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HIS SCANDALS AND INJURIES BEHIND HIM, TIGER WOODS FOUND HIS SWING AND REKINDLED THE MAGIC THAT MADE US BELIEVE ANYTHING WAS POSSIBLE

THE VALSPAR CHAMPIONSHIP was five days away last March when Tracy West put her phone down, just for a minute. When she picked it back up, she knew that had been a mistake:

MARK STEINBERG

MISSED CALL

Steinberg, aka Steiny, the agent for Tiger Woods, left a voice mail. West, the Valspar tournament director, called him back without listening to it. He delivered the three words that every tournament director has dreamed of hearing since 1996: Tiger is coming.

West opened an Excel spreadsheet she had prepared for this moment, called "Tiger Plan." There were 51 items on it. In the next few days the Tampa-area tournament would add three crosswalks, two parking lots and another admission gate; double the size of the press room; build a second temporary pedestrian bridge; create a new interview area outside the scoring tent; tell the concessionaires to increase supplies; hire another 20 off-duty police officers and more marshals; and, most important, add 100 port-a-potties. A friend of West's who had no interest in renting his house to a golfer for the week had told her he would rent it to Tiger.

West thought she was ready.

But really, was anybody?

TIGER WOODS was not the best golfer in the world this year. Brooks Koepka won two majors: the U.S. Open and the PGA. Francesco Molinari took the British Open, went 5--0 in Europe's Ryder Cup victory and won the Race to Dubai competition as the European Tour's No. 1 player. But Woods was the sport's most compelling show.

In 2018 the 42-year-old Woods did something he had not really done in 17 years: He consistently astounded people with his ability to play golf.

After Woods won his fourth straight major, at the 2001 Masters, his possibilities seemed limitless. The ensuing championships were great theater, but not one was surprising. We figured he could do anything.

Woods's well-chronicled struggles in recent years threatened to make him a ceremonial golfer—if he could even swing a club well enough to be that. In December 2017, Woods was 1,199th in golf's official World Ranking.

This year we saw him hug old friends and pose for pictures with volunteers. He was at ease with the media, laughed with other players and hosted a goofy but previously unthinkable match/business venture with old rival Phil Mickelson the day after Thanksgiving. He also gave us the rare chance to watch a legend piece his game back together.

Woods's caddie, Joe LaCava, saw two encouraging signs in January, at Torrey Pines in San Diego. One was Woods two-putting from 75 feet on the 18th green on Friday to make the cut, confirming that Tiger could still grind. The other: Woods started practicing a little after rounds. The back injuries that had made it painful to do almost anything were no longer stopping him.

The first big public rumble came at the Valspar, in Palm Harbor, Fla. Woods was two strokes back as he stood over a 43-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole on Sunday. He drained it. One back. Pandemonium. He had not won in five years. But standing by the 17th green, golf executive Hollis Cavner turned to Woods's girlfriend, Erica Herman, and the vice president of Tiger's business ventures, Rob McNamara, and said, "He is birdieing 18, too." On 18, Woods's 39-foot birdie putt stopped just short of the hole. Paul Casey won. But here came Tiger Woods.

BEFORE THE Masters, in April, Woods played a practice round with Mickelson. Much of the public was shocked; LaCava was not. "They get along fine now," he says. Woods's iron play failed him at Augusta—a rarity in 2018—then over the next few weeks, through the Players Championship and the Memorial, Woods struggled on the greens.

When most older golfers lose their putting touch, they don't get it back. Woods reminded us that he is not most golfers. He started fiddling with TaylorMade mallet putters after using a blade his whole life, and after the U.S. Open he settled on an Ardmore 3. It looked strange in his hands, like LeBron James shooting free throws underhand. Woods traveled with two or three putters, but for a month he used only the Ardmore 3, even on practice greens. LaCava called it a "timeout kind of thing ... bench the other one." Once Woods regained his putting feel, he returned to his trusty blade.

A week before the British Open, in July, Woods figured something out in his practice rounds in Florida. LaCava didn't ask what it was. But he could sense it. Woods texted LaCava: You ready to get after it? LaCava replied: I'm always ready. Woods: Well, I'm ready too. It was an unusual level of unprompted private confidence from Woods to his caddie.

After three rounds at Carnoustie, Woods was four shots out of the lead, and he was asked what a win would mean. He gave a let's-wait-till-it-happens answer, and when the reporter tried again, Woods closed his eyes and smiled. "I know what you're trying to say," he said, suppressing a laugh, "but let me try and get there first."

Woods's playing partner, Molinari, won the Open. But Woods was getting closer. On 9, he hit one of his most memorable shots of the year, picking the ball clean out of a bunker and landing it over a lip in front of the green. And on 18, when a fan screamed on his downswing, Woods put his drive in the fairway anyway. He finished three shots back, and now everybody knew he could win a major again. The next month, he almost did it.

IF KOEPKA had been born with a nervous system, Woods would be your 2018 PGA champion. But Koepka was the only person at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis who didn't seem to care that it was Tiger Woods climbing the leader board by firing a 64 on Sunday at a major. Koepka answered with a 66 to win by two.

But Tiger was back. So was Tigermania, the bedlam that makes you forget there are other great golfers in the world. Sometimes LaCava would look across the course and see leaders or multiple major champions playing before comparatively tiny galleries, and he would marvel. After Koepka held off Woods, LaCava's 19-year-old son, Joe, said, "When you left that putt on the lip on number 11, the entire crowd was trying to get the Earth to move to get that ball in." From the PGA through the season-ending Tour Championship in September, Woods may have been the best player in the world.

At his peak, two qualities separated Woods from everybody else: prodigious length, and complete belief in himself. His length advantage is gone; on the 1st hole on Sunday at the Tour Championship, Rory McIlroy drove his ball 30 yards past Tiger's, and LaCava thought, Oh, boy, we've got to watch this all day.

The belief, though, remains. You could see it when Woods was on the range before the final round of the British, oblivious to those around him, and when he was on the putting green Saturday night at the Tour Championship, joking around despite two late-round bogeys. With McIlroy's ball ahead of him on that 1st hole, Woods stuck his approach to within 10 feet and made birdie. He went on to shoot a one-over-par 71 to win at East Lake in Atlanta, his first victory in five years.

It felt impossible and inevitable, foreign and familiar. If you have a chance to watch Tiger Woods next year, put your phone down. You won't want to miss it.