After Years Wandering A Golf Desert, Tiger Woods Stages A Dramatic Comeback

Mar 19, 2018
Originally published on March 19, 2018 2:33 pm

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy ended his drought in convincing fashion Sunday.

The four-time major tournament winner went on a final-round birdie binge to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Fla. It was his first victory since 2016. McIlroy pulled away at the end with five birdies on the last six holes for an 8-under par 64.

As dominant as his win was, McIlroy shared the spotlight with Tiger Woods, who finished eight shots back.

It wasn't long ago that Woods was golf's greatest player and a global sports icon. His dramatic downfall is well-known, as a sex scandal and injuries knocked him off his pedestal.

Now, for the second week in a row, Woods almost won a tournament. That's saying a lot when you consider Woods essentially has been wandering in a golf desert for the better part of five years — his legendary career derailed by debilitating back problems.

But since the beginning of this year, he has been mounting a dramatic comeback. And Sunday's final round gave Woods and his fans more reason for optimism.

Time travel and a charge

There was a moment Sunday that felt like time travel.

It was at the 13th green on the Bay Hill course, and it started when Woods, wearing his traditional Sunday red golf shirt and black hat and pants, drained a 15-foot putt. The crowd exploded in one of those "Tiger roars" heard all over the golf course. The birdie putt was his second in a row, his third in four holes, and it moved him one shot off the lead.

Woods was making a charge.

It felt like it could've been anywhere from 1997, the year he burst on the scene with a dominating win at the Masters, to 2013, the last year he won a PGA Tour event.

As Woods made his way to the 14th tee, it was pandemonium, with many in the gallery chanting "Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!"

His competitors out on the course, like Bryson DeChambeau, felt it too.

"Oh, it was amazing," DeChambeau said. "I told my caddie, Tim, in the 11th fairway, I'm like, 'Man, Tiger's doing it!' I was incredibly happy for him. At the same point in time I'm still trying to win a golf tournament, right?"

DeChambeau finished second. Woods' magic moment ended on the 16th hole, when he drove the ball out of bounds.

It was as if the golf gods sent a message to Woods from on high — not yet. Actually, the real reason for his mistake was much less celestial in nature.

Standing on the 16th tee, Woods pondered three possible shots he could hit.

"If I hit a driver I had to fit it with a cut," he told reporters after his round. "[But also] in the back of my mind [I] said, 'Why don't you just bomb it over the top?' Or just hit a three-wood straight away. And so I'm running through these different scenarios and it's on me. I didn't commit to either one of those three shots and I hit a poor one."

It cost him a stroke and was the start of a shaky finish to an otherwise positive round.

Woods tied for fifth, one week after tying for second. In his mind, the comeback that even he doubted was possible is moving forward nicely, thanks to a fourth back surgery that seems to have worked.

"If I can play with no pain and I can feel I can make golf swings, I'll figure it out," he said Sunday after his round. "I'm starting to piece it together, tournament by tournament. Each tournament's gotten a little bit crisper and a little bit better."

His results bear that out. He has gone from 23rd to a missed cut to a 12th-place finish to second and now fifth. With his final round of 3-under-par 69 on Sunday, Woods now has shot 10 straight rounds of par or better stretching back over his last three tournaments.

Augusta bound

Next up for Woods is the Masters in early April.

He hasn't played his favorite major tournament since 2015 and he says he needs to travel to Augusta, Ga., to reacquaint himself with the course's special characteristics.

"Playing on overseeded rye [grass]; the different spins that we're going to encounter there," Woods said, adding "I'll figure out what wedge system I want to use for that week, what bounce system, get used to those bunkers. The sand's very heavy, thick and so I've got to do a little bit of work."

While Woods sweats the details, his fans will be content anticipating more time travel.

To 2005 — the last time he won there.

The idea that Woods can win another major tournament is startling. The debate over whether he could catch and pass Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18 major wins — Woods has 14 — died away as Woods' career foundered.

It's foundering no more. And suddenly, the 42-year-old Woods is redefining what's possible.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For the second week in a row, Tiger Woods almost won a golf tournament. The trophy for the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando went to Rory McIlroy. But the weekend was really all about Tiger. He's in the midst of a dramatic comeback. And for the first time since back problems derailed his career, Woods is showing the skills that made him one of golf's all-time greats. Here's more from NPR's Tom Goldman in Orlando.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: There was a moment Sunday at the 13th green that felt like time travel. It started with Tiger Woods dressed in his traditional Sunday red shirt and black hat and pants draining a 15-foot putt.

(CHEERING)

BOWMAN: The birdie was his second in a row, and at that moment, he was only one shot off the lead. Tiger Woods was making a charge. It felt like really anywhere from 1997 to 2013, the last year he won a PGA event. As Woods made his way to the 14th tee, pandemonium.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger.

BOWMAN: Even on a steamy Orlando day, it was hard not to get chills. The competitors on the course, like Bryson DeChambeau, felt it too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRYSON DECHAMBEAU: Oh, it was amazing. I told my caddie, Tim - in the 11th fairway, I'm like, man, Tiger's doing it. I was incredibly happy for him. At the same point in time, I'm still trying to win a golf tournament, right?

BOWMAN: DeChambeau finished second. Woods' magic moment ended on the 16th hole when he drove the ball out of bounds. It was as if the golf gods sent a message from on high - not yet. The real reason was much less celestial. Standing on the tee, Woods pondered three possible shots he could hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIGER WOODS: And so in the back of my mind, I'm running through these different scenarios, and it's on me. I didn't commit to either one of those three shots, and I hit a poor one.

BOWMAN: It was the start of a shaky finish to an otherwise positive round. Woods tied for fifth the week after tying for second. In his mind, the comeback that even he doubted was possible is moving forward nicely thanks to a fourth back surgery that seems to have worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOODS: If I can play with no pain and I can feel like I can make golf swings, I'll figure it out. I'm starting to piece it together tournament by tournament. And each tournament's gotten a little bit crisper and a little bit better.

BOWMAN: Next up for Woods - the Masters in early April. He hasn't played his favorite major tournament since 2015 and says he needs to travel to Augusta and reacquaint himself with the course's specific type of grass and the heavy sand and other wonky bits of golf minutiae that he loves. His fans will be content anticipating more time travel to 2005, the last time he won there. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF IVAN AVE'S "OMINELUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.