “Now, reaching World No. 1 and being FedEx Cup champion, it is obviously right up there with everything I’ve achieved.”
From two wins at the WGC-Championship HSBC Tournament of Championships and the Forth Worth Invitational to three runner-up performances at The Open Championship, the Dell Technologies Championship, and BMW Championship, Rose has demonstrated tremendous consistency on the golf course this year. With a major championship, Ryder Cup and now a FedEx Cup under his belt, the Englishman is quite content with the state of his golf and his professional career as a whole.
“I have a good team of people around me for sure, and I lean on them heavily. I think that having a good team of people around me, I think just stops me going too far in the wrong direction. It’s like bowling with the bumpers up. It’s going to be very important for me going into next year and the year after that, that I continue to push for improvement but also understand what I’m doing well.”
A Bright Future Ahead for Tiger Woods
With the win today, it would be Tiger’s third time he has won the TOUR Championship at East Lake. But the victory symbolizes a critical juncture in the sport. For years, Tiger Woods just didn’t move the needle of popularity when it came to golf. He was the needle that made individuals get into the game of golf.
When one imagines of the younger players that have taken over the game like Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, and Patrick Reed, all of them were inspired because of how successful Tiger was back in the early 2000’s. What this younger generation of golfers must face is that Woods isn’t just “back.” He is competing at a super high level once again and has the confidence that he can play consistent golf over a four round span. It clearly means a lot to Tiger that he now enters a new decade number of wins and is inching closer to Sam Snead’s record.
“To get to the 80 mark is a big number. I feel like I have chances to play some more golf and maybe I’ll keep chipping away at that number and surpass it. It’s always nice when you enter a new decade of wins.”
It’s been 1,876 days since Tiger Woods was in the winner’s circle at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. The golfing world can rejoice once again that their legend, after so much adversity and doubt, has finally won a tournament. For the rest of the PGA Tour, who knows whether this will be Tiger’s last or the start of a special run. Golfers have won many tournaments past the age of 40; Vijay Singh won 22, Sam Snead captured 17. But more important than the win is the comeback story. We all love and relate to athletes that have risen so far to the top in the game and when they fall, they get back up. Tiger has been lucky and hopefully, this comeback story serves as an inspiration to younger athletes going through similar predicaments.
“Given everything I’ve gone through and what I’ve dealt with, I’ve gotten lucky. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to have the people around me to have supported me and worked through this process with me, so I can go out and win golf tournaments again,” says Woods.
Having Tiger playing and competing in tournaments is special for the game. I’m sure Bobby Jones is smiling seeing another legend of the game return to his rightful place in the sport. Cue the countdown until next April for The Masters.