How Tiger Woods, on brink of first win in 5 years, built his epic comeback

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 22: Tiger Woods of the United States plays his shot from the sixth tee during the third round of the TOUR Championship at East Lake Golf Club on September 22, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

How Tiger Woods, on brink of first win in 5 years, built his epic comeback

PGA Tour

How Tiger Woods, on brink of first win in 5 years, built his epic comeback

Tiger Woods will win again. Odds are he’ll do it Sunday at the Tour Championship, where he built a three-shot lead with another vintage performance in Round 3.

He was desperate when he underwent the most serious of four back procedures last year. The goal was quality of life but the hope was for one more chance to play. One more chance to finish his career on his own terms.

What he’s done since is pretty incredible, and here he is at East Lake with one more chance to add a defining victory for what will forever be known as the comeback season.

It was still in the early stages back in March, at the Honda Classic and Valspar Championship. Some of the shots he was able to hit at PGA National during a T-12 finish proved he could win again.

Watching him walk off the green the following Sunday in Tampa Bay, laughing, arm slung around caddie Joe LaCava, a second-place finish secured, it became clear that Woods would win again.

The pieces were there. Putting them all together was a painstaking, season-long process that somehow resulted in just two missed cuts.

A lot of people said he needed to learn how to win again and that’s missing the point entirely.

He needed time.

Tiger Woods was in perfect form from any angle on Saturday. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Woods needed time to figure out how to build a swing with his fused back, time to find the best equipment specs, time to get accustomed to playing again.

By the time he reached the playoffs he’d had all those things and he finally found some consistency. The results might not show it, but Woods was hitting the ball nearly as well as he is now at the Northern Trust (T-40), Dell Technologies Championship (T-24) and BMW Championship (T-6).

Putting has been the deciding factor. He couldn’t make anything in the first two playoff events and now they’re falling again with the old Scotty Cameron back in his hands. His game isn’t that much different than it’s been over the past month, but it’s all coming together in Atlanta.

The latest and most important breakthrough was going into the playoffs, ahead of the Northern Trust, when Woods changed the shaft on his driver and added a bit more loft. Now he’s piping high fades off the tee with a ton of consistency and giving himself chances to show off with the irons.

Ask LaCava about keys for a week or round and his answer almost always starts with hitting fairways. Woods is so good with his irons, he’ll say, that as long as he’s in the short stuff he’ll have a great birdie opportunity.

Woods is ranked first on Tour in strokes gained approach the green and he has had a ton of great birdie opportunities in the playoffs.

Now he’s capitalizing on the majority of them. Now the swing is familiar and his bag is settled. Now he’s ready to win.

Woods knows how to win and he knows the best way to do that is by starting the final round in the lead. He’ll have a three-shot advantage teeing off in the final pairing with Rory McIlroy and this is all so captivating it’s taken much of the attention off next week’s Ryder Cup for the time being.

It’s easy to forget just how many captivating weeks Woods has delivered in such a short period of time, with zero expectations at the start.

An efficient T-2 in front of delirious crowds at the Valspar Championship.

That thrilling Sunday charge at Bay Hill just seven days later.

His birdie-filled weekend at the Players Championship.

Another near-miss at the Quicken Loans National, where Francesco Molinari ran away from the field.

Sunday at Carnoustie, where Woods took the lead at a major only to fall short of Molinari once again.

Aug 12, 2018; Saint Louis, MO, USA; Tiger Woods celebrates after making a birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Bellerive Country Club. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Tiger Woods closed out his run at the PGA Championship with a birdie on 18 Sunday, but it wasn’t enough to edge out Brooks Koepka. (John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports)

The most entertaining day of the season by far, that final-round 64 at Bellerive with insane crowds and Woods scrambling all over for birdies as he chased history in St. Louis.

Saturday at East Lake was another one for the books and Sunday’s final round could top them all.

Even through an ugly early exit at the U.S. Open and a deflating farewell to Firestone, Woods was learning and building and charging toward this moment. He spoke optimistically after some of his worst finishes, assuring himself he remained on track.

The comeback tour has reached its final stop and this is the end result of the process.

The improbable is now inevitable and the question will remain the same, but different.

When will Tiger Woods win again?

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