He was on the verge of another missed cut at Torrey Pines until a lag putt from 90 feet for a birdie to make it on the number, and then two solid rounds on the South Course to tie for 23rd. Even on a course where he won eight times as a pro, this was progress. And then three weeks later, at Riviera for the first time in more than a decade, came a sobering reminder that there was work to be done. He missed the cut at the Genesis Open. Riviera is where Woods made his PGA Tour debut as a teenager in 1992 — one year before Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth were born — and it remains the course he has played the most times without winning. The good news for Woods? At least he made it to Florida.
Woods was never seriously in contention at the Honda Classic, though he did enough to keep it interesting. By the end of the week, he finished eight shots behind Thomas in 12th place. He was outplayed in the final round by a rookie named Sam Burns. And yet the bold headline on the front of the sports section in USA Today screamed out the next morning, “WOODS IMPRESSES.” That was clear evidence that the sporting world was surprised to see him moving forward, lowering the bar compared with the Woods who once dominated the tour.
Because he missed the cut at the Genesis Open, he decided to add the Valspar Championship, a tournament he had never played and a course at Innisbrook he had not seen since 1996, when he played the old JC Penney Mixed Team Classic with Kelli Kuehne. He impressed again. He was never out of the top 10 after any round. He was two shots out of the lead going into the weekend, one shot behind going into Sunday, and one shot out of the lead going to the last hole. Alas, he had to settle for a long birdie attempt that was never close, a par and a runner-up finish. And then on to the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he was one shot out of the lead with three holes to play. That’s where the charge ended. He pulled his tee shot out of bounds on the par-five 16th hole, ending his chances. It might not have been enough anyway with McIlroy making his run of birdies to pull away from everyone. Still, Woods made it through the Florida swing with a 12th-place showing in the Honda Classic, a runner-up finish for the first time in five years and a tie for fifth at Bay Hill. “If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments, I would have taken that in a heartbeat,” he said.
Just like that, he was among the favorites for the Masters. And just like that, the search for a major, much less another green jacket, continued. He didn’t break par until the final round, and by then Woods was 18 shots out of the lead. He was never in the hunt at his next two tournaments, the Wells Fargo Championship and The Players Championship, where Webb Simpson had everyone playing for second. The putter failed him at the Memorial, where he was on the fringe of contention. He started the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills with a triple bogey, had a pair of double bogeys on the back nine and shot 78 on his way to a missed cut. Woods was playing. He was competing. For three months, he stopped contending. And then he found some momentum at the Quicken Loans National. In blistering heat, Woods was piling up enough birdies to make a run out of the last edition of the tournament he had started in 2007. It’s just that Molinari was even better, and no one stood a chance.
It was at the Quicken Loans National where it became clear how long Woods had been away, and how brightly his star still shone. He played the third round with Joel Dahmen, a player he had never met. He played the final round with Bronson Burgoon. It was like that all year. Never before were so many introductions in order for Woods. The PGA Tour has been experiencing greater depth and more turnover. Couple that with a legend who effectively had been out of the game for a few years, and he was bound to meet a lot of new friends this year.
Mackenzie Hughes at Quail Hollow. Burns at the Honda Classic. When he finished his final round at Quicken Loans, Burgoon chased after him and asked to pose for a picture. Burgoon then had a friend step in for a picture. And then a girlfriend. Hughes told of playing with him at The Players Championship. “It’s 90 degrees, but I can assure you I had some shivers at times when you hear some of the roars and you realize, ‘I’m playing with Tiger Woods,’” the second-year pro from Canada said. Missing for the old guard was the intimidation factor that Woods once held over an entire sport. That, too, began to change.
Sunday at The Open Championship was the first time Woods had the lead to himself at a major since the 2012 U.S. Open, and there was a feeling something special was in the works. That much was clear in the press center, where journalists were so caught up in the euphoria that they took photos with their cell phones of the scoreboard that showed Woods in the lead. The younger media crowd only knew Woods from video highlights, and he had come to life in front of their eyes. The older crowd had reason to believe they might not ever see it again. They still had to wait.
