ST. LOUIS – Tiger Woods left it all on the course. He left a few shots that could have delivered his first major championship in 10 years out there, but a lot more than that too.
He pours his heart and soul into these performances, which is why so many thousands of people were scrambling to get as close as possible Sunday afternoon at the 100th PGA Championship. It’s why thundering roars rippled throughout Bellerive at every turn, and it’s why millions of others were glued to their TVs and firing off texts to friends they know feel exactly like they do.
Completely lost in the moment.
The only person appearing in total control in these moments is Woods himself.
He’s often asked about feeding off the crowds. How much these delirious spectators propelled him on days like Sunday, when he shot 6-under 64 to finish solo second behind Brooks Koepka. And that’s totally missing the point.
Woods doesn’t feed off the crowds. He can’t. It takes too much focus and self control to do what he does with a golf ball in the most pressure-packed situations imaginable, with absolutely no room for error.
Following Woods up close, it becomes clear that none of this is magical. It never was, despite how often the term is evoked to describe past heroics. It’s a draining process, the result of immense physical talent and an unmatched work ethic that allowed Woods to win 14 career majors in the first place.
After the season Woods has had, it’s clear that No. 15 is coming soon.
It’s been a magical experience for fans, but they haven’t had to put in any of the sweat equity. They just get to sit back and enjoy the results of this grueling, individual process.
“I had to kind of figure this out on my own, and it’s been really hard,” Woods said Sunday night. “It’s a lot harder than people think.”
That includes final-round playing partner Gary Woodland, a Kansas grad in Missouri territory who sparked back-and-forth chants of “M-I-Z … Z-O-U” and “Rock-Chalk-Jay-hawk,” in this supercharged round that broke every golf stereotype.
“He had a lot of putts that didn’t go in,” Woodland said. “64 looked pretty easy, to be honest.”
It wasn’t. But that’s how much Woods’ golf has improved since February, when he missed the cut in his second start back at the Genesis Open. He started this tournament 3 over through two holes, missed several putts by a ball dimple and still finished at 14-under 266 for the week.
Woods began Sunday’s round four strokes behind Koepka and knew he needed to post a number. That’s harder to do when you have no control off the tee.
Woods didn’t hit a single fairway on the front nine and shot 3-under 32. He said he was “struggling” with his golf swing all day, and he still had multiple chances to catch the back-to-back U.S. Open champion 14 years his junior and far longer and straighter off the tee.
“It’s tough to beat when the guy hits it 340 down the middle,” Woods said. “I played a practice round with him (Wednesday) and he was literally hitting it 340, 350 in the air. And when a guy’s doing that and hitting it straight and as good a putter as he is, it’s tough to beat.”
Woods is at his best when he needs to grind out a par, and it wasn’t that kind of day. Par wasn’t going to get it done. He was actually grinding out birdies, like at the par-5 eighth when he lost yet another tee shot left into the gallery.
The masses surrounded his ball as they always do, and while he’s been chatty with fans at times this year, cracking jokes and even signing autographs mid-practice round, he didn’t say a word. Couldn’t afford to lose sight of a 3-wood from the rough that needed to get somewhere near the green from a nasty spot.
While everyone around him is freaking out, scrambling to take pictures, putting kids on their shoulders, refusing to move back an inch, Woods locks eyes on his target and figures out how to get from point A to point B. It doesn’t look like fun.
He striped that 3-wood into a greenside bunker and got up and down for a tap-in birdie.
Everything kept building around him throughout the afternoon, more fans, more volume, more excitement. On the ninth tee box, everything was still. Woods was hard at work. He had an iron in his hands. He needed something from caddie Joe LaCava.
LaCava threw him a towel.
Woods wiped the sweat away and took a long look at the target.
Another big miss left.
He grabbed an extra red shirt off the tee box and disappeared in a fenced-off alcove near the green.
A huge cheer went up when he emerged and he walked alone toward his ball. Still steaming from the tee shot, he spiked the sweat-soaked shirt at his golf bag and returned to the grind.
He had fans breathing down his neck, this grouping even more unwilling to surrender real estate when asked. He had to draw something into a highly elevated green, taking slight wind into consideration.
It was dead quiet until Woods pulled off a best-case scenario shot, the ball curving perfectly toward the green and landing in the correct quadrant, leaving a straightforward 10-footer for birdie.
Woods drilled it and fist pumped, and that right there is the stuff that feeds the masses. That’s what golf has been missing in Woods’ absence. It’s not that other players can’t hit the same shots and rile up crowds, it’s just that more people care when Woods does it because he was the very best for so long.
He did it again at 15, finally from the fairway for once. He swung, we watched, and it landed inches from the cup. The fans went nuts again and Woods made a subtle, quick pump with his left arm. It looked like he was trying to propel himself to the finish line with three holes left.
“It was certainly more of a raucous atmosphere, which is great,” LaCava said. “Nobody’s rooting against anybody else, but they’re all certainly rooting for Tiger.”
He was still two shots back on the 17th tee, needing a birdie. In these moments he looks like he’s consciously controlling his breathing to stay focused.
Again the driver abandoned him and it was all over. Woods missed right and made par to remain 13 under, and a huge groan went up when a red 16 was placed next to Koepka’s name on the leaderboard almost simultaneously.
But it’s never over for Woods, and he made a 19-foot birdie putt on 18. Let it all out with another huge fist pump.
Very few people picked Woods going into the week, despite what they saw at the British Open. It was all about Firestone, a bad showing at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the idea that maybe he was hurt and out of sorts.
Weeks like Firestone (a respectable T-31, by the way) are inevitable for Woods. He’s 42 years old and four back surgeries deep, and the majors take so much out of him because he puts so much into them. He says this all the time, that the biggest part is recovery. How exhausted he was after Carnoustie. He’s often ignored because people just want to see him do what he did Sunday. They aren’t interested in the minutia.
“It’s been a hell of a process, for sure,” Woods said.
Woods is obsessed with the process because that’s what makes days like Sunday happen. With an offseason coming up and some time to really dig in on the new swing, it’s easy to believe we’ll see fewer mistakes like the drive at 17 or the double at Carnoustie come 2019.
Just sit back and get ready for more Sundays like this one. Woods will take care of the rest. Gwk