Tiger full of confidence heading into 2019
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.”
The crowd follows Tiger Woods in the Tour Championship Sept. 23. Woods won by two shots for his first victory in five years.