The massive Atlanta galleries flooded the 18th fairway at East Lake on Sunday. They wanted to see something many among them never figured was possible.
Tiger Woods made his way to the green, and it felt, for a moment, like an old-fashioned prize fight. Father Time is undefeated, but the adoring crowd watched captivated as Tiger Woods popped him good, square in the mouth and knocked him down.
Woods made par on his final hole, locking up his 80th PGA Tour victory with a two-shot win over Billy Horschel. Before tapping in for his 11-under 269 total, Woods paused and collected himself for the second time in as many putts, fighting back the flood of emotion to make sure the ball went in the ground. When his Bridgestone disappeared, so, too, did the years of doubt, the months of hard work and reinvention. Tiger Woods was a winner again on the PGA Tour, beating 22 of his fellow top 30 in the world to close out the season.
The 42-year-old father of two raised his arms in the air and absorbed the adulation of thousands who were probably as doubtful as him of his future at the start of the year.
At Torrey Pines in January, there were a lot of questions swirling at the site of the famous glute inactivation. But Woods had to answer them for himself, in sequential order. Could he make a cut and finish 72 holes? Yes.
After missing the cut at Riviera, Woods finished T-12 at The Honda Classic. He had added the Valspar Championship since he didn't get four rounds in Los Angeles, and that's where he answered the next question: Could he make a run at winning again? A T-2 at Innisbrook, followed by a T-5 at Bay Hill, put that doubt to bed.
Then Woods went through the wilderness a bit. The driver didn't co-operate. Then the trust Scotty wasn't hot. His iron play was atrocious at Quail Hollow. He caught the wrong draw at the US Open, weeks after teasing a weekend to remember at Jack's place in Columbus.
Then came the Open, where Woods held the lead alone for the better part of an hour on Sunday. He ran out of gas at Carnoustie, and Francesco Molinari capped off the best year of his career with the claret jug. However, Woods answered another question: Could he play well enough to win a major? Certainly, but Woods had long used the prospect of a late-career Open win as a crutch for what ailed him -- the health and fitness that would ensure he was a threat in the other majors played through the air. He always liked to recall Tom Watson's close call in 2009. But Watson didn't win at Turnberry; Stewart Cink did. If Woods could show up in the final major of the year, maybe this thing was for real.
Then Woods shot 130 on the weekend and 196 for the final 54 at Bellerive. A closing 64 put pressure on a generational talent in Brooks Koepka, but it wasn't enough to land his 15th major. It did, however, cement Woods was truly back -- and that he and the golf public knew it.
Woods didn't need a win to put a cap on a remarkable year, but this week began with a spectacular 65 that had him tied with Rickie Fowler. By Friday afternoon, it felt like old times. Fowler wilted in the final pairing while Woods thrived, sharing the 36-hole lead with Justin Rose, who was chasing the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize. Woods, coming into the week No. 20 in the season-long race, had a singular goal of winning the tournament in front of him.
Come Saturday, in a marquee pairing with Rose, Woods went out in 6-under 30 en route to beating the world No. 1 player by three with 65 to set up a final-day final pairing with Rory McIlroy. McIlroy had said after The Open he had wanted to spoil Woods' comeback party a bit, and this was his opportunity. Like so many before him, however, McIlroy faltered early and often. A third of the way through the round, McIlroy's day was done and Woods only had to keep Horschel at bay.
In the final stages of the round, Woods had to fight himself as he came loose. A pair of bogeys on Nos. 15 and 16 put out the yellow flag on a victory lap. But Woods gathered his game and executed the shots he needed to get his hands on a replica of Bobby Jones' Calamity Jane putter.
The most poignant shot on Sunday was Woods' final drive, a 348-yard blast down the target line on the closing par 5. What a contrast from the man who fell to his knees at Liberty National in 2013, the man who said in 2015 that anything he accomplished from that point onward would be "gravy," the man who had parts his back cut out, ground down and fused together just so lying in bed wouldn't be a small panic.
Woods didn't win in the kind of runaway foundational to his legend, but the game's greatest closer did get another win closer to picking off Sam Snead's PGA Tour record 82 win tally. Maybe those laughers are still to come. Maybe a major. Majors? Woods will handle those questions in order, just as he's done throughout this year.
On Monday, Woods will be 13th in the Official World Golf Ranking. Exactly a year ago, he was 1,142nd in the world. Without the world ranking's minimum divisor handicapping him, Woods would have become No. 1 in the world at East Lake. His 10.58 average points in 22 starts over the cycle would beat new world No. 1 Dustin Johnson's 10.29 average points. Were he to continue on this pace, Woods could take over No. 1 in February or March next year. That is almost more inconceivable than what happened on Sunday, but that's for some time in the future.
On the rowdy celebratory flight to the Ryder Cup in Paris, Woods can celebrate a hard-earned win, the culmination of a Sunday that felt so familiar, like so many before it.