Historians will revere the 2018 men’s major season after they dissect wins by Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari.
Some years, players fall into major wins, as is their right for hovering on the leaderboard. But 2018’s champions clearly played the best golf and held off worthy, even incredible final-day challenges.
Their major wins also take on that much more weight with a healthy Tiger Woods in the field.
In the case of the British Open at Carnoustie and PGA Championship at Bellerive, Tiger played like the Tiger of old.
I’ll always treasure the privilege of watching Woods’ evolution this year, in part because even the most optimistic observer was having trouble envisioning a return to form after so many setbacks.
While he returned at Torrey Pines with the improved speed and pep in his step that we first saw at the 2017 Hero Challenge, Woods stopped flashing signs of brilliance and genuinely looked like a complete player again at Carnoustie.
Well documented was his wedge shot from a 10th hole fairway bunker right after taking the final-round lead. I got a good look at the lie and it was a clean one but also one where so much could go wrong. The slightest mis-hit destined for the burn short of the green.
“This is the one of most important shots he’s had in awhile, in a couple of years,” Johnny Miller said on NBC’s telecast. David Feherty was even more direct: “This is a crossroads right here.”
Woods played a magnificent shot, but I would contend that two moments before the 10th provided stronger signs that he was in a different sphere again.
The first came at the infamous par-5 sixth tee as Sunday’s 25-mph winds were strongest and players before Woods had been spraying tee shots, including a few out of bounds and a few almost to the next fairway. Everything about the shot in recent years would have led to Woods likely flailing one way out to the right and scrambling for par. Elevated tee box, wind in his face, high pressure, OB left and the overall awkwardness of Hogan’s Alley.
Instead, he calmly worked on his rhythm as he did much of the second half of 2018. It was a byproduct of his underrated effort to reclaim swing keys of his best moments.
On that final day at Carnoustie, as wind and absurdly firm conditions could make even the best players lose their cool, Woods appeared within himself and supremely confident in his ballstriking. His rhythm was so good he even looked like he was decelerating on his downswing instead of swinging recklessly.
At the sixth, a graceful swing sent his ball left of the centerline bunkers, only to feature the most beautiful knuckleball cut to the right.
The ball skirted the pot bunkers, took an odd bounce because of the spin, but left him in position to play an incredible 3-wood second shot that led to a two-putt birdie.
Maybe he hit it slightly off the heel, but his body language suggested it was precisely the shot he wanted to play. For a man who has hit his share of double-crosses in recent years — cut shots pulled left — the feeling had to be incredible.
The other telling moment occurred at the par-4 ninth as Woods now held the lead with Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele dropping shots.
All season, Tiger had been unusually aware of fan reactions and particularly the cheers of young children. He returned the admiration by throwing balls to the youngest fans and in general, doing what he’d long avoided: acknowledging fans during a round.
While his appreciation for the fans was beautiful to watch, his interaction also called into question whether the intense concentration necessary to reclaim some of his patented clutch abilities could ever come back.
Down the ninth hole’s left side stood Woods’s children, his small entourage and de facto swing coach and longtime friend Rob McNamara.
Tiger had played a conservative 2-iron off the tee and as he approached his ball, Sam and Charlie yelled out “let’s go dad.”
Woods never looked and appeared to not hear them. This, even though he was no more than 40 yards away, downwind at the far point of the course where crowds were smallest. He wasn’t ignoring them. Tiger was in “the zone” or whatever you call that place elite golfers find themselves where the only audible voices are caddies and confident thoughts.
For the second hole in a row, Woods went on to scramble for par and ultimately his Open hopes were dashed by Molinari’s mistake-free round, and a greedy wedge recovery attempt at the par-4 11th green that produced a double bogey.
Woods will undoubtedly rue the missed opportunity at the British. But he also left Carnoustie knowing he had been put through the most severe test imaginable and came out of it remembering the feeling of playing golf like Tiger Woods.