DUBLIN, Ohio — Tiger Woods’s best shot all week was aimed at himself.
During the second round of the Memorial Tournament, Woods noted that he had shaved three strokes off his first-round scores on two of the par-5 holes. “That’s definitely the most improved award,” he said with a sly smile. “I get the plaque.”
Woods didn’t win the 2018 Memorial Tournament. That distinction belonged to Bryson DeChambeau, the 54-hole leader who closed with a one-under 71 at Muirfield Village Golf Club, then won a three-man playoff with an 11-foot birdie on the second extra hole.
DeChambeau, 24, tied at 15-under with Byeong Hun An (69) and Kyle Stanley (70). Woods, who started Sunday’s final round five strokes off the lead, posted an even-par 72 to finish six strokes back, in a tie for 23rd.
But if a Most Improved plaque had been awarded, Woods would have won in a rout.
After playing his first seven holes in four-over, Woods covered his final 65 in 13-under. A five-time winner of the event, Woods showed significant progress over his 71st-place showing in his last start here, in 2015 at a time when pain loomed as his stiffest opponent.
From 2014 to 2017, a bad back limited Woods to 19 starts, and in 10 of those he either missed the cut or withdrew. His best finish in the period was a tie for 10th. It was a far cry from his five-win season on the PGA Tour in 2013, during which his scoring average was 68.97 strokes before the cut and 70.80 on the weekend.
In nine official starts in his latest comeback, Woods has two top-five finishes, and has gotten better as the tournaments have unfolded. He is averaging 71.3 strokes the first two days and 69.56 after the initial cut.
Playing his way into contention on the weekends poses no problem, because through all the surgeries his competitive compass has remained true. “To me, that’s the easier part,” Woods said, adding, “I think it’s trying to get a feel for the start; just finding it and keeping it, it’s a little bit different now because my body is so different.”
In April 2017, Woods, 42, underwent a last-resort lumbar fusion operation, which involved replacing a disk with a bone graft, causing two vertebrae to grow together and eliminating the motion between them.
About a month later, as he recovered at home in Florida while his fellow golfers gathered in Ohio for the 2017 Memorial, Woods was arrested after he was found asleep behind the wheel. His car was running and the brake lights were on. Police toxicology tests found a mix of five powerful painkillers and sedatives in Woods’s system.
In the aftermath of his arrest, golf could not have been further from Woods’s mind. He entered an inpatient treatment program for addiction to prescription medications and had the driving under the influence charges against him were dropped.
“I was struggling there for a while, and now I’m on the other end of the spectrum,” Woods said Sunday. “I don’t have the pain, which is incredible, and I’m able to do this again, something I love and something that I’ve been doing for a very long time. Golf’s been a part of my life ever since I can remember, and I didn’t know if I could ever be a part of the game again.”
With 79 Tour victories, including 14 majors, Woods has nothing left to prove. His comeback already has succeeded in winning him a new generation of fans. The pulsing gallery ringing the first tee on Sunday when Woods teed off alongside Whee Kim and J.B. Holmes included dozens of youngsters who weren’t born when Woods last won a major, at the 2008 United States Open.
Dora Nevarrez, 6, and her brother, Nolan, 5, knew Woods mostly as a character in one of the video games they play with their father, Christian, who brought them to Muirfield Village so they could behold Woods in the flesh. Behind the hole, peering out from under the signpost identifying the first tee, Josh Braver snapped a photograph of Woods’s follow through while his five-year-old son, Luke, gazed at the image on the viewfinder.
When asked what he knows about Woods, Luke Braver said, “He used to be really, really good until he hurt his back. He won almost every single time he played.”
Along the second fairway, Caleb Williams, 10, and his parents, Heidi and Keith, staked out a spot along the gallery rope. Williams and his mother posed as his father waited to take the photograph until Woods strolled into the background.
The one photograph that nobody got was of Woods making the uppercut motion that has become a signature of his victories. Mention the move to Woods and it conjures in his mind an image of his nine-year-old son, Charlie Axel.
“My son tries to do it, which is kind of funny,” Woods said. “And I keep showing him how to do it.”
It’s not something that is easily taught. How can Woods — or his son — replicate spontaneity? “Those are big moments where it’s a crescendo,” Woods said, adding, “It takes us three-and-a-half days or sometimes four days to get into a position where that moment happens. And it just comes out.”
The golf world will see that uppercut again. The 18-time major winner Jack Nicklaus, the Memorial Tournament host, is sure of it. Nicklaus predicted last week that Woods will challenge his all-time major championships record. “But whether he does or doesn’t, it doesn’t make any difference,” Nicklaus said. “He’s still a great athlete and a great golfer.”
Woods’s appearance on the leader board still makes his opponents’ hearts race. DeChambeau, who frequently plays practice rounds with Woods during tournament weeks, was asked if he hoped Sunday to have the chance to hold off a fast-charging Woods to win his second P.G.A. Tour title.
“No!” DeChambeau said with a laugh. “He’s Tiger Woods.”
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