Tiger Woods completes his final act of redemption at East Lake

After four back surgeries, numerous scandals, arrests and 1,874 days without a win on tour, Tiger Woods completed the most unlikely on sporting comebacks on Sunday, with victory in the Tour Championship at East Lake. Gregor Kerr reports.

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1193rd in the world. Just think about how far back that number stretches. Beyond the entire PGA Tour and European Tour. Far beyond those making their way on the Challenge Tour, the Web.com series and amateur players.

That isn’t the number of a rookie just entering the top level of golf, nor is it the ranking of a local club-house player. This was the ranking of the most successful golfer in the modern era, and it was just ten months ago he found himself well outside the top 1000 in the world. This was Tiger Woods, a sportsman put through as many lows as thinkable, then written off and consigned to history to those who remember him.

On Sunday, in perhaps the most remarkable turnaround in sports history, he was a winner once again on the PGA Tour, claiming the Tour Championship, in the very final day of the season. He had come close before, tinkering with victory in The Open and PGA Championship, but this was the moment it all came together. Years after it all fell apart.

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Before it seemed Woods was slipping into a hole. Countless injuries, scandals and setbacks dragged him further into the abyss. On the back of his affair, sponsors such as Adidas, AT&T and Gatorade left him in the ditch.

His career had plateaued, his golf game slipped, further and further, as did his home life, and both seemed likely to never recover. Just as he began to pull himself out, his back would begin to crumble, in what became a recurring theme.

Then again, a step forward, two steps back. 15 months ago his reputation reached a new low, arrested for DUI his face appeared not next to a trophy, not with a green jacket, but a mugshot, somewhere in a Florida cell, in the middle of the night.

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It was the almighty low for a man who had been dragged as low a man can be. This time, there was no golf to occupy the mind. No victories, no competition, not even any participation to cover up the cracks. Just sitting, waiting and thinking, while a new generation of golfers wrote a new chapter in the sport.

The comeback was slow, but kept progressing. From the World Hero Challenge in the Bahamas, to tying for second at the Vaspar Championship in Florida, baby steps in Augusta. Then came The Open, where he had us hoping right until the end at Carnoustie, then his finest final day at a major in the PGA Championship. Tied for second, a standing ovation of thousands looked like an iconic closing image. So close but so far.

Yet here he was, with a five stroke lead on the 13th, and the surrounding field starting to falter. With his newly fused spine, the final hurdle looked to be shrinking.

But Woods knows how to entertain, and with back-to-back bogeys on the 14th and 15th, the champagne was quietly stored away, with Billy Horschel waiting with anticipation on -9. With two holes left, two dropped shots would have forced a play-off.

That long march down 18 will last long in the memory. 15 months ago Tiger sat alone in a Florida police department, while the outside world pointed at the man who had it all and blew it. This time, his army of fans followed him on the final walk to redemption. The design at East Lake means that players have to cross sections of the gallery, but nothing like what was unfolding.

Along with him, McIlroy, perhaps the player most connected with the post-Tiger generation, the face of golf in this decade. The future and the past together with thousands following behind, it was an iconic scene. Something surreal, and bigger than golf, like a pitch invasion for a team breaking a 100-year old curse, an inevitable, yet unbelievable moment had arrived.

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We were told it was the Tiger of old, but the smile on his face walking down the 18th, his embrace with McIlroy, the laughing, openness and a fightback of tears suggested otherwise. In the past he wouldn’t think of letting people in like this, while his turmoil has caused such pain, that time spent sitting and thinking has brought him out of the other side a different person. This is a different Tiger Woods, the second, and very different phase of his career.

Of course he did snap back to normality, if only for a second, with a slightly short putt foiling a birdie chance, but he could overlook that as a tap in ensured his 80th victory on tour, 1,874 days after his last. In that time 119 players had won on tour, over 239 tournaments.

Spare a thought for Justin Rose, who now has $10 million, and a Fedex Cup to boot, yet he was the sideshow, as much a spectator to history as the thousands gathered around the 18th. So much so that he even acknowledged the fact in his interview, as did the NBC feed, who briskly cut him off with some elevator music mid-speech.

This win marks the moment golf became relevant to the average man and woman again. Many fans, many of those following him down the 18th, will have never understood the all the fuss. Sit in a room with 20 people, and it’s likely 10 will have been allured by Woods’ stardom. At a young age, or as an adult, they were all drawn in by one man.

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It only increases the excitement for the Ryder Cup this week, with Tiger now taking part as a captain’s pick, and one of the most in-form players at the tournament. To think the man 1193rd in the world in January is currently favourite for The Masters next year Is surreal, as far away as it may seem.

As for now, Ewen Murray put it perfectly: “Golf is back to normal”.