Five years and four back surgeries after winning his 79th PGA Tour title at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational in 2013 – a span of 1,876 days — Tiger Woods secured No. 80 on Sunday by capturing the Tour Championship at historic East Lake Golf Club in wire-to-wire fashion.
He closed with a 1-over-par 71 to finish at 11-under 269, two strokes better than Billy Horschel. Woods previously won the tournament in 1999 at the Champions Club in Houston and in 2007 at East Lake.
He now trails all-time leader Sam Snead by two in career victories on the PGA Tour.
“I just can’t believe I pulled this off,” Woods said after capping one of the greatest turnarounds in sports history. “It’s been tough. I’ve had a not so easy last two years.”
Late last year, Woods was No 1,999 in the Official World Golf Ranking and many wrote him off. He’s now No. 13.
Asked where this victory ranked, Woods said, “It’s certainly up there. I didn’t know if this would ever happen again.”
A year ago, walking was a chore and competitive golf a distant dream. Playing with his kids and regaining quality of life were his top priorities.
Woods underwent spinal fusion surgery last April and it changed his life. Mostly pain-free, he returned to the PGA Tour in February with few expectations.
Adjusting to his new body, the 42-year-old Woods changed his swing, tweaked his equipment and re-learned how to play under pressure against the best players in the world.
“As the year progressed, I proved I could play,” said Woods, who garnered seven top-10s in 18 starts.
He almost snared the richest prize of the year.
Qualifying for the FedExCup Playoffs for the first time since 2013, Woods arrived at East Lake No. 20 in the point standings. The only way he could capture the $10 million FedExCup title for a third time was to win and benefit from many scenarios.
Playing in the last group Sunday with Rory McIlroy, Woods birdied the first hole to increase his advantage to four strokes and led by five at the turn. Just ahead, Bryson DeChambeau, the FedExCup points leader needed no worse than a tie for fourth to claim the crown. After struggling all day, Rose recorded a pressure-packed two-putt birdie at the par-5 18th hole to climb into a share of fourth, edging Woods for the FedExCup title.
“Congratulations to Rosie and his family,” said a gracious Woods. “World No. 1, hell of a season.”
Woods didn’t know where he stood walking down the 18th fairway. Thousands of spectators encircled him, many yelling “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”
“I just didn’t want to get run over,” he said.
Besides, Woods still had work to do after seeing his lead slip to two following bogeys at 15 and 16. He made a clutch par save at 17 from just right of the green to gain breathing room, then piped a driver at 18, knocked his second in the front bunker and blasted inside 10 feet to seal the deal.
Woods finally smiled, high-fiving caddie Joe LaCava.
“The up and down at 17 was huge,” Woods said.
As Woods bent down to line up his birdie attempt at 18, the crowd chanted his name again. Woods teared up, staring at the ground to compose himself, the reality of the moment sinking in.
After a narrow miss, he tapped in for par, then raised his arms and acknowledged the appreciative fans.
“8o is a big number,” said Woods. “I’ve been sitting on 79 for about five years now, and to get 80 is a pretty damned good feeling.”
Woods won’t forget the support he received all week from the fans and his reception at the end.
“It was just a grind out there,” he said. “I loved every minute of it.”
His final round strategy was to play smart and avoid mistakes because he knew the course was playing tough.
“It seemed like I was downhill, down-grain every single hole, and I was putting very defensively and conservative all day,” said Woods.
As he left the 18th green, Woods was congratulated by Rose, Horschel, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson and others.
“Some of those players knew what I was going through,” said Woods, who received encouragement from many during his comeback. “It was really special to see them there.”
Rose summed up of the admiration and feelings of players and fans everywhere for what Woods has overcome and achieved.
“I think the world of golf is very proud of you,” he said.
Athletes from all sports chimed in on social media:
“My congratulations to @TigerWoods on winning the @playofffinale! I am very happy for him and extremely proud of him.” @jacknicklaus
“I was proud to be a witness to your triumphant comeback” @JuliusErving
“This is absolutely incredible. Major goosebumps” @themichellewie
“I hope what’s not lost with Tiger winning is when everything is stacked against you, as long as you believe, that’s all that matters. Perseverance!!! @jcrossover (Jamal Crawford)
“Tiger won!! NFL is canceled til Tues. @Hawk (Andew Hawkins)
Woods’ first PGA Tour win came in 1996.
“When I came out here, there was no internet,” he cracked
Woods enhanced his stature as the greatest closer in the game. He is now 24-0 when leading by three or more shots after 54 holes, 43 of 45 when holding the outright lead and 54 of 58 when owning at least a share of the top spot.
Woods is savoring more moments and soaking up the atmosphere.
“I appreciate it a little bit more than I did because I don’t take it for granted that I’m going to have a decade, two decades in my future of playing golf at this level,” he said.
Wood is also grateful his two children were able to see him at his best.
“I think they understand a little bit of what dad does now,” said Woods. “They know what their dad can do on a golf course now. A lot of times they equated golf to pain.
Now they’re seeing joy.”
As for catching Snead, anything seems possible.
“Maybe I can keep chipping away at that number and surpass it,” said Woods.