The prospect of winning was there, but not the consistency. Woods looked closer than ever to winning, at a major no less, when he closed with a 64 in the PGA Championship at Bellerive. He finished at 266, beating by three shots his best 72-hole score in a major. And it still wasn’t enough. Koepka hit his best shot of the year, a four iron to eight feet on the par-three 16th hole, right about the time Woods made yet another mistake by driving into the hazard on the hole ahead of him. It was like that all year. There seemed to be one shot that killed whatever momentum Woods had, whether it was a tee shot in the water at the Honda Classic, a drive out of bounds at Bay Hill, a double bogey at the worst time at Carnoustie. He opened with a 62 at Aronimink in the BMW Championship a few weeks later, tied with Rory McIlroy for the lead, and couldn’t keep up.
The Tour Championship was his final official event of the season, and in some respects, Woods was just happy to be there. Nine months earlier, he was curious how he would hold up in California, his goal to make it to the Florida swing. His finish at The Open was just enough to crack the top 50 in the world, getting him back in a World Golf Championship for the first time in four years. It also led to a hectic finish, with seven tournaments in nine weeks, not counting the Ryder Cup. But he had just enough left in the tank to put the proper ribbon on a gift to golf. Woods ended the opening round with a 25-foot eagle putt to tie for the lead. He shared the lead after 36 holes, the first time in that position going into the weekend since 2013. He outplayed Justin Rose in the third round to build a three-shot lead. And then McIlroy couldn’t keep up with him in the final round as Woods finished off a two-shot victory with a tap-in par.
The scene was so fitting. Thousands of fans at sun-baked East Lake came under the ropes and marched after him toward the 18th green, reminiscent of his victory at the Western Open in 1997, with Woods leading a throng into a bright future. It was his 80th victory on the PGA Tour, and suddenly he was back in the conversation. Two more wins and he would tie Sam Snead for the all-time record. Majors? Yes, he was still stuck on 14, but he sure looked capable. Rose wound up winning the FedExCup, and a $10 million bonus never received so little attention. This was all about Woods, playing again, a winner again.
For such a big moment, the shelf life was never shorter. Fewer than 24 hours later, Woods was in Paris for the Ryder Cup as a player, not a vice captain. The golf world focused on a team, not an individual player. It didn’t help that Woods went 0-3 for the week in another American loss. Then, the attention shifted to Patrick Reed and his complaints about being benched twice and not being alongside Jordan Spieth when he was playing. A new PGA Tour season started the following week. Woods was out of the picture until the Bahamas late in the year, and all fans had left was a memory of East Lake — and new hope for the following year.
A year after he returned to competition at No. 1,199 in the World Ranking, Woods was up to No. 13 in the world. He ended the year with a return to No. 1 at least a possibility. But he would have to get in line. The No. 1 ranking was never more vulnerable since it began in 1986, with four players reaching the top. That was the most players to reach No. 1 in a calendar year since 1997, when Greg Norman started at No. 1 and then traded places with Tom Lehman (one week), Ernie Els (one week) and Woods (two times for a total of 10 weeks). This was even wilder, showing parity at the top of the world like never before.
