(Reuters) – Tiger Woods was moved to the brink of tears after capturing his first title since 2013 with a two-stroke triumph at the Tour Championship in Atlanta on Sunday that proved he was far from washed up at the age of 42.
After five years of complications in his personal life and injury woes, Woods reasserted his status as the best frontrunner in the history of the sport, leading throughout the final round and finishing at 11-under-par 269 at East Lake.
Amid raucous scenes with the massive gallery chanting his name as they stampeded the final fairway, he raised his arms in triumph after tapping in to move within two victories of Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82 PGA Tour titles.
“I was having a hard time not crying coming up the last hole,” Woods said after sharing a moment of celebration with caddie Joe LaCava.
“I’ve been sitting on 79 (wins) for five years now. To get 80 is a pretty damn good feeling.”
Woods, who carded a closing 71, walked off to a big kiss from girlfriend Erica Herman and a hug from agent Mark Steinberg as security tried to keep the fans at bay.
The victory capped off a season that started with questions over whether Woods, now 10 years removed from his 14th major title, would even be able to play a full schedule after undergoing spinal fusion surgery in April 2017.
“My body was a wreck,” recalled Woods, who hoped the operation would alleviate debilitating back and leg pain.
“The low point was not knowing whether I would be able to live pain-free again.
“I was beyond playing. I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t lay down without feeling the pain in my back and leg.”
That the procedure worked was evident on Sunday as Woods was never seriously challenged in the final round after starting with a three-shot cushion over Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose.
McIlroy, playing with Woods, quickly dropped out of contention with an error-strewn driving performance that ultimately ended with a 74, leaving world number one Rose as the only realistic threat.
The Englishman also struggled, however, and Woods did what he used to do so brilliantly in his prime, keeping his card clean and forcing his pursuers to come and get him.
After draining a 10-foot birdie for a confidence-boosting start at the first, Woods parred the next eight holes, using a deft short game and a hot putter to extricate himself from trouble on a couple of occasions.
He built a five-shot lead at the turn, and despite bogeys at the 10th, 15th and 16th holes held off his fast-finishing compatriot Billy Horschel, who carded a 66 for second place on nine-under.
The win preserved Woods’s perfect record of never having lost after leading by three shots or more going into the final round, a record he extended to 24-for-24.
“Pops would be very proud of the way I went out today,” Woods said of his father Earl, who died in 2006.
“I knew if I shot under par I would win Just to be able to compete and play again this year, that’s a hell of a comeback.”