Welcome back to the corner of Tiger Woods and History. We've been here before, and yes, here we are again, probably sooner than expected. Steel yourselves for what's coming next, people. Tiger Woods is back.
Back to what? We don't have the answer to that. This is not a prophecy of Tiger Slams or a dozen more majors or an era of dominance waiting around the corner. Let's leave it at this, with a triple helping of anticipation: Tiger Woods is back to playing brilliant golf. He's back to holing clutch putts and hitting miracle shots. He's back to giving us adrenaline rushes like no golfer has before or can today.
More significant, Tiger is back to winning. What he did on a sunny Sunday at the Memorial Tournament was rediscover his game, revitalize golf and create a deafening buzz heading into next week's U.S. Open. Everything you thought you knew about this Open at Olympic Club has changed in the wake of Tiger's closing five-under-par 67 at Muirfield Village, where he birdied three of the last four holes to steal the victory.
You were expecting the Open to fall into the hands of Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world; Rory McIlroy, the defending champ, the boy king who is the No. 1A player in the world; or frequent Open runner-up Phil Mickelson. Not anymore. Donald, fresh off his European PGA victory, wasn't a factor last week, even though a closing 68 gave him a backdoor top 12. McIlroy shot 79 last Friday, missed the cut for the third straight time and looks as if he should be asking, Tennis, anyone? Mickelson withdrew after an opening 79, citing "mental fatigue." He played three events in a row followed by a week's vacation in Paris and Italy, then stopped on Long Island for a corporate outing on the Tuesday before Memorial. (On Monday after Memorial he had another outing scheduled, in California.) Memo to Phil: You're 41. You can't skip nap time anymore.
That leaves Tiger. You wrote him off after 40th-place finishes at the Masters and the Players and a missed cut at Quail Hollow? That appears to be a mistake on the order of the one made by Phil's travel agent.
Lest we forget, we have been down this road before. Remember how Woods won by five at Bay Hill, then followed with that head-scratching showing at the Masters? But here's why the Memorial victory is different: Tiger's got his groove back, and most important, he knows it. That alone may be the only information you need. Woods is again the clear-cut best American golfer, ending a short-lived and uninspired debate over Tiger versus somebody-or-other. The fact is, Woods is a superior golfer, one of the two greatest of all time. The other is a fellow named Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host who on Sunday handed Tiger the Memorial trophy—for a fifth time. The win was Woods's 73rd on the PGA Tour, tying him for second on the alltime list (Sam Snead leads with 82) with Nicklaus, who joked during a press conference with Woods, "He had to rub it in my face right here, didn't he?" Woods couldn't hide a grin.
Even before a wild weekend, Golf Channel analyst and SIGolf+ columnist Brandel Chamblee made note of something obvious that had been overlooked during Tiger's slide from relevance. Chamblee, a vocal critic of Tiger's game over the past two years, said on Friday, "I like the way Tiger is swinging now—it looks really good." Then he added, "Tiger is still twice as good as anybody when he's half as good as he used to be."
There it is, the bare truth. There is no clearer sign that Tiger is back than his displaying his shot making skills, which far surpass those of his contemporaries. Woods is the Ben Hogan of his generation—at least, he is when he's healthy. As much as possible, Tiger plays the shot that is called for. When he drove it too far on the short 14th hole on Friday and his ball ended on a downslope at the end of the fairway, he played a chippy little British Open--style bump-and-run that landed 50 yards in front of the green and trundled onto the putting surface, 25 feet short of the pin. The shot was brilliant, and no other American would've tried it. Only Tiger pursues perfection as much as he pursues winning.
Then, of course, there was the Shot of the Tournament, the one you'll be watching replays of until, and probably during, the Open. The 51-foot shot was a delicate flop from behind the 16th green, from a nestled lie in wiry rough, over a crest to a pin on a downhill slope. The ball trickled like a gentle putt before toppling in, and Tiger reacted with his traditional uppercut, golf's best touchdown dance. He holed a pair of theatrical flop shots from behind the 14th green during two of his other Memorial wins, but this one was the Holiest Toledo of them all.
"If he's short, the tournament's over, and if he's long, the tournament's over," Nicklaus said. "He lands the ball exactly where it has to land. And he puts it in the hole. That's the most unbelievable, gutsy shot I've ever seen."