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Tiger Woods Part II: Back on track for PGA Championship

Tiger Woods plays a shot from the fifth

Tiger Woods plays a shot from the fifth tee during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019. Credit: Getty Images/Andrew Redington

In his prime, such as when he thoroughly controlled the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, Tiger Woods appeared to be the ultimate complete golfer. There was nothing he could not do, no quality he did not have on the golf course, so it seemed.

Even the most obvious appearances can be deceiving.

He proved last month that he was capable of even more than he showed back then. Woods revealed as he won the Masters that, along with being strong in driving, iron play, chipping, putting and competitiveness, he also can be joyful.

That is the extra bounce he will bring as he returns to Bethpage for the PGA Championship in a new phase of his career.

People who were close to him always said that celebrations were just not his thing. After victories, even major championship titles, he was satisfied but not over the moon. His explanation was that he expected to win, so what was the big deal?

Now, having recovered from a back condition that once made it almost impossible to get out of bed and had convinced him that his career was over, he has a new appreciation. It was obvious as early as the second round at Augusta National, when he bounced off the course, beaming. Butch Harmon, his former instructor and now an analyst for Europe’s Sky TV, said at the time, “Have you ever seen Tiger Woods leave a green with such a smile on his face?”

That was only a warmup for his reaction to winning his fifth green jacket two days later. Woods was all hugs, kisses, high fives and laughs as he walked from the 18th green to the clubhouse.

Reflecting on it in late April with GolfTV, a streaming service with which he has a partnership, Woods said, “I was texting one of my good friends last night after [kids’] soccer practice and I couldn’t believe I won the tournament. It really hasn’t sunk in. It’s hard to believe. Every now and again, I’ll look over on the couch and there’s the jacket.”

Wearing that green jacket during the interview, he revealed one great and new source of exuberance this time: It was the first of his major victories that his two children got to witness. “They never knew golf was a good thing in my life,” he said, adding that daughter Sam and son Charlie had seen only the pain that his many golf swings had produced. “Now, they see this side of it.”

Another side of Woods was chronicled last Tuesday when he was overjoyed to the point of tears when he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. In making Woods only the fourth golfer to receive it, President Donald Trump called him a "true legend" and said, "Tiger Woods is a global symbol of American excellence, devotion and drive."

Because of moments such as these, Woods will be just as much the center of attention PGA week as he was in Bethpage 17 years ago (when he said he hadn’t realized people could scream as loud as the fans there did). Even his fellow pros seem awed by Tiger, Part II. C.T. Pan, being interviewed right after his own life-changing victory in the RBC Heritage the week after the Masters, looked into the camera and said, “Go Tiger!”

It is different this time. In 2002, Woods was cheered for being such a consistently sure thing. Now, he is saluted for having been such a huge surprise.

That was obvious the instant his clinching putt dropped at the Masters. The crowd, more spontaneous than usual for Augusta, chanted, “Ti-ger!” A day later, tickets for the PGA Championship Sunday round sold out.

When Woods walks to the first tee on the Black Course, he will carry a revived mission to match or break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major wins. The 2002 Open on Long Island was No. 8, followed by six more to reach 14, then an 11-year drought.

“No. 15 was going to be the toughest,” said Rickie Fowler, who had seen the Masters win coming as he and Justin Thomas regularly played practice rounds with Woods near their respective homes in Jupiter, Florida. Now, Woods is back on the clock and on the march.

The main question is how his back, repaired by last-resort spinal fusion surgery, and the rest of his 43-year-old body will hold up. Like Augusta, Bethpage is a long, hilly walk. Woods chose not to play in any tournaments since the Masters, preferring to rest and practice.

As he did last month, he no doubt will rely on a new swing that allows him to hit a draw. A draw, which travels right to left for a righthanded golfer, rolls farther than a cut, which goes left to right. He needs that extra yardage. “I’ve lost a little bit off my fastball,” he said.

As a brand, “Tiger Woods” has new luster. That is a major departure from his situation 10 years ago, when most of his sponsors dropped him following revelations of his serial affairs while married to his now ex-wife Elin Nordegren.

To some extent, Woods still carries that baggage, as well as the stigma of his highly publicized arrest for driving under the influence of numerous prescription drugs two years ago this month. “No one’s perfect,” he told GolfTV. “Everyone is dealt cards in their lives, we all have obstacles. We have to fight and get back up.”

The fans at Augusta and thousands who have weighed in on social media have focused on the comeback from his back problems. Those people shared in and contributed to the joy that Woods finally expressed. “This one feels special in its own way,” he said. “It’s different.”

No one beyond his very tight circle can say if this is a proverbial “new Tiger Woods” on the inside. He certainly appears more outgoing and pleased on the outside.

And on the course, this Woods can be just as efficient as the one who won in the rain-delayed Open at Bethpage. On Sunday at the Masters, each of the other contenders made a pivotal mistake or two. Woods didn’t. Third-round leader Francesco Molinari, who beat Woods at the British Open last July, plunked two balls in the water. Brooks Koepka, who outlasted Woods at the PGA Championship last August, rinsed one shot (and lost by a stroke).

“I can leave, saying I gave it my all,” Koepka said afterward. “He’s just good, man.”

Maybe he’s also a major step closer to being complete.

TIGER’S RECORD THIS YEAR

Tournament Place Score

Hero World Challenge 17th 287 (-1)

Farmers Insurance Open 20th 278 (-10)

Genesis Open T15th 278 (-6)

WGC-Mexico Championship T10th 276 (-8)

The Players T30th 282 (-6)

The Masters Won 275 (-13)

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HIS PLAY ON LONG ISLAND

TournamentCourseFinish

1995 U.S. OpenShinnecock HillsWD

2002 U.S. OpenBethpage BlackWon

2009 U.S. OpenBethpage BlackT-6

2012 BarclaysBethpage BlackT-38

2018 U.S. OpenShinnecock HillsCUT

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PGA CHAMPIONSHIPS HE’S WON

1999Medinah GC11-under 277

2000Valhalla GC 18-under 270

2006 Medinah CC18-under 270

2007Southern Hills CC8-under 272

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MAJORS HE’S WON

Masters (5)1997, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2019

U.S. Open (3)2000, 2002, 2008

British Open (3)2000, 2005, 2006

PGA (4)1999, 2009, 2006, 2007

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CAREER MAJORS LEADERS

18Jack Nicklaus

15Tiger Woods

11Walter Hagen

9Ben Hogan

9Gary Player

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CAREER PGA TOUR WINS

No.GolferMajors won

82Sam Snead7

81Tiger Woods15

73Jack Nicklaus18

64Ben Hogan9

62Arnold Palmer7

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GETTING TIGER’S AUTOGRAPH

** - Try after a practice round.

**-Stand near the gallery restraints that run from the 18th green to the practice range and clubhouse.

**-Tiger hates having objects shoved in his face, so use proper etiquette. He also dislikes it when adults use youngsters to serve as runners to collect autographs for them to sell.

**-Don’t scream his name. Let him make eye contact, and be ready to walk with him as he signs.

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