NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) — The first stop is Sam Snead and his 82 career PGA Tour victories.
The ultimate stop is Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors, the gold standard in golf.
Both milestones are now in play for Tiger Woods, which is not to suggest they are within reach. That they are at least a topic of conversation is a victory in itself considering it took four back surgeries — the last one to fuse his lower spine — for Woods to even compete again.
And then he took hopes to another level by winning the Tour Championship for his 80th career tour victory.
“I know I can win tournaments again,” Woods said Tuesday.
His next chance is at the Hero World Challenge this week, an unofficial event that counts only in the world ranking, his bank account and his confidence. More curious is what Woods will do in 2019 and for how much longer.
He turns 43 at the end of the year, and with age comes a dose of practical thinking.
His expectations are high by his standards. Given the level of attention he draws, the expectations of everyone around him are sure to be much higher. He was asked if he was close to having the same expectations he did 15 years ago.
“It’s not the same. It never will be. I’ll never feel that again,” he said. “To be what, 28 years old? Physically, I’ll never be like that. So expectations are different than they used to be, for sure. Now, can I still win? Can I still compete? Yes. Can I do it for the next 20 years? No. Because that’s not realistic.”
Indeed, his expectations at the peak of his career were far different.
“Just win. Win everything,” he said. “Because I felt like I could.”
And now he knows he can win again, a process that took two weeks short of a full year.
It began in early October a year ago when he posted a short video of a slow, full swing that was the first sign he could return. He was No. 1,199 in the world ranking when he played his holiday event in the Bahamas last year. He twice had a chance to win on the back nine in Florida. He had the lead on Sunday in a major at Carnoustie, and he challenged Brooks Koepka to the finish at Bellerive in the PGA Championship. He went from being a vice captain to a captain’s pick in the Ryder Cup.
Woods returns to the Bahamas at No. 13 in the world, which on paper sounds more amazing than it really is because he was so low in the ranking from having played so little that he essentially was starting from scratch. There was no way to go but up.
Woods can’t call this his best year because he had 11 years of at least five victories and nine years with at least one major through 2008, when he won his 14th major at Torrey Pines on a left leg that required season-ending surgery after the U.S. Open.
But it was special, measured beyond victories.
“Probably the most rewarding, because there was a point … I just didn’t know if I would ever do this again,” he said. “You always hear me say, ‘It’s a process.’ But if you look at this entire year, it literally was a process. You saw me have flashes, and then I would rework a few things here and there. Toward the end of the year, I just became more and more consistent as a tournament player again.”
It culminated at East Lake, when he beat Justin Rose and then Rory McIlroy in the final group over the last two days to win the Tour Championship.
That was the moment that mattered.
And then the moment was gone. Never has a victory this big had a shelf life so short.
Woods was in Paris the next day as all the attention shifted to the Ryder Cup, which ended with a European victory and Woods failing to win a match. He says he was exhausted from a long summer. Woods qualified for the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone at the last minute, meaning he played seven big tournaments in a span of nine weeks, all of them in stifling heat except for Paris.
Winning didn’t really sink in until he returned home to Florida and was given a surprise celebration party at his restaurant. He said it has become “our Jupiter tradition,” celebrating victories for PGA Tour players when they win.
“Finally, they get to celebrate one of my wins,” he said.
The next one?
The first step is figuring out where to play. Woods is eligible for the winners-only start to the year at Kapalua, which is a possibility. He might end up dropping a tournament or two in the spring because of the crowded calendar. Three of the majors are on courses where he has won before — Augusta National, Bethpage Black (PGA Championship) and Pebble Beach (U.S. Open).
There will be talk of catching Snead and resuming the chase of Nicklaus, all because of one win that a year ago didn’t seem likely.