In his healthy prime, Tiger Woods was Mike Tyson in a red shirt and slacks. He arrived at the tee box as if he were stepping through the ropes and into the ring, where cowering, wide-eyed opponents all but prepped themselves for the knockout.
Woods is no longer that heavyweight champ who rules through intimidation. He still has muscles, yes, but they don’t look as forbidding on a balding man made vulnerable by age, gravity, surgery and the disclosure of his own personal failings. And yet a diminished Woods can still win golf tournaments. He can still make history without what had been the most valuable club in his bag:
His aura of invincibility.
Woods tied Sam Snead‘s record for PGA Tour victories Monday morning in Japan, finishing off No. 82 at the Zozo Championship. He shot a first-round 64 in front of a packed house before a typhoon hit the Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club, and then he shot a second-round 64 in front of, well, almost nobody after the storm left the course too compromised to accommodate the fans. Woods controlled the rest of the tournament, and even though he had to play 29 holes on Sunday in Japan, he was a sure bet to win as soon as he completed Round 3 with a 3-shot lead.
Woods was 24-0 when carrying at least a 3-shot lead into the final round. Even at 43, only two months removed from a procedure on his knee, Tiger wasn’t about to lose his perfect record with the legendary Slammin’ Sammy finally within reach. He finished at 19-under and never gave an inch to a game challenger, Hideki Matsuyama, who finished right where he started the closing 18 – three back.
Victory No. 82 came 23 years after Victory No. 1. In his championship ceremony, Woods told the crowd that Snead’s record was one “that I certainly did not think was possible when I first started my career.”
In the end, this latest (and probably last) chapter of Woods’ incomparable career is no less remarkable than his seek-and-destroy days of the early-to-mid 2000s. He can’t win anymore with the power of his presence, or with the power of his driver. The tour’s young stars aren’t afraid of Woods, and most of them can hit it past him. At Carnoustie two summers ago, Rory McIlroy said the aging Tiger who had endured four back surgeries, including the Hail Mary spinal fusion in 2017, was “not the Tiger that, you know, Phil [Mickelson] and Ernie [Els] and those guys had to deal with. It’s a different version. … I wouldn’t say we’re worried about him, but he’s one of those guys that’s always in with a shot.”
When the college coach who recruited Brooks Koepka to Florida State told Koepka four years ago that he’d better start winning before Woods returned from injury and dominated again, Koepka assured the coach he was stronger, straighter and better than his surgically altered idol. “How is Tiger ever going to beat me?” Koepka asked.
McIlroy and Koepka were right. Old Tiger could never be the Tiger of old.
But that fact makes his three most recent victories — at last fall’s Tour Championship, at the Masters in April and at the Zozo on Monday — just as impressive as his 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters or his 15-stroke victory at the 2000 U.S. Open or his 2000-01 Tiger Slam. Only 2½ years ago, Woods was telling people close to him that he was through playing competitive golf, that he just wanted to ease the back pain that dropped him to his knees and left him bedridden and desperate to participate in his life with his two kids. It’s why he hasn’t been spitting too many I-told-you-so quotes at credentialed doubters and critics after these late-life triumphs.
Woods knows the man in his own mirror was the ultimate doubter and critic.
“Oh god,” he said last year after nearly beating Koepka at the PGA Championship in St. Louis, “I didn’t even know if I was going to play golf again.”
Ten years ago, the fall of the indomitable Tiger began at another PGA Championship, at Hazeltine, where the journeyman son of a South Korean vegetable farmer, Y.E. Yang, shocked the world by beating Woods and ending his streak of 14 consecutive major victories after holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead. For the first time, opponents saw Tiger as beatable on the biggest stage.
Three months later, Woods was found bleeding and unconscious in the street outside his home after crashing his Escalade into a fire hydrant and a tree. He would be exposed as a serial philanderer, and he would ultimately lose his marriage and his standing as an untouchable. Woods became a global punch line, good for an easy round of laughs on late-night TV.
