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Tiger Woods earned the 80th PGA Tour win of his career on Sunday by capturing the Tour Championship in Atlanta.
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Mark Wiedmer

You hear the words all the time: People don't change. They age. They may outwardly mature. But they rarely change to any great degree. At least not at their core.

But to watch Tiger Woods win a golf tournament for the first time in 1,876 days on Sunday — and not just any tournament, either, but the Tour Championship at Atlanta's venerable East Lake — was to witness a legendary 42-year-old athlete who seems to have changed at least a little bit. And much for the better.

No, he didn't quite break down in full-blown tears after the 80th PGA Tour win of his career. He somewhat kept his emotions in check, though — thankfully — far less than in the old days, when he never seemed completely human but rather robotic, or bionic, or whatever was less than human emotionally but far greater than any real human being athletically.

"It's been tough," he told NBC afterward. "Not so easy the last couple of years."

In truth, it's been a tough nine years for Woods, though much of it was of his own making. It was Thanksgiving 2009 when his wife, the mother of their two children, found out Woods was anything but honorable as a husband and father.

He apparently had more girlfriends than golf wins at that point, hard as that was to believe, and the fallout from those numerous indiscretions wrecked his carefully crafted public image before a series of serious injuries, mostly to his back, wrecked his otherworldly golf game.

As the years passed and the surgeries mounted — culminating in a spinal fusion of the L5 and S1 vertebrae — the notion that Woods might find a way to work his way back to the top, to add to his 14 majors, to be the untouchable Tiger of old, receded as steadily as his hairline.

He was done, even if he seemed to be the last to know it.

Only a year ago, PGA Tour veteran Peter Jacobsen said during Sunday's NBC broadcast, "Tiger was just being given permission to chip and putt."

But that's also the thing about world-class athletes. They so often find that reserve tank the rest of us never had. Think Peyton Manning not only throwing 55 touchdown passes after surgery on his neck, but also leading the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl win after the Indianapolis Colts thought he was finished.

Think former NHL great Mario Lemieux recovering from cancer well enough to win the Hart Trophy and the league scoring title. Think tennis star Roger Federer returning from knee surgery to win three majors after turning 35.

Then listen to this Tweet from the greatest golfer ever, Jack Nicklaus, early Sunday evening regarding Woods: "Never dreamed TigerWoods could come back and swing the way he has after surgery. I think you could argue he's swinging better than he has ever in his life. He has played fantastically!"

That's the physical miracle we all witnessed atop the timeless fairways of East Lake. That's the astonishing performance that led golfing great Johnny Miller, not always a Tiger fan, to say of His Stripeness: "He looks like he could win a lot more."

Yet that's not what was most memorable about this moment. It was the way Tiger seemed touched by it all after winning for the 24th time in 24 tries when entering the final round with at least a three-stroke lead, which was his advantage on the field after Saturday's third round.

It was what he said about the crowd, several thousand strong, all but swallowing him whole as he made his way up the 18th fairway, his lead two strokes, his win all but certain.

The old Tiger might have ordered security to keep the masses away from him. He surely would have ignored them, staring straight ahead, no sign of emotion on his face save perhaps a barely visible trace of annoyance.

This Tiger allowed a slight smile, a brief glance around, then the following comment, punctuated by an easy smile: "I just didn't want to get run over."

But by the time he chipped his ball out of a trap and onto the green, knowing two putts would officially deliver victory, "I started tearing up a bit," he said.

Then, "I can't believe I pulled this off."

He flashed another easy smile after that last statement, as if he really couldn't believe it. And to be fair, five years, four back surgeries, an arrest for driving under the influence of multiple pain killers, plus all those frustrating stops and starts — for a man who has often been the most famous athlete in the world — could quite understandably create disbelief.

"When I came out here," a playful Woods told ESPN, remembering his first PGA Tour win 22 years ago, "there was no internet."

When he first became a pro, he was filled with youthful confidence bordering on arrogance, forever scowling and prowling, his talent and drive able to make cowards of the rest of the PGA tour, especially on Sundays, his superstitious red shirt stopping any foe's rally in its track.

On Sunday at East Lake, a more mature, reflective, appreciative Woods talked about his first win in 1,876 days.

"It means a lot more to me now," he said, "because I didn't know if I'd ever be out here playing again, doing this again. It was a grind out there, but I loved every bit of it."

More than ever, perhaps, the rest of us loved watching every bit of it.

If it leads to this kinder, gentler Woods winning a lot more, all the better.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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