ATLANTA — The clubhouse at East Lake Golf Club is a shrine to Bobby Jones, the great amateur golfer who honed his game at the Georgia club, accumulating numerous trophies, prizes, mementos and photographs, many of which adorn the walls and hallways.
But nearly a year ago, it became Tiger’s place.
Tommy Fleetwood was among several peers standing on a rooftop off the locker room from that very clubhouse, witnesses to a bit of history before their eyes. Tiger Woods was strolling toward the 18th green, thousands of spectators rushing behind him, ropes and security and officials helpless to do anything about the spontaneous celebration that was taking place.
Woods still had a few more shots to play, but it was obvious he was about to accomplish what just a few months earlier would have seemed preposterous: his 80th PGA Tour victory.
“It was special,” Fleetwood said. “Just very, very special. A special moment in golf, a special moment in sport. And we were all out to watch it. An incredible comeback. It’s just one of those moments where you stand back and watch it and be grateful to be there to witness it. It was amazing. Those scenes will be played for a long, long time.”
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The coronation was a long time coming for Woods, who just 17 months earlier had endured the fourth and most serious of his back surgeries, a spinal fusion that further lengthened his time away from the game.
Woods had started 2018 in San Diego with little idea how the year would unfold, with hardly anyone believing it could go as successfully as it did, even without a victory.
He had a close call at the Valspar Championship, top-5s at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Quicken Loans, contended into the back nine of The Open at Carnoustie and the PGA Championship at Bellerive, opened the BMW with a 62 before tying for sixth, and came to East Lake — for the first time in five years — ranked 20th in the FedEx Cup standings.
Woods got off to a great start, shooting an opening-round 65 that included an eagle at the last hole and tied him with Rickie Fowler atop the leaderboard. He played with Fleetwood in that first round.
“I remember it quite well,” Fleetwood said. “I went on Twitter afterward and said something like, “Tiger Woods is good at golf.” It was my most liked tweet ever.
“He was clearly back playing really, really well. I had played with him a few times that year, and his iron play had been really great. It’s always been about, if he puts it in play, he’s still the best iron player in the world. And he was driving it in play. He was hitting his faders in play, he was confident, playing great. You could tell that week he had it going, for sure.”
Paired with Rickie Fowler in the second round, Woods added a 68 to his opening-round 65 to complete 36 holes tied for the lead with Justin Rose, who shot 66-67.
Rose was coming off consecutive runner-up finishes in the FedEx playoffs — he had lost in a playoff at the BMW Championship — and had risen to No. 1 in the world.
But Woods got off to a hot start, and it wasn’t until late in the round that Rose was able to close the gap, shooting a 68 that left him 3 strokes back after Woods shot 65.
“The crowds were electric because of it,” Rose said. “He was running the tables there. He was hitting good shots and making the conversion putts.”
Woods’ 65-68-65 was good enough for a 3-shot lead over Rose and Rory McIlroy, whose third-round 66 brought him into the final group.
But Woods birdied the first hole to stretch his lead to 4 strokes, commencing a daylong celebration. In much the same manner he won numerous titles over the years, Woods played smart, methodical golf, eliminating mistakes while letting the others falter.
His lead was never smaller than 2 strokes, and it only got that close at the 16th hole, with Billy Horschel already in the clubhouse. An important par save from over the green at the 17th allowed Woods to play the par-5 18th with a freedom that allowed that raucous scene to unfold.
“I was very happy for him,” said McIlroy, who shot a final-round 74 and was well out of it over the closing holes, settling for a tie for seventh. “I feel like the whole scene coming down 18 was pretty cool, and I definitely took that in and I realized what it meant for golf and what it meant for the people. It was obviously a great moment for golf and good to be a part of.”
At times, the situation looked a bit dangerous, with fans scurrying for position, walking fast and sometimes running, and nowhere near the number of security personnel and tournament officials needed to hold them back. Woods took it all in stride, but McIlroy saw fit to scurry ahead, as did Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava.
Woods had hit his second shot into a greenside bunker, and his only concern at that point was to play it onto the green to assure victory.
“After Tiger hit his approach shot to the front of the green, as he and Rory made their way around the lake, fans engulfed them, and I said to myself, “this isn’t supposed to be happening,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who was to the right of the green looking back toward the tee.
“I walked down the fairway towards them, and it was one of the coolest and most natural responses to a championship moment in our sport that I’d ever seen. I kept on thinking to myself, ‘This is really cool to be here, to know all of what Tiger had gone through, to get himself in contention throughout the course of the year and be in position to win the final event of the year.’ Like everyone else, I was happy I was there.”
For Woods, the victory was as satisfying as any in his career, to be topped by his Masters win six months later. For the first time in five years, he had won again. And he beat back the likes of McIlroy and Rose to do it.
“I was pretty emotional when Rory was finishing out,” Woods said. “I looked around, and the tournament was over. I’d won 80. 80 is a big number.”
Woods won’t be back to defend the title this week. The vagaries of the FedEx Cup system and his own play in recent months conspired to keep him away. Past glory means nothing, only points, and Woods didn’t accumulate enough of them.
His disappointment over that was obvious, because “last year culminated in a pretty special moment for me and would have been nice to go back there, but I’ll be watching the guys on TV.”
If so, he’ll undoubtedly see that final-hole celebration more than a few times.
“He truly moves the needle like no one else out here, and he wins in style,” Rose said. “He wins with charisma. He’s brilliant to watch.”