Dustin Johnson’s reign last 64 weeks, the longest at the top by any player since Woods from 2005 to 2010. Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions and shared the 54-hole lead at Pebble Beach until losing to Ted Potter, Jr. Still, it looked as though he would be No. 1 from start to finish, something that last happened in 2009. Instead, Justin Thomas made a big surge with a victory at the Honda Classic, a playoff loss the next week at the WGC – Mexico Championship and reaching the semi-finals of the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play. He finally took over with a tie for 11th at The Players Championship. “I’m proud to have gotten there, but it means more to me how long I can hold it. Have to continue to work hard with how well so many guys are playing,” Thomas said. He was right on one count. Everyone was playing well. And his stay didn’t last terribly long. A month later, Johnson won the FedEx St. Jude Classic and was back on top. Next in line was Justin Rose, who won the Fort Worth Invitational in May and got into position for a shot at No. 1 when he made the cut on the number at The Open, shot rounds of 64-69 on the weekend, and wound up in a four-way tie for second. The Englishman who began his career by missing 21 consecutive cuts in 1998 reached the top 20 years later, and it felt like a consolation prize. He missed a short putt in a playoff at the BMW Championship, but it was enough to replace Johnson. That lasted two weeks. Johnson reclaimed No. 1 by finishing one shot ahead of Rose at the Tour Championship. A month later, the fourth player entered the equation — Koepka. He reached No. 1 by winning the CJ Cup in South Korea, his third victory of the year including his two majors. And that’s when the fun began. Rose won the Turkish Airlines Open two weeks later to move back to No. 1. Mathematics took over from there. Rose and Koepka were so close that they traded spots at No. 1 over three successive weeks, even though neither was playing when he returned to No. 1. Rose had two opportunities to get back to the top by the end of the year, but his third-place finish at the Hero World Challenge and his tie for 17th in the Indonesia Masters — Rose shot 75 in the final round — were not enough.
Perhaps it was only fitting that Koepka finished the year at No. 1. Molinari had as much reason to celebrate, with his first major championship, the European Tour flagship event at the BMW PGA Championship and the first European to go 5-0 in the Ryder Cup. But nothing trumps two majors, especially when the player adds a third victory and a trip to the top of the ranking. Surprising? Not by raw talent, but by the time he missed.
Koepka was coming off a nine-shot victory in the Dunlop Phoenix toward the end of 2017 and was finishing up his year in the Bahamas when he mentioned one of his goals for 2018 was to be healthy. “I have some wrist issues. I want to figure that out. I can’t grip anything strong with my left hand.” He finished last in an 18-man field. After a month of rest, he finished last — 37 shots behind the winner — at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That’s when he knew there was a problem. More tests revealed a partial tear to the tendon in his left wrist, and Koepka didn’t play again for nearly four months, even missing the Masters.
He returned at the Zurich Classic, a team competition. He shot 63 in the final round at The Players Championship and tied for 11th. He shot a pair of 63s at Colonial and was runner-up to Justin Rose. Even so, he was somewhat overlooked when he arrived at Shinnecock Hills for the U.S. Open. Johnson, his best friend, was coming off a victory at the St. Jude Classic. Woods was still all the rage in golf. Shinnecock looked like a course that might favor Jordan Spieth, who had yet to win this year. Phil Mickelson had two close calls at Shinnecock in previous U.S. Opens. Koepka was the defending champion, but then, no one had repeated as U.S. Open champion since Curtis Strange in 1989. Besides, Shinnecock was nothing like Erin Hills that the Floridian pounded into submission the year before.
Koepka had a game for any golf course, winning another U.S. Open. And then he found a little extra motivation at the WGC – Bridgestone Invitational, a week before the final major of the year. A number of players were asked to do television interviews ahead of the PGA Championship. Koepka, the two-time U.S. Open champion and No. 4 player in the world, was not on the list. He was tough to ignore a week later, when he added the Wana- maker Trophy to his growing collection of major trophies. The only letdown was another decent, but not great, performance in the FedExCup Playoffs in which he never had a serious chance to add the tour’s big prize to his big year. No matter. He was the PGA Tour player of the year and won the points-based award for player of the year by the PGA of America.
Even as he was on his way to a second major, Koepka learned a little about anonymity. He works out regularly with Johnson, and they found a gym near Bellerive during the PGA Championship. Before the third round, Koepka noticed a crowd gathering around them. And he couldn’t help but stifle a laugh at what he heard. “They were like, ‘Did you see the No. 1 player in the world was here?’” That would have been Johnson, who had a great year by his own right, though nothing compared with Koepka.