PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Listen to those cheers. Can you hear them? They tell the story of this Honda Classic. They provide the sound track, day after day, shot after Tiger Woods shot, right until Sunday when he walked up the 18th fairway to the final hole.
People stood. People cheered. That, in itself, is not so unusual. The noise around Tiger always has been different than anyone in golf, even as he’s struggled these past several years because golf is a game of goodwill and fans want to offer hope.
But Sunday’s cheers weren’t about hope. They were about golf shots. They were about a 20-foot birdie putt on Sunday’s first hole, and a great tee shot to set up a birdie on the par-3 seventh hole. They were about what you saw, for once, not what you wanted to see.
“I had a shot at it,” Tiger said. “I was right there.”
No, Tiger didn’t win. Justin Thomas did. Tiger finished 12th. Once upon a time, that would have been a disastrous week for him. But we’re in a different time — “a new reality,” Tiger described it — and such an economy-sized Tiger-mania broke out he was asked if this was the best non-win he’s ever had.
He laughed. “What kind of a question is that?”
It struck the larger point: This tournament is exactly what Tiger needed. He had his first sub-70 round in three years. His back was healthy enough his swing speed reached 128.4 mph, the fastest of any player the past three years. The length in his game, another missing link, returned.
“Never thought I’d see this Tiger again,” The Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee said in a way most of the golf world did.
Did Tiger feel like the old Tiger?
“I feel like an older guy,” he said, smiling and noting 21-year-old playing partner Sam Burns, “is half my age. That’s a little bit different.”
Older was newer again. That was the idea here.
“I know it’s been a long time, but I remember how to do this,” he said. “I know how to hit shots and I wasn’t worried about that part. I wasn’t worried about coming down the stretch, how I was going to feel.
“I’ve been away from it for a while and you can’t mess around here on this golf course. You have to hit it well, and I hit it well all week. I gave myself a chance to win this thing.”
At one point Sunday, he pulled three behind the lead at 3-under-par. He then stumbled again through the three-hole run called the “Bear Trap,” on the back nine, going 3-over. He went 8-over for the tournament on those three holes. Cut that in half, who knows?
“I make a few more of those putts, clean up my finishes, I would have been right there in the mix,” he said.
More than that, this comeback looked in form. Without winning in five years, missing last year with back surgery and missing the cut the previous tournament in Los Angeles, Tiger entered Honda trending toward the latter years of Mike Tyson.
People still watched Tyson long after he could box. They still considered him an event and hoped for a glimpse of the Tyson that was. But that champion never showed up.
Tiger hasn’t won since 2013. He’s had back surgery and personal scars. He is 42. It’s one thing to make a comeback and another thing to win again.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “I had not gone through this before. This is all new. I had to make some pretty big changes in my swing and my feels. My feels are different through the golf ball.
“That’s something that’s a reality — my new reality. My back’s fused, and I can’t create the same shots I used to be able to create. I can hit the same shots. I just have to do it in a different way.”
He wants to hit the gym, work on a few things and stay on track for April. The Masters. A week ago that sounded like a crazy dream. Those cheers after his shots at The Honda said otherwise.