Tiger Woods’s best shot all week was aimed at himself.
During the second round of the Memorial Tournament, Woods noted that he had shaved three strokes off his first-round scores on two of the par-5 holes. “That’s definitely the most improved award,” he said with a sly smile. “I get the plaque.”
Woods didn’t win the 2018 Memorial Tournament. That distinction belonged to Bryson DeChambeau, the 54-hole leader who closed with a one-under 71 at Muirfield Village Golf Club, then won a three-man playoff with an 11-foot birdie on the second extra hole.
DeChambeau, 24, tied at 15-under with Byeong Hun An (69) and Kyle Stanley (70). Woods, who started Sunday’s final round five strokes off the lead, posted an even-par 72 to finish six strokes back, in a tie for 23rd.
But if a Most Improved plaque had been awarded, Woods would have won in a rout.
After playing his first seven holes in four-over, Woods covered his final 65 in 13-under. A five-time winner of the event, Woods showed significant progress over his 71st-place showing in his last start here, in 2015 at a time when pain loomed as his stiffest opponent.
From 2014 to 2017, a bad back limited Woods to 19 starts, and in 10 of those he either missed the cut or withdrew. His best finish in the period was a tie for 10th. It was a far cry from his five-win season on the PGA Tour in 2013, during which his scoring average was 68.97 strokes before the cut and 70.80 on the weekend.
In nine official starts in his latest comeback, Woods has two top-five finishes, and has gotten better as the tournaments have unfolded. He is averaging 71.3 strokes the first two days and 69.56 after the initial cut.
Playing his way into contention on the weekends poses no problem, because through all the surgeries his competitive compass has remained true. “To me, that’s the easier part,” Woods said, adding, “I think it’s trying to get a feel for the start; just finding it and keeping it, it’s a little bit different now because my body is so different.”
In April 2017, Woods, 42, underwent a last-resort lumbar fusion operation, which involved replacing a disk with a bone graft, causing two vertebrae to grow together and eliminating the motion between them.
The one photograph that nobody got was of Woods making the uppercut motion that has become a signature of his victories. Mention the move to Woods and it conjures in his mind an image of his nine-year-old son, Charlie Axel.
“My son tries to do it, which is kind of funny,” Woods said. “And I keep showing him how to do it.”
It’s not something that is easily taught. How can Woods — or his son — replicate spontaneity? “Those are big moments where it’s a crescendo,” Woods said, adding, “It takes us three-and-a-half days or sometimes four days to get into a position where that moment happens. And it just comes out.”
The golf world will see that uppercut again. The 18-time major winner Jack Nicklaus, the Memorial Tournament host, is sure of it. Nicklaus predicted last week that Woods will challenge his all-time major championships record. “But whether he does or doesn’t, it doesn’t make any difference,” Nicklaus said. “He’s still a great athlete and a great golfer.”
Woods’s appearance on the leader board still makes his opponents’ hearts race. DeChambeau, who frequently plays practice rounds with Woods during tournament weeks, was asked if he hoped Sunday to have the chance to hold off a fast-charging Woods to win his second P.G.A. Tour title.