The Messiah of golf is back.
There was a surreal moment watching Tiger Woods’ first PGA Tour victory in five years, when NBC’s cameras beautifully captured a wide shot of thousands of screaming fans surging up the 18th fairway behind him.
It was unplanned, spontaneous, chaotic. Like the kind of pure bedlam you see when an underdog college football team wins the big one and fans tear down the goalposts. It was proof positive that Tiger Mania is officially back. Barring more injury, the 42-year-old Woods is poised to lead NBC, Golf Channel, CBS and other golf TV networks into a new era of boffo ratings.
How much does Woods move the TV needle? Consider this.
NBC drew a 5.21 overnight TV rating for the final round of the Tour Championship (3 to 6:15 p.m. ET). That’s up a staggering 206 percent from a 1.7 for the final round in 2017. It was the highest-rated PGA Tour telecast (excluding the four major tournaments) in 2018 and highest-rated in the history of the FedEx Cup Playoffs. Fans streamed 18.4 million minutes across NBC’s digital platforms, up 561 percent from last year.
Younger fans may not remember it, but there was a time when Tiger on the prowl drew Saturday/Sunday sports TV viewers away from college football, the NFL, NBA, MLB or the NHL. That phenomenon was replicated Sunday as sports fans reached out to ask each other: Are you watching Tiger?
Even NBC’s lead announcers, Johnny Miller and Dan Hicks, seemed shocked at the outpouring of fan affection for the taciturn Woods. The crowd screamed TI-GER, TI-GER and U-S-A! U-S-A! — setting the stage for NBC’s Ryder Cup coverage this weekend.
Wow. ? pic.twitter.com/klf7PLfVv9
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 23, 2018
NBC wisely front-loaded advertising to go commercial-free through the end of Woods’ round. It was riveting TV.
NBC cameras captured Rory McIlroy, who grew up idolizing Woods, congratulating the older man as they strode up No. 18 at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.
Then it happened. The crowd rolled up like a wave behind Woods, carrying him to his 80th PGA Tour victory. If they could have, they would have put him on their shoulders and toted him around the green.
“It’s exciting. It’s a lot like the (British) Open Championship, where they let the gallery converge on the 72nd hole and walk up with the players,” Miller said. “They have to walk through a lot of the gallery. Nothing like it in sports, really.”
Hicks compared Woods’ comeback to golf legend Ben Hogan’s return from a near-fatal car crash in 1949. Then Hicks got carried away, declaring it the “most improbable comeback in sports history.”
That’s debatable. But what the hell? Hicks was as pumped as everybody else.
“Have we ever seen anything like this in golf?” Hicks said as he watched the crowd practically fall into the lake on No. 19. “Look at this scene.”
Woods started the day with a three-shot lead. Hicks noted upfront that he was a perfect 23 for 23 at winning tournaments when he began the final round with a three-shot cushion.
But this was a far different Woods than the steely-eyed assasin who dominated golf from 1997 to 2008. It had been 1,876 days since Woods won any tournament — and 10 years since his last major at the 2008 U.S. Open.
Over the past decade, Woods experienced the most crashing fall of any sports superstar, admitting to multiple marital infidelities and losing his game, his health, his wife and most of his corporate sponsors.
After undergoing multiple back and knee surgeries, Woods admitted a few years ago that he could barely get out of bed, much less play championship golf. But spinal fusion surgery turned him into a “walking miracle,” Woods said.
On Sunday, we saw a humbled Woods, a middle-age man not afraid to let some of his feelings show.
Woods admitted he was almost in tears walking up the 18th fairway. He grimly reminded himself he still had work to do before he could celebrate. So did he prove to himself on Sunday, asked NBC’s Steve Sands?
“It was just a grind out there. I loved every bit of it,” Woods said. “The fight and the grind and the tough conditions. Just had to suck it up and hit shots. Loved every bit of it.”
What a day, what a year #FedExCupChampion ?Congratulations @TigerWoods #GOAT on your 8️⃣0️⃣th @PGATOUR title. Thank you #Team?for all the support and messages. jR pic.twitter.com/Cu1Wee3ofz
— Justin Rose (@JustinRose99) September 23, 2018
Meanwhile, Tiger’s comeback made Justin Rose winning the $10 million FedEx Cup almost an afterthought. As Rose walked off No. 18, even he had to wink at the NBC cameras.
“Sorry guys, I know who you were rooting for,” Rose quipped.
On Monday morning, ESPN’s Laura Rutledge told Mike Greenberg on “Get Up!” that fellow passengers on her plane flight broke into applause when Woods’ final putt dropped Sunday.
Reviewing the footage of thousands of fans running after Woods, Greenberg called it a “coronation walk” up the 18th fairway.
“Look at the crowds. You can watch golf your entire life and you’ll never see a picture that looks like that again,” Greenberg said. “Look at the people. Look at the picture. Look at what that is telling you. There is almost nothing in sports more interesting to more people than golf when Tiger Woods is playing it.”
During a post-round interview, Woods made a telling comment that said more about mistakes, regret and the passage of time than any speech by a TV commentator.
Was Woods aware, asked one reporter, that he’d “broken” the internet Sunday?
Woods just smiled.
”When I came out here, there was no internet,” he said.
Tiger Mania is back.