Tiger followed two winless seasons with three tour victories in 2012 and five more in 2013, before the injuries mounted and his game collapsed. Woods’ drought in the majors was at seven years and counting in 2015 when Yang told ESPN.com, “I, amongst many other players, believe that it has to do with his personal issues and that it is none of our business. Tiger is not a machine and is a person like all of us. I think once he gets his focus back, he will be fine.”
Woods needed to get his health back, not just his focus, and once that happened, he manufactured new ways to win. He no longer had blind belief in himself, but he figured if he could stay upright and keep a few drives in the fairway, his iron game would give him some Sunday chances here and there. Small fields wouldn’t hurt, either. Woods had small fields to beat at East Lake, at Augusta National and at the Zozo. But who’s counting?
In the middle of the World Series, it’s worth pointing out that Woods has effectively transitioned from a dominant starter with a 99 mph fastball to an opportunistic veteran living on the edges of the plate, prevailing with precision and poise. Woods hung close at the Masters and then pounced when his fellow contenders made their fatal mistakes on the devilish 12th.
He won his fifth green jacket, then did a whole lot of hobbling and wobbling before he went in for his fifth knee procedure, arthroscopic work on cartilage damage in his left knee in August. Woods’ Utah surgeon predicted a full recovery, but after a dreadful summer of golf, it seemed Tiger was making this 15-hour flight overseas to earn a quick silly-season buck playing an exhibition with fellow stars (and hulking rugby players) before getting in some live reps in the first official event played in Japan.
The trip turned out to be far more meaningful than that. Woods recovered from three bogeys in his first three holes Thursday by going on a staggering birdie blitz, and by picking up where he left off after spending Friday’s typhoon in a movie house (to see “Joker”) and a pizza place. “Just putt to the picture,” Woods’ father, Earl, used to tell him. Tiger’s aim on the greens matched up with the vision in his mind, and the marathon’s Monday finish enhanced a legend that didn’t need any enhancing.
Woods was 5 years old when he first met Sam Snead — “I was this little snot-nosed kid” Tiger would say — at the Calabasas Country Club near Los Angeles, where the future great and the retired great played two holes. Young Tiger landed his tee ball on a par-3 in the water and ignored Snead’s suggestion to pick it up. Woods’ father had always told him to play his ball as is, and so Tiger hit it out of the water and impressed Slammin’ Sammy with a bogey.
Truth is, Snead’s record was never connected to Woods the way Jack Nicklaus‘ record of 18 major titles was connected to him. “In order to get to Jack’s record,” Tiger had said, “I have to pass Snead’s record. Just simple math.”
It all added up Monday. Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, a rabid New York Giants fan from Connecticut, is in the habit of texting to Giants executive Chris Mara the names of players who wore the jersey numbers that correspond with Tiger’s victory total. It’s likely Mario Manningham, one of the heroes of Super Bowl XLVI in happier Giants times, will represent the team’s No. 82s in LaCava’s latest text.
Meanwhile, Woods proved yet again that he can still beat the best when his body cooperates, and that, after turning 44 in December, he should still be considered the favorite to go back-to-back at the Masters for major title No. 16. Woods won two of the four biggest tournaments played from July 2018 to April 2019 (The Open, PGA Championship, Tour Championship and the Masters), and nearly won all four. He’s capable of another run just like it.
Tiger doesn’t have the firepower or the mystique of his dynastic past. Surgeons have stitched him back together more times than anyone can count, and after his hellish 2017 DUI arrest and plunge to 1,199th in the world rankings — 1,199th —Woods said he’d been recovering from “some really dark, dark times.”
But now, he will almost certainly break his tie with Snead to become the most prolific winner of all time and likely move within close striking distance of Nicklaus. All these years later, with his aura of invincibility long gone, Tiger Woods can still figure out a way to finish in first place. And that’s one of his most amazing feats yet.