Warm sensations, deep feelings of emotion. Those aren’t the parts of Tiger Woods’ life he shares with the public very often.
On Tuesday at Torrey Pines, as he reflected on the 2018 golf season as his next campaign begins Thursday in the Farmers Insurance Open, Woods couldn’t keep his well-practiced guard up. The memories are simply too good of that Sunday in late September, when he strode up the 18th hole at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.
Woods was poised to win the Tour Championship for his first victory in more than five years, and in a wild scene that was so compelling it looked scripted, thousands of fans spontaneously spilled into the fairway and engulfed the man in red.
Focused on the task, Woods could only steal quick glances of the bedlam. It wouldn’t be until he reviewed it on video in the following weeks that he realized how truly special those moments were.
“It gives me chills every time I see it,” Woods said.
Woods said he is most enthralled by some of the photographs he has at home.
“There’s, like, 70, 80 people in this one little shot,” Woods said, “and everyone has their phone up.
“It’s a different time,” he added with a grin.
There were some who thought Woods might never lift a trophy again. He’d played in only one PGA Tour event over two seasons and began 2018 at Torrey Pines not knowing if his golf future would be calculated on a week-to-week basis after surgery in 2017 to fuse his spine.
“The last-ditch effort to give me quality of life,” Woods said of its gravity.
In the immediate aftermath of the East Lake triumph, Woods had little time to reflect. The Ryder Cup in Paris was the next week, and Woods recalled heading for the airport and signing flags and other items before the American squad boarded the plane.
He played poorly in the Ryder Cup, going 0 for 4 in Europe’s rout, and finally returned home to Florida and had time to reflect with those closest to him. He was taken aback by the emotions they shared.
“Players, friends, people who saw what I went through at home, saw the difficult times, and just to see that I made it that far back,” Woods said, “that was touching to me because I didn’t really expect that, because I’m inside the ropes.
The win righted the wobbly spinning of global golf.
“Tiger walking down 18, that’s what a lot of people I think took for granted for many years,” Jason Day said, “and didn’t understand the effect Tiger had on the golfing world.”
In hindsight, under the circumstances, Woods’ year was nothing short of phenomenal.
After a tie for 23rd at Torrey Pines, where he needed to convert a 100-foot two-putt to make the cut on the number, Woods required only three more starts before challenging for a win and finishing second in the Valspar Championship.
The Masters (tie for 32nd) and U.S. Open (missed cut) were disappointments, but Woods got rolling late in the summer, and when he challenged in the British Open (tie for sixth) and took winner Brooks Koepka to the final hole of the PGA Championship, a breakthrough seemed in the offing.
It happened in the 30-player field of the Tour Championship, with Woods building a five-shot lead early in the final round and winning by two over Billy Horschel. “It’s about the grind, and that’s what I did,” Woods said.
The 43-year-old begins the new season with a far different outlook from a year ago. He was ranked 656th at the end of 2017 and is No. 13 now.
“Definitely not a clean slate. Fresh start, yes,” Woods said. “But there is some momentum from last year because there’s a better understanding of what I can do.
“It’s hard to describe. Going into last year, I didn’t really know. I hadn’t played out of rough in years. That was a big uncertainty. The fact that I was able to get through without zinging down my leg, and I didn’t have problems at night recovering for the next day. Those are big accomplishments.”
Woods hasn’t played an official tournament round since the Tour Championship. He was beaten by Phil Mickelson in the made-for-TV event in November and tied for 17th in the Hero World Challenge in December.
He said he focused on smart, efficient work in the off-season, choosing quality over quantity both on and off the course.
“That’s been hard because most of my career’s been spent on, in order to get better, I’ve got to work at it,” Woods said.
Day said he’s looking forward to seeing Woods’ approach now that expectations are back on him again.
“Is he going to come back out and start saying that he’s competing and playing and ‘I’m going to win every week?’ ” Day said, “because that’s the old Tiger I knew.”