GOLF: Woods heading west with momentum

Of all the sweeping dramas we follow in sports, one stands above the others, far beyond LeBron’s annual quest, or the interminable Mayweather-Pacquiao saga or the matter of whether there ever will be another American male tennis star.
The enduring Tiger Woods Watch trumps them all, and it is gaining momentum.
The Tiger Watch features a man seeking what he once held tightly in his grip and a golfer who before his 25th birthday had become impossibly dominant at a game that over the years has tortured millions. The star has peaked and plunged yet conceivably remains the most visible cultural phenomenon of this generation.
Does any other active sports figure so effectively work the emotions of so many?
Tiger’s latest evolution came Sunday, when he won the Memorial tournament at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, putting a masterful finish on a weekend during which he had been by turns marvelous and mediocre.
In his final tour tuneup before next week’s U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Woods birdied three of the final four holes – including an incredible shot on No. 16 – to shoot a 5-under-par 67 and finish at 9-under 279.
The victory was the 73rd of Tiger’s career, tying him on the PGA Tour wins list with the legendary Jack Nicklaus, who conceived and designed Muirfield.
Woods had grabbed a share of the lead Saturday and squandered it on the back nine to begin the day four strokes behind leader Spencer Levin. So what did Tiger do on the front nine Sunday? He quickly closed to within one of the lead.
It was Tiger Time. And this time, for real.
Wearing his traditional Sunday red, Woods went into attack mode, ready to jump Rory Sabbatini or Andres Romero or Levin or anyone else who dared cross his path. This performance, with this sizzling finish, is the strongest evidence that Tiger is on the verge of reclaiming his position as the undisputed king of golf.
Yes, this is a course Tiger practically owns; this was his fifth win at Muirfield. And, yes, there were fits and starts to his game, especially Saturday.
But Tiger charged in the clutch, closing with a vengeance when on several previous occasions he had faded – sometimes badly – at the finish.
Moreover, this was Tiger reasserting himself as an intimidator. Levin faltered, shooting a 75 to end up at 283. Sabbatini passed Woods at one point, only to be devoured by Tiger’s ferocious finale.
This Tiger spikes TV ratings and stirs interest among the curious. And after all he has meant – and what he has put himself through – most of us have at least some degree of curiosity.
We all know the story that began with the Thanksgiving night throwdown in 2009. Woods was 33 years old and on top of the universe in almost every way imaginable. He was the world’s reigning sports superstar, with two beautiful children and a model-gorgeous wife – and enough wealth to fund 1,000 lavish lifetimes.
Tiger lost it all in a haze of extramarital hedonism. When Elin and the kids walked out, so did a large percentage of his global adulation. The singularly spectacular golf game followed, forcing Woods to rebuild his life.
He has spent the past 30 months trying to retrace his professional steps in hopes of rediscovering his secret to superiority. The wife won’t be back, but if Woods can find the game he once possessed, there is a chance he can reclaim his stature.
This victory represents a huge leap toward that.
We’ve been watching Tiger Woods since he was knee-high to a house cat. Watched him putt on TV when he was 2, watched him win junior-amateur titles when he was 15, watched him, at 21, win the Masters by an astonishing 12 strokes.
Nobody had so conquered this unconquerable game often restricted to the privileged, and here was this brown youngster with the blue-class background routinely beating the stuffing out of golf.
And now, after so many months of struggle, Tiger is determined to show he can produce a successful second act.
To truly chart that course, he needs to win a major. His next opportunity comes next week, when the tour invades the Bay Area.
The Tiger Watch intensifies whenever Woods wins, no matter where, but the local Tiger Watch surely intensified when he won Sunday. Hosting a Tiger that truly matters is infinitely more attractive than hosting Woods as Just Another Golfer.
Is Tiger back? Not yet. But the Tiger Watch is a lot more compelling.
Golf exhaled a bit Sunday, but the drama continues, with the rest of us feeling some variation of joy or disgust or relief. You pick.

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