As he pumped his fist with the emphatic fashion of yesteryear, you could feel it.
Love or hate Tiger Woods, the apparition of the dominant Tiger made a rare cameo on the green on the par-three 16th on Sunday. The most improbable fluff pitch to a downhill hole location out of thick rough. The ball slowly curving towards the flagstick. The chatter of the crowd intensifying with each rotation.
Then, an eruption from the crowd that resonated in knee-knocking fashion back to the final group of Rory Sabbatini and Spencer Levin. An ecstatic Tiger Woods, wearing the red polo and black hat, celebrating with the fire that had not been seen in a long time.
All that was missing was the dogwood blossoms and a rattled Chris DiMarco from the 2005 Masters. .
Sure, the doubters will point you to Tiger’s win at Bay Hill and subsequent disappointing Masters performance as evidence that he’s not truly “back”. And they are probably right. He will need to win major number fifteen for that to be the case.
But you could see it in Tiger. “It”. The outward excitement. The passion and energy from a guy whose personal life has gone to hell and back since 2009. He actually looked like he was enjoying himself again, pulling off miraculous shots that define tournaments and provide lasting memories.
And the flop shot on 16 was Exhibit A. No one will ever forget that one.
It reminded me of following Tiger at the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine. He was in jail in the woods on the par-four ninth with enough distance to require a medium iron to reach the green. He blasted the ball up through an opening in the trees with a late, sharp slice that took the ball to a seemingly-impossible resting place on the green.
That was a confident Woods coming off a “Tiger slam” going back to 2001.
Then came the devastation of November 2009. Tiger was on top of the world when the revelation of extra-marital affairs rocked the sports world. His wife left him. His kids were gone. So were his many of his sponsors and fans. A seemingly humbled Tiger stepped in front of a camera and admitted to transgressions and letting his family down.
Fast forward to the Atlanta Athletic Club in August 2011. In the season’s final major, Tiger stumbled his way to a +10 and an early exit. In following him on the course, he had the body language of a guy who looked beaten down by the game of golf. Errant shots. Bunkers. Inexplicable putts. Slumped shoulders. A long face.
Quite the contrary on Sunday. Tiger plunked his golf ball on the fairways and greens. Thirteen of fourteen fairways. Tied for first in greens in regulation for the tournament.
Some might just chalk it up to the venue. It’s the fifth career win for Tiger at the Memorial, the home of Jack Nicklaus, a fitting place and time for him to tie the Golden Bear for second on the career wins list (73).
Yeah, sure, he’s won there a lot, but he’s got to start somewhere, and there’s no better place to gear up for the U.S. Open in two weeks than by reliving his former glory at one of his most successful spots. Oh, and go take a look at how the rest of the field performed on the windblown course throughout the weekend. Only twelve players finished under par for the tournament. Heck, his playing partner, Rickie Fowler shot an eye-popping 84 on Sunday.
But that’s all secondary to the fact that Tiger looks like….Tiger. High-fiving his caddy, wearing his emotions on his sleeve, and looking as confident as he ever has.
And finishing dynamically while those around him fell by the wayside.
There are three more golf tournaments this year that will offer proof as to whether Tiger can shine again on golf’s biggest stages and prove to the doubters that he has regained control of his game after the heartache in his personal life.
And if that same Tiger from Sunday shows up at Olympic Club in a couple of weeks, that could be bad news for the field going forward.