ATLANTA — A comeback not even Tiger Woods saw coming a year ago.
A chaotic celebration that golf hasn’t seen even in the best of times.
Woods delivered the perfect ending to his amazing return from four back surgeries on Sunday with a performance that felt like the old days. He left the competition feeling hopeless as he built a five-shot lead early and hung on to win the Tour Championship.
Woods raised both arms over his head after he tapped in for par and a 1-over 71 for a two-shot victory over Billy Horschel, the 80th victory of his PGA Tour career and his first in more than five years.
“It was a grind out there,” Woods said. “I loved every bit of it.”
It felt like a coronation coming down the 18th green after he hit his second shot to the par 5 safely in a bunker in front of the green. The crowd came through the ropes and walked behind him, just like that walk from the left side of the 18th fairway when he won the Masters in 1997, and when the enormous gallery of Chicago followed after him when he won the Western Open that summer.
They chased after any inch of grass they could find to watch the ending.
This felt just as big as a major, maybe better considering where Woods had been.
“I didn’t want to get run over,” Woods said with a laugh.
Only when he was on the green, the last one to putt after Rory McIlroy tapped in for birdie, did it start to sink in.
“All of a sudden it hit me that I was going to win the tournament. I started tearing up a little bit,” Woods said. “I can’t believe I pulled this off.”
He paused as his voice started to crack.
Several players, from Zach Johnson to Rickie Fowler to Horschel, waited to greet him. It was Johnson who unveiled red shirts at the Ryder Cup two years ago in the team room that said, “Make Tiger Great Again.”
“They knew what I was struggling with,” Woods said. “It was special to see them.”
One year ago, Woods was still waiting for his lower back to fuse and wasn’t sure he could ever play again. He told stories of being unable to get off the couch to watch his kids play soccer, much less to chip and putt. He said after the second and third back surgeries in the latter end of 2015 that he already has achieved plenty in golf and anything else would be “gravy.”
He was becoming a legend only in video highlights.
Woods brought it all to life over four days at East Lake, and the players who have taken turns at No. 1 during his absence caught the full brunt of it. McIlroy faded early. Justin Rose faded late.
All that was left was the 42-year-old Woods in that Sunday red shirt blazing brighter than ever and a smile he couldn’t shake walking up to collect another trophy.
He finished at 11-under 269 and won $1.62 million, along with a $3 million bonus for finishing second in the FedEx Cup.
The only disappointment — a minor one under the circumstances — was realizing as he came down the 18th that Rose had made birdie to finish in a three-way tie for fourth, which gave him the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus.
Without that birdie, Woods would have won his third FedEx Cup title after starting at No. 20 going into the Tour Championship.
“Congrats, Rosie,” Woods told him. “World No. 1, hell of a season.”
Actually, former world No. 1 for Rose. His four bogeys over the last 10 holes cost him the No. 1 ranking back to Dustin Johnson, who shot 67 and finished third.
But this wasn’t about the FedEx Cup or even the world ranking.
This is Tiger’s big day, and nothing was going to change it.
Woods had never lost when leading by three shots or more going into the final round. That was when he was regularly winning multiple times every season, compiling trophies at a rate never before seen in golf.
Was anything different having gone more than five years without winning?
Rose had said it was a bit more unknown, and “there’s a lot on it for him” as well as everyone else.
But this was still Woods’ arena. The walk from the putting green snakes some 80 yards across the road and through a gallery, and everyone could hear him coming from the procession of cheering. And within the opening hour, the Tour Championship had that inevitable feeling.
No one brings excitement like Woods, even when he plays so good and so smart that he eliminates any potential for drama.
The buzz was endless. A couple of teenagers climbed into a tree to see him made a 10-foot birdie on the first hole. When the putt dropped and cheers died, there was a wild sprint some 200 yards up the hill as fans tried to get into position for the next shot. He tapped in for par, and another stampede ensued to line the third fairway.
On and on it went. No one wanted to miss a shot.
A year ago, there was no guarantee anyone would see much of Woods, much less Woods winning.
He’s back again. This victory, his first since the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in August 2013 — 1,876 days, to be exact — brought him to No. 13 in the world. Not bad for a 42-year-old with four back surgeries who returned to competition in December at No. 1,199.
The next stop for Woods is to board a plane with the rest of his U.S. teammates for France and the Ryder Cup.
Doug Ferguson, The Associated Press