Tiger Woods: Almost Back

Tigers Woods finally did it.

After five years of turmoil and setbacks, either on the course or off it, he won a golf tournament. It wasn’t necessarily a real tournament, of course. The Tour Championship features 30 of the best golfers in the world, but its field size pales in comparison to normal PGA events, which often consist of 100-plus golfers. In fairness, while Woods got to dodge Jordan Spieth and other potential upsetters, he did face off against the likes of Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, and a host of others.

Potential asterisks aside, Woods’ win was viewed almost universally as a great Sports Moment—even for a contrarian curmudgeon like me, watching him walk up 18 in front of a mob of fans brought back some feels. I’ve always had a touch-and-go relationship with Tiger, never fully buying into the frenzy. My hesitance has generally had less to do with him—though he’s done his part—than the people who root most ardently for him. Cryogenically frozen since the late ‘90s and released back into the wild this year, they all seem to wear a Titleist hat, talk incessantly about the comparative advantages of different golf balls, and be exactly 40 years old.

Forget the psyche behind my sports fandom or the significance of Woods’ win for a minute. What was curious about the final round of the Tour Championship was just how poorly the leaders played in the final round. Going into Sunday, Woods was 12 strokes under par, three better than his closest rivals, Rose and McIlroy. Woods trudged home with a one-over 71 in the final round, a display of calculated mediocrity. Rose and McIlroy all but fell apart. Rose shot a 73, just narrowly hanging on to win the FedEx Cup by a stroke (it’s complicated). McIlroy, playing in the shadow of Woods but with a real chance to beat him, finished with a 74, the second worst round of the day.

Maybe the course just got tougher. Oftentimes, on the weekend, the PGA will tighten the screws in various ways, moving hole or tee locations or altering watering patterns, etc. Back at the U.S. Open, the field averaged a 72.5 on Thursday and Friday. That number jumped to a five-over 75.3 on Saturday before flattening back out to 72.1 on Sunday. Maybe things got a little carried away.

There was no such pattern at East Lake last week. In fact, the toughest day was actually Friday:

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4
69.3 70.4 69.1 69.7

While Woods, Rose, and McIlroy faltered on Sunday, the rest of the field seemed to relish the conditions. Billy Horschel shot a four-under 66, getting to nine-under in the clubhouse, applying some pressure to Woods’ borderline insurmountable lead. He finished two back, a lone second. Hideki Matsuyama and Ricky Fowler—the latter of whom blew a shot at the win with a 73 on Saturday—shot 65s. Eleven other players scored in the 60s, including Bryson DeChambeau, the FedEx Cup leader heading into last week (he finished a distant 15th in the tournament after struggling on Thursday and Friday).

The field outpaced Woods, Rose, and McIlroy by more than three strokes on Sunday. Does that happen often? Not really, as you’d probably guess. Of the 35 tournaments I tracked going back to January, the average score of the winner on Sunday was 66.9. Only four times did the winner card a 70 or higher on Sunday, and most of those rounds came either in majors and/or on courses with pars of 72-plus. In general, PGA winners tend to be players who post low scores to close out a tournament, something you’d expect given their eventual position atop the leaderboard.

None of this is meant as much of a dig at Woods, though. With his closest competitors struggling behind him, he didn’t have to force the issue on Sunday. His lead, at one point, swelled to five strokes, allowing him to ease off the gas pedal. He made only two birdies all round compared to seven the previous day. To close the front nine, he made par on eight straight holes. Woods backpedaled some late, with three bogeys on the backside, but Rose and McIlroy were busy hacking it out of the rough and Horschel & Co. ran out of holes. All Woods needed to do was finish without a meltdown.

While the win capped off a comeback season full of near misses, maybe the biggest takeaway here—as Ben Higgins discussed the other day on Ben and Woods—is that Woods isn’t quite back yet. We could be picking nits, of course: Woods is playing consistently good golf while staying healthy, something he hasn’t done in half a decade. Still, his win came in a small field while his main competition wilted under Sunday pressure.

The good news, for the many golf fans that adore him, is that Woods is finally poised for a true breakout in 2019. Augusta awaits.

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