He’s done it again. Written off for the umpteenth time in his career – this time after having knee surgery two months ago – Tiger Woods is a winner once more. He equalled Sam Snead’s record by landing his 82nd PGA Tour title with victory in the inaugural Zozo Championship in Japan.
Woods triumphed by three shots in Chiba after starting the event with three bogeys. “Who would have guessed it after that?” admitted the 43-year-old, having recovered brilliantly to card rounds of 64-64-66-67 on a rain-softened course for a 19-under-par 261 total.
With all due respect to Snead, Woods is already regarded by many as the US circuit’s most successful player. Unlike Snead, the majority of his wins have been delivered in full-field events that have also had greater strength in depth. His most recent successes have also come after genuine fears about his career due to back trouble. Moving level with Snead in the numbers game has proved sweet for that precise reason.
“It’s just crazy. It’s a big number,” said Woods of a title tally that was ignited by a play-off win over Davis Love III in the Las Vegas Invitational in early October 1996. Asked when it had become a realistic target, he added: “Probably when I got north of 50. But then, unfortunately, I went through some rough patches with my back. So that record seemed like it was out of reach.
“But, having had my fourth back procedure and being able to come back and play at a high level again, it put the number back in the conversation again and, lo and behold, here we are tied.”
Snead was 52 when he claimed his final PGA Tour win in the Greater Greensboro Open in 1965. If Woods can somehow keep going to that age – and why not based on not only this effort but his equally impressive successes in the Tour Championship and The Masters over the past year and a bit? – that record will almost certainly be his own.
“It’s about consistency and doing it for a long period of time,” added Woods. “Sam did it into his 50s. I’m in my early to mid-40s and I’ve been fortunate to have the career I’ve had so far. As far as playing out here until I’m 52, I hope that’s the case. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have given you a different answer. But certainly the future looks brighter than it has and, hopefully, I can be as consistent as Sam was into the 40s and early 50s.”
The win in Japan, which has lifted Woods to No 6 in the world rankings, sent the statisticians into overdrive. According to them, he has won 22.8 per cent of his total PGA Tour starts (82 of 359). He has also landed at least five consecutive Tour events on three occasions and twice won nine of 12 starts. He triumped 32 times in a five-year purple patch from 1999 to 2003 while his longest victory drought was 1,876 days (more than five years) between the 2013 WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and the 2018 Tour Championship.
“It’s satisfying to dig my way out of it and figure out a way,” said the 15-time major winner of his many comebacks. “There were some hard times trying to figure it out, but I’ve come back with different games over the years, moving patterns, and this one’s been obviously the most challenging. Then having another procedure a couple months ago and again coming back and winning an event, not easy to do.”
He’d planned to have that knee operation – his fifth on the same problem joint – around this time last year before putting it on hold after winning the Tour Championship in Atlanta last September. That decision was vindicated when he backed it up by claiming a fifth Green Jacket at Augusta National in April. But, as he made an early exit from the FedEx Cup following some sluggish performances thereafter, the doom-mongers started to make noises again when it emerged that he’d decided to undergo arthroscopic surgery at the end of August.
“As far as playing, I didn’t really know that I’d come back and play at this level,” he admitted of that move.“The knee wasn’t allowing me to rotate. Because of that, it was putting more stress on my lower back and hip. I was going to do this procedure last year after the Hero Challenge, but I felt I was rolling after winning the Tour Championship and wanted to play Torrey Pines (in the Farmers Insurance Open). As the year went on, it deteriorated a bit and I struggled. But now I am able to clear a little bit better. I feel a bit better and I am able to hit shots that I know I can hit and this week was a good sign for the future.”
It was no coincidence that his putting was back to its best in Japan. “The fact that I could get back and read the putts again was something that I hadn’t been able to do in months,” he added. “Something as subtle and as simple as that makes a difference. I also felt more comfortable with my putter just because I was able to build a more solid stance. Swing-wise, my speed started coming back as well. Ironically, my back has been less sore because I have been able to rotate better.”
Having taken his PGA Tour career earnings past the $120 million mark after holding off a final-round thrust from Hideki Matsuyama, Woods is now targeting a return to Japan next year for a debut in the Olympics. “I hope to qualify for the US team and represent my country,” he admitted of that now being a distinct possibility. “I have never played for a gold medal before and it would be an honour to do so at my age. I’ll be 44 and I don’t know if I’ll have many more chances after that. To have win this tournament in Japan is so ironic as I’ve always been a global player and played all around the world. To tie the record outside the United States is pretty cool.”
As will be captaining his country for the first time in the Presidents Cup against the Internationals in Australia later in the year. “As a player, I certainly got the captain’s attention,” he said, smiling, of the possibility of that turning into a dual role, though, with the likes of US Open champion Gary Woodland, Tony Finau, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler and Kevin Kisner also in the frame for the four captain’s picks for the match at Royal Melbourne in December, that is likely to be a difficult decision.