Tiger's year will be defined by one week at Augusta National

MEDINAH, Ill. -- The ending played out differently than anyone could have expected. It certainly wasn't supposed to occur now, not with one more tournament on the schedule, more glory to be pursued.

Tiger Woods didn't figure to be playing his final hole with nothing at stake Sunday, a par putt that brought appreciative applause at Medinah Country Club as he doffed his Nike cap to the crowd surrounding the green.

It wasn't the raucous scene of a year ago in Atlanta -- far from it. Nor the celebratory aftermath of Augusta National. Or the torrential outpouring of support that enveloped him after his close call a year ago in St. Louis at the PGA Championship.

Nope, it was simply the final moments of a season that did not finish anywhere near the way he wanted, but will always be remembered for what nobody thought was possible.

"Like I told him as we walked off the green,'' said Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava, "'You've got the jacket, and that's all that matters. F--- it.'"

The Masters victory makes up for all the other disappointments, and it is hard to blame Woods or LaCava for taking that attitude.

If the victory at the Tour Championship a year ago proved he could win again, then the green jacket at Augusta National simply solidified his legacy in the most incredible way: a 15th major victory, 11 years following his 14th; a fifth Masters, 14 years after his fourth.

All less than two years following a last-gasp spinal fusion surgery that even Woods feared could mean the end of his career.

The question that we might never know the answer to is if Woods was so content with the Masters triumph that the rest of the year didn't matter to him.

That goes very much against Woods' nature, the trait that made him so dominating throughout the bulk of his career. Woods rarely celebrated with any relish, the hunger for more victories always on his mind.

This time, not so much.

And it's understandable. Woods acknowledged that the Masters win "took a lot out of me.'' Certainly the emotion of such a win -- with his kids, his mom, his team there to enjoy it -- was beyond anything we could envision.

So too, apparently, was the ability to climb back out of his celebratory state to go after more hardware.

"I'd be lying if I weren't a little disappointed with the second half of the season, for sure,'' LaCava said. "If I were happy and satisfied, I probably shouldn't be doing this, right?''

But a caddie can only cajole and convince so much. At some point, it took Woods to dig deep and find the dedication and desire to go after it again. And perhaps it just was not there this time.

Certainly various physical issues played a significant role. Woods appeared less than his best at Bethpage for the PGA Championship, where early-week temperatures were in the 40s and he missed Wednesday practice with illness.

There were some good signs at the Memorial, where he played the final round in 67 strokes to grab a tie for ninth, giving himself some momentum heading to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach -- where he never seemed to get on track, until it was too late.

The final-round 69 there -- playing his last 12 holes in 6-under par -- seemed a great sign, but he then went on a planned vacation with his family and mother, Kultida, to her native Thailand. Woods did not play any tournaments prior to The Open at Royal Portrush, where he shot a first-round 78.

The oblique issue at the Northern Trust was but another indication that Woods was dealing with physical issues for most of the summer, issues which either kept him from practicing enough to be competitive or rendered tournament rounds an exercise in hit and hope.

And 12 official tournament rounds from April through July were simply never going to be enough to remain competitive and put himself in position to qualify for a return trip to Atlanta, site of his awe-inspiring Tour Championship victory.

Woods went from 13th in the FedEx Cup standings to 28th before the Northern Trust. Not playing the weekend there saw him slip out of the top 30 for the first time since prior to the Masters, and the deficit was too great to make up at soft, low-scoring Medinah, where Woods looked better but nowhere near sharp enough to put up the necessary numbers.

LaCava suggested that Woods needed more time, that a few more weeks would see him contending. But by then the season will be over, and Woods will be well into another long break, not expected to come back to competitive golf until playing in a PGA Tour event in Japan in late October.

At least Woods saw his season come to an end without limping to the finish. For the first time since the Memorial, Woods showed no signs of physical distress. He hit the driver beautifully, and his errors were borne of inactivity. Perhaps that will be instructive as Woods builds back up in a few months.

Woods clearly views the year as a success. He expressed disappointment at not qualifying for the Tour Championship and "the rest of the tournaments I didn't really play as well as I wanted to.'' But nobody is taking that Masters away from him. "At the end of the day, I'm the one with the green jacket,'' he said.

"'Special' is a good way to put it,'' LaCava said. "I think about it every day and it's all good. By the time we come around to next year, let's refocus and get ready. And get after it.''

Will Woods be willing and able? Will the glow of victory fade, to be replaced by the quest to find it again?

Those are questions as Woods approaches a 44th birthday later this year. For now, Woods' major moment stands above all else.