Tiger full of con­fi­dence head­ing into 2019

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Strid­ing off the tee of the ninth hole of Al­bany Golf Club ahead of the start of the Hero World Chal­lenge in the Ba­hamas a month ago, Tiger Woods had a hop in his step and a broad smile on his face.

“Not a bad walk, huh? Man it’s good to be out here,” he said as he felt the breeze rolling in from the At­lantic and looked out over a large, sun­lit lake split­ting the ninth and 18th holes.

He might as well have been talk­ing about his re­mark­able march at PGA Tour stops through­out the year.

Now he’s down­right giddy about his up­com­ing jour­ney in 2019.

Woods’ re­turn to rel­e­vancy in­side the ropes was not only the game’s big­gest sto­ry­line in 2018 but it was a sports come­back that rests firmly on the first page of his­tory’s leader­board. Ris­ing from the depths of men­tal an­guish and doubt, spir­i­tual loss and ad­dic­tion to pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tion that hit rock bot­tom when he was ar­rested for sus­pi­cion of DUI, and phys­i­cal mis­ery where ev­ery step could lead to a jolt of pain shoot­ing up his back or down his leg, Woods again strut­ted on the PGA Tour.

Tack­ling his re­turn step by step fol­low­ing spinal fu­sion surgery, which he called a “last-ditch ef­fort” to re­gain his way of life, then week by week, tour­na­ment by tour­na­ment — he reg­u­larly called it “a process” as he made changes on the fly to his swing and equip­ment — Woods’ re­vival in the game was a good walk un­spoiled.

In 12 months he shot up from 1,199th in the world rank­ings to No. 13. He fin­ished sec­ond in the FedExCup and threat­ened to win his first ma­jor in 10 years in the last two ma­jors con­ducted; a sixth-place tie in the Bri­tish Open, where he took the lead to the back nine, and a run­ner-up fin­ish in the PGA Cham­pi­onship.

He had five other top-6 fin­ishes in 18 starts, high­lighted by his sea­son-end­ing vic­tory in the Tour Cham­pi­onship, his 80th Tour ti­tle and first since 2013.

Woods said his stroll down the 18th fair­way at East Lake Golf Club, a short jour­ney to the green he took just a few steps in front of thou­sands of fans roar­ing their ap­proval just be­hind him, was one of the “most spe­cial mo­ments I’ve had as a player in my en­tire ca­reer.”

“The at­mos­phere has been so dif­fer­ent. It’s been so ap­pre­cia­tive and elec­tric. I have felt that,” said Woods, who called him­self a walk­ing mir­a­cle. “I was in bad shape for a cou­ple years, and my back wasn’t very good, and my life was tough to deal with, with the nerve pain. “It’s been truly a bless­ing.” While Woods knows Fa­ther Time is un­de­feated — he turns 43 Sun­day — he has been blessed with a sec­ond chance and will march on in 2019, con­fi­dent he can win again. He has be­gun his off­sea­son prep work, both in the weight room and on the golf course. Ex­pect his first event to be the Farm­ers In­sur­ance Open at Tor­rey Pines in San Diego, which he has won a record seven times and where he cap­tured his 14th and most re­cent ma­jor ti­tle, the 2008 U.S. Open, on the same sea­side grounds.

Also ex­pect to see him play his fa­vorite stops: the Ge­n­e­sis Open, Arnold Palmer In­vi­ta­tional, The Play­ers Cham­pi­onship, the Me­mo­rial. And the sites of three of the four ma­jors could prove fruit­ful again as Woods tries to hunt down Jack Nick­laus’ record of 18 ma­jor cham­pi­onship ti­tles. Au­gusta Na­tional is home to the Masters, which Woods has won four times, most re­cently in 2005; the PGA Cham­pi­onship is at Beth­page Black, where he won the 2002 U.S. Open; and the U.S. Open is at Peb­ble Beach, where he won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots.

His peers again ex­pect a chal­lenge on their hands no mat­ter where Woods plays. Bryson DeCham­beau, the only player to win four PGA Tour ti­tles in 2018, ex­pects more of Woods’ “great­ness to come forth.” Reign­ing Masters cham­pion Pa­trick Reed said Woods “isn’t done win­ning.” Rickie Fowler said the red shirt “means some­thing again on Sun­days.”

Also take note of what Nick­laus said of Woods two weeks ago. “I think his swing is much bet­ter now than it ever was,” Nick­laus told Golfweek. “The rea­son for that is Tiger was very much up and down with his head, and I think that put a lot of pres­sure on his back. The fu­sion that he had, ob­vi­ously was some­thing he didn’t want but it was some­thing he needed.

“I didn’t think he would ever play golf as well as he’s play­ing. I never dreamed that he would play quite as well as he has, and that the op­er­a­tion ac­tu­ally lev­eled out his head and lev­eled out his swing.”

The new year isn’t void of com­pelling nar­ra­tives. Can Brooks Koepka be­come the sec­ond player to win the U.S. Open three con­sec­u­tive times? Will Jor­dan Spi­eth and Hideki Mat­suyama re­gain their best form af­ter win­less sea­sons? Can Justin Rose be­come the first to win the FedExCup in back-to-back years? Af­ter play­ers played mu­si­cal chairs with the top perch in the world golf rank­ings in 2018, who ends the year No. 1? Then there is Tiger.

“I un­der­stand what my body can and can’t do,” he said. “I have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how to train, and my swing has evolved through­out the year as well as my equip­ment. So ev­ery­thing has got­ten bet­ter through­out the year, and to­wards the end of the sea­son I started play­ing some of my best golf.

“The ex­pec­ta­tions are much dif­fer­ent. Now I know I can do it. Now it’s just about manag­ing and mak­ing sure I’m fresh for events be­cause I know I can win tour­na­ments again.”

CHRISTO­PHER HANEWINCKEL/SA TO­DAY

The crowd fol­lows Tiger Woods in the Tour Cham­pi­onship Sept. 23. Woods won by two shots for his first vic­tory in five years.

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