As a player this week, Woods may still intimidate his opponents, but around his teammates he figures to be the same approachable leader he morphed into as an assistant captain at the event in 2016, when he shared his knowledge freely and encouraged the American players to tap into his experience. He has shown them a side that older players were treated to only in small glimpses, such as when Bubba Watson, now 39, played in a tournament in Japan years ago and bonded with Woods over video games.
But the week after the Ryder Cup, the calendar of the golf season turns over. Whenever Woods returns to competition — most likely not until the beginning of December at the event he hosts in the Bahamas — it will be interesting to see which Tiger the other players will face.
Will it be the collegial Woods who chatted with DeChambeau at TPC Boston and with Rory McIlroy on Sunday at the Tour Championship? Or the Woods who was walled off from the world and unnerved opponents just by showing up? Woods told a friend last year that he yearned for the younger players to feel the heat of playing the back nine of a tournament on Sunday with him holding the lead, a scenario that played out at the Tour Championship.
“A lot of these guys had not played against me yet,” Woods explained. “I think that when my game is there, I feel like I’ve always been a tough person to beat. They have jokingly been saying that, ‘We want to go against you.’ All right. Here you go.”
Playing with the lead Sunday, Woods took a conservative approach and let McIlroy and Justin Rose, his two closest rivals going into the final round, beat themselves, which they did, covering the final 18 in a combined seven over. It felt eerily like 2008 once more, when Woods’s opponents knew he was going to win and he knew that his opponents knew that he was going to win.
“It was a different vibe around Tiger at that point, and he used it to his advantage,” Scott said.
Billy Horschel ended up as Woods’s runner-up at the Tour Championship, finishing two strokes back after carding a closing score that was five better than Woods’s 71. As Horschel walked to the 17th tee at East Lake Golf Club, he crossed paths with Woods, who was striding the 14th fairway. Horschel thought about saying something to Woods, but then he saw his expression. Horschel stopped and let him pass, like a tennis player giving way to another on a changeover, and never uttered a word.
“Tiger looked like the old Tiger,” Horschel said.