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Injury, rust, typhoons and 'Joker': How Tiger arrived at history

CHIBA, Japan -- A typhoon, of all things, interrupted Tiger Woods' unlikely brush with history. As the rain hammered down Friday, postponing play at the Zozo Championship and causing considerable upheaval in the region, Woods and several others ventured to a Narita movie theater to catch "Joker.''

Woods called the film "dark,'' and he knows all about that word: from the scandal of a decade ago to the numerous back surgeries and the pain medication issues and the struggles to even assemble a golf game again.

"I know what it's like to have this game taken away from you,'' Woods said in a telling moment on the 18th green Monday, where he soon would be taking part in an awards ceremony to celebrate his 82nd PGA Tour victory, some 8,000 miles from his home in Florida.

If it is odd to consider another career-defining victory coming in Asia, where Woods tied Sam Snead's PGA Tour victory record while most American sports fans were taking in the NFL back home, then it is certainly fair to wonder how any of this happened at all.

For all the positivity that his Masters victory engendered in April, it was short lived. By the time he was missing the cut at The Open, all of those good vibes were washed away along the shores of Northern Ireland.

Too many times, Woods showed up for a golf tournament and didn't look right. And the more that happened, the more you wondered whether the earth-shattering victory at Augusta National had swallowed up every last bit of energy he had mustered in an effort to win another major championship.

"It was a combination of things,'' said Rob McNamara, Woods' friend and a vice president with his company. "The knee led to him starting to slide and swing differently. And then it affected his back, and then a little bit his neck, and then his oblique. It was sort of a chain reaction of events because he wasn't working properly in the golf swing. Then couple that with some bad weather, and it just wasn't going to happen.''

The knee. Who knew? Woods never once let on that anything was amiss. But as he disclosed at the Zozo Championship, he needed to have an arthroscopic procedure to clean out cartilage -- on the same knee that required ACL reconstruction in 2008. And he put it off.

Instead of doing it a year ago, he waited. And it finally caught up with him over the summer, when he missed two cuts and withdrew from another event in just six tournament appearances. On Aug. 20, he had what was described as routine surgery. A week later -- so as not to interfere with the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup -- he announced it.

"The knee didn't allow me to rotate,'' Woods said. "And because of that it put more stress on my lower back and my hip. As the year went on, it deteriorated a bit and I struggled. Now I'm able to clear a little bit better, I feel better.''

And then we waited for him to return in Japan, an event he long-ago committed to with an eye more on corporate responsibilities than birdies and bogeys. Even Woods admitted that expectations were modest, given what he had endured, and the lack of preparation time.

The week began not with "The Challenge: Japan Skins'' but with a corporate day at a Nike store in Tokyo, where Woods spent hours talking to Japanese kids, giving clinics and playing games. The following day came the skins competition, where Woods exhibited some major signs of rust. The following day was rained out, so that was one less opportunity to prepare.

When the tournament began, Woods hit his opening tee shot in the water -- and proceeded to make three straight bogeys. And then it changed. Woods made nine birdies to shoot 64. He made seven more in the second round -- after the Typhoon diversion -- to shoot another 64. A 66 in the third round gave him a 3-shot lead, a position from which he has never failed in 25 opportunities.

"His ball striking was a joke,'' said U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, who played the final 36 holes with Woods. "I pride myself on being a pretty good ball striker, but his distance control was something I've never seen. His misses are all in the right spots. He didn't hit the ball left for two days. When you have a one-way miss you can be aggressive. And then his speed control with his putting.

"He looked like the best player in the world. It was impressive to watch, pretty special.''

Woods is now ranked sixth in the world, and seems a near certainty to pick himself for his own U.S. Presidents Cup team, which will be preceded by the Hero World Challenge. He has some time again to decompress and work his way back into form before those events, and then he can set his sights again on preparing for the Masters early in 2020.

None of that seemed possible prior to the Zozo Championship, a tournament where Woods produced 27 birdies and tied Snead's record. It was supposed to be another struggle, but instead it was a remarkable triumph.

"It's satisfying to dig my way out of it and figure out a way,'' Woods said. "There were some hard times trying to figure it out, but I've come back with different games over the years, moving patterns, and this one's been obviously the most challenging.

"Then having another procedure a couple months ago and again coming back and winning an event, not easy to do.''

Not at all.