Before he began his final round at the Tour Championship on Sunday, Tiger Woods was installed as the Las Vegas favourite (10 to 1) to win next year’s Masters golf tournament.
Mr. Woods is on the wrong side of 40. He’s had four back surgeries. He’s participated in only two of the past five Masters, and hadn’t won a tournament of any sort since 2013.
It’d be easy to make fun. By Sunday evening, it was getting harder. After years of failed renaissances, the greatest golfer of the 21st century – some would say the greatest athlete, full stop – is back.
Mr. Woods won the Tour Championship, portentously held at a course a couple of hours' drive from Augusta National, home of the golf season’s first major. His celebration on the green Sunday was muted, arms slowly raised, but the 100-watt smile that made him famous briefly returned.
It got extremely nervy at the end – in particular, sticking a shot on the 15th that for any other mortal would’ve caromed back into the water hazard. Having led by five strokes in the late going, he fired a one-over 71 to finish with an 11-under 269 and won by two shots. Billy Horschel, the 2014 Tour Championship winner, closed with a 66 to finish second.
“I was having a hard time not crying,” Mr. Woods said afterward of the walk up the 18th fairway. It has been a while, for all of us.
This was a new twist on what had become a tired story. Mr. Woods’s late-career ‘resurgence’ had been a number from The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s do the time warp again.
He starts out each tournament as the broken-down, middle-aged version of himself, with spectators trying to will him out the other end as the strapping 2005 iteration. It has yet to happen where it matters – one of golf’s four majors – but the experiments have finally shown promising results.
He was chased early Sunday by two guys who should have long ago inherited his mantle – Justin Rose (who is serene and likeable) and Rory McIlroy (who is telegenic and smug).
All four characteristics are Woods-ian qualities, but it took two men from the next generation to contain them. On the day, they and everyone else lacked a fifth – Tigerness.
You were reminded that while many golfers play like Mr. Woods, carry themselves like Mr. Woods and would like to be Mr. Woods, there is only one Mr. Woods. They don’t have it where it matters – in the public imagination. Or, one suspects, in their own.
Finally winning again is the headline, but it’s more than that.
This victory means that even the most committed doubters will have to concede Mr. Woods is still capable of winning another major.
The theme of the 2018 PGA Tour season was The Year Tiger Came Back. For Real This Time. He played well, and occasionally very well, but the most notable thing was that he played consistently. He seems fully healthy, or as close to that as he will be again.
With that in mind, 2019 promises to be dominated by the same comeback story, but after bingeing on energy drinks all winter. The hype will be frenzied.
Since Mr. Woods’s personal life went over a cliff in 2010 with his well-publicized marriage difficulties, gradually pulling his golf game along with it, nobody has been able to inhabit the top spot the way he did. We’re not speaking here just of the performances, but of his aura.
Mr. McIlroy got the first crack. Luke Donald was in there for a bit. Jason Day, Adam Scott and Rickie Fowler all got some advance billing that didn’t work out. Dustin Johnson has done his best, but though he looks like a bronze statue of the perfected golfer, he also speaks like one.
The man who’s come the closest to getting it right is Jordan Spieth.
Mr. Spieth, 25, is a prodigious golfer with a quirky personality who wins majors. But if you don’t catch him on TV at least once a month, you tend to forget what he looks like.
In that, he is emblematic of his entire cohort – terminally bland.
By contrast, Mr. Woods comes wrapped in the glamour of a tragic figure. He shouldn’t be where he is (four back operations is three too many for a professional athlete) but he is. That’s already something.
He has taken a godawful beating in the media for the better part of a decade. His character has been picked over and repeatedly found wanting. That happens to some famous people, but few have fallen so great a distance from their particular peak to the valley floor. And he has survived that, too.
That’s more than something. It’s something else. If not heroic (he was, after all, incentivized with millions of dollars to do it), it is a profound act of will.
Some guys pick themselves off the mat. Mr. Woods was left in a bloody heap out in the parking lot several times, and keeps staggering back into the ring.
People – even the people who didn’t like Mr. Woods much before – respond to that.
I would wager that while far fewer people follow Tiger Woods now than did 15 years ago, just as many or more root for him. You can see it every time he gets close to winning something. It’s an event.
That’s why he’s a Vegas favourite for next year.
This isn’t the bookies making a prediction. It’s a bunch of soft, nostalgic money pouring in on the guy everybody wants to win. Vegas adjusts the numbers accordingly.
It’s still extremely unlikely. If I could short that bet, I’d borrow money to do it.
But at this point last year, you’d have called it impossible.
A year before that, you were mentally willing Mr. Woods to retire. Not just because he was embarrassing himself out there, but also because the sport couldn’t move on as long as he kept showing up at the house.
Mr. Woods leaving once and for all was better for everyone, particularly the children, who had no inclination to grow up and take on adult responsibilities.
Well, they’ve had their chance and couldn’t manage it.
This is now Woods Era 2.0 (as opposed to all the abortive 2.0’s preceding it).
By next April, golf’s focus will have gone totally back to the future. It’ll be Tigerpalooza.
If he can close the circle and win a fifth Masters, it would be a bigger deal than the first time around. It might be the biggest thing ever.