In case you haven’t heard, Tiger Woods won the Memorial Tournament June 3 at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio.
Woods trailed leader Spencer Levin by four strokes entering Sunday’s final round but used a five-under par 67 to catch the leaders and top the field by two. It was a big victory for a number of reasons, beyond the fact Tiger’s final round, four-shot comeback was the second largest of his career.
First and foremost, Tiger couldn’t have picked a better spot to gain momentum for the 112th U.S. Open Championship at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif., June 14-17. The Memorial was Tiger’s final event before the U.S. Open, and he hadn’t been playing well coming into the tournament: Woods had missed one cut and tied for 40th twice in his previous three starts.
Regardless of how Woods fared at the Memorial, he would have been one of the favorites to win the U.S. Open. That simply comes with the name he carries. But the fact he’s entering the second major championship of the season fresh off a win will only give him more confidence.
Secondly, Tiger’s victory at the Memorial Tournament was his 73rd career PGA Tour victory. That’s tied for second all-time, behind only Sam Snead (83).
Woods tied Jack Nicklaus’ 73-spot, who coincidentally hosts the Memorial. In fact, Nicklaus was on hand to congratulate Tiger as he walked off the 18th green Sunday. Keep in mind that Nicklaus holds the record for most major championship victories (18), and Tiger has been stuck on 14 since his 2008 U.S. Open Championship win at Torrey Pines in San Diego, Calif. Most golf pundits will say majors are the best measure of a professional golfer’s ranking among the game’s all-time best.
Lastly, and most importantly, Tiger Woods won the Memorial in vintage Tiger fashion. He birdied three of the last four holes, including a ridiculous flop-shot chip-in on the Par-3 16th.
Woods faced a daunting task with his second shot on the hole—allow me to lay it out for you: He needed to land the ball in what was probably no bigger than a foot-by-foot box, and he had a pretty nasty lie in the greenside rough. He needed to take a hard swing to make clean contact, but he could only afford to hit the ball six or seven yards. He needed to hit a high, soft shot if the ball was going to land anywhere near the hole.
If it came out too low or too fast, Tiger would have taken a one-stroke penalty and played his fourth shot near the water hazard beyond the pin. If it came out too short, Tiger would have faced a similar—and maybe even more difficult—third shot.
It was, by all accounts, a fucking hard shot.
He needed to make par, too—a bogey would have almost certainly wiped away his chances at winning. His tournament fate rested in that shot.
And he put it in the cup.
From a ‘Holy shit’ standpoint, the shot was strikingly similar to his birdie chip-in on No. 16 at the Masters in 2005, which is probably the most recognizable Tiger Woods highlight of all time. That is, unless you ask Nicklaus, who said Tiger’s chip-in at the Memorial was the most unbelievable, gutsy shot he had ever seen.
So, is Tiger back?
Short answer: Yes and no.
Longer answer: Tiger won the Memorial in the fashion he’s been known for: Polished, dramatic and emotional—you know, the kind of fashion that gave meaning to “Sunday Red.” After chipping in for birdie on the 16th Sunday, Woods celebrated like he used to back when he was the unequivocal top player in the world, back when he was picked as the obvious favorite entering every tournament he played, back when the rest of the field was always looking over its shoulder for a lurking Tiger Woods. Sunday at the Memorial was the first time since 2008 golf fans saw the dominant Tiger they remember from the earlier 2000s, the Tiger that makes professional golf relevant, the Tiger that makes you say, ‘This guy is better at his sport than any other athlete on the planet.’
Despite the fashion in which Tiger won at the Memorial, he still isn’t back. But if Woods is going to come back, there’s no better stage for him to do so than the U.S. Open. After all, that’s the Tiger who present-day Tiger wants to get back to—the Tiger who wins majors. And I would argue Tiger’s two best career victories came at that major. Woods finished 12-under-par, dismantling the field by 15 strokes in 2000 at Pebble Beach in Pebble Beach, Calif. Keep in mind the U.S. Open is a tournament known for its thick rough and dance-floor greens; a score around even-par typically wins the tournament. Eight years later at Torrey Pines, Tiger had perhaps the most iconic performance of his career. His left knee noticeably bothered him all week, yet Woods found himself on the final hole of the tournament just one shot back of leader Rocco Mediate. Woods went on to drop a 20-foot birdie putt to tie Mediate, and the crowd erupted in a manner only possible after a clutch Tiger putt and fist pump. Woods beat Mediate in an 18-hole playoff the following day to win the tournament but announced just two days later he would miss the rest of the 2008 season because of knee surgery. He beat the world’s best on one leg.
Tiger won’t be back until he starts winning majors again. After all, Tiger’s only remaining goal is to surpass Nicklaus’ 18 career majors. The scene in Dublin, Ohio, between Nicklaus and Woods was perhaps too perfect of a tournament and moment for Woods to win and kick-start his return to the Tiger of old. It was the perfect tournament and moment for Tiger to be back. But I can almost certainly guarantee you the Memorial was far in Tiger’s past immediately after making his birdie putt on the final hole of the tournament. He was already focused on winning the U.S. Open.
So, is Tiger back?
He’s damn close. We’ll have a better idea Sunday evening, June 17.
Do you think Tiger Woods is back to the Tiger of old? Will his performance at the U.S. Open make a difference? E-mail Vince at email@example.com.