ST. LOUIS — Tiger Woodsstrutting like a man who already knew that, over the next six hours, he was going to shoot a 64 in the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship and put a scare into 28-year-old Brooks Koepka.
Why else would a 42-year-old man rock a backwards hat and a pair of shades that made him look as if he was about to play the 5,300-yard course instead of the 7,300-yard one? Woods swaggered his way into the clubhouse with his TW logo out in front and the Nike check hidden, a reminder to eventual champion Kopeka that though they share a brand, only one of them gets his own logo on their apparel.
Two hours after his arrival, Woods made the trek to the first tee, perspiring like a golfer who had already finished what he came to achieve on Sunday. Caddie Joe LaCava had plenty of shirts packed away, though. Tiger would hit the refresh button several times over the ensuing four-hour roller coaster ride.
As we all strapped in for that ride and Woods hopped on one of the coaster carts, he introduced himself to the walking group scorers behind the first tee. I always laugh when he says, “Hello, I’m Tiger,” as if these people wouldn’t have paid five figures to have a front row seat to the best show of 2018.
Woods put his first three approach shots of the day to a combined 12 feet, 11 inches and walked off the third green at 10 under, squarely in the tournament. He played the next four in 1 over but birdied the eighth with a crisp up and down. Then came the ninth, the launching pad for all matter of histrionics on the second half of the course.
He pulled his tee shot and missed his seventh straight fairway on the front side. That’s, well, all of them. He did not hit a single fairway over the first nine holes. A shirt change in the portable bathroom behind the ninth tee gave fans and media time to gather around his ball, which was hung out to the left side of the hole next to the cart path.
When Woods walked up, I couldn’t even see him address his ball, and I was inside the ropes! The galleries were deep at Bellerive, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a golf tournament where the media were layered in rows as well.
LaCava dropped the bag and Woods’ sweaty shirt, which had seen three birdies in the first eight holes. His new one was about to be 1 for 1. Woods hit a ridiculous hooking iron, which he and LaCava hustled after as pandemonium broke out around them. It somehow stopped 10 feet from the cup, and Tiger punctuated the following putt and front-side 32 (four birdies, one bogey, all without a single hit fairway!) with a hearty, “F— yeah!” as he launched into the first of several right hooks over the final few holes of the event.
Whatever you imagine of when you think of the archetypal golf crowd — you know, the two-finger clapping and head nods and newspaper boy hats — this was the complete and utter opposite of that. There were marshals corralling kids from running onto the course, millennials scaling trees — presumably after searching “how to scale a tree” on YouTube — and fans of every age digitally recording living history on their $800 phones. For posterity, of course.
I witnessed a kid on his father’s shoulders (holding an iPhone with the record button on). I witnessed Michael Phelps chasing after Tiger inside the ropes, entranced by the entire moment. I witnessed hundreds of people running, hustling to see him for just a few seconds at a distance. You know how 20 years after a big event, 100 times the number of people who were actually in attendance claim they were there? When they speak of Bellerive on Sunday, they’ll all be telling the truth.
Tiger found his first fairway off the 10th tee but hit an ambivalent approach and two-putted for par. Another half-inch short on No. 11 led to another par. The hot front nine felt like it was being iced. The tournament teetered. But playing partner Gary Woodland broke the cup with his approach on No. 12, and after a lengthy delay, both golfers made birdie.
Then it started feeling historic.
Woods raised his putter to the sky and walked in a 10-footer on No. 13. A bogey on No. 14 was followed by an approach to 1 foot on No. 15 that would have caused an earthquake had it kept moving. Woods slammed his iron into the turf at Bellerive, presumably angered by the fact that it didn’t fall from 164 yards away. That was the moment that I wondered if this could really happen: A man with no back and no swing this time last August bagging his 15th major and taking down a stunning leaderboard more loaded than Koepka’s Saturday squat rack.
But then Woods missed a birdie on No. 16, and he lost the tournament on No. 17.
It felt all afternoon as if it would come down to the 597-yard, par-5 17th, and it did. After taking an inordinate amount of time on the tee and over the ball, Woods pushed his drive over the hazard to the right. He was dead there, and he knew it. He whipped his club around because he knew deep down – he always knows deep down — that it was over. Koepka kept thumping behind him, and the lead swelled to three before Tiger was done with the hole. He saved par.
Then he stood on the 72nd hole of a tournament that one year ago nobody would have thought he would play in (much less play at 13 under). It was somehow simultaneously thunderous and hushed. The silence and the noise. Woods hit his drive 320 yards.
After an approach to 19 feet — his 10th (!) birdie look from 21 feet or closer on the day despite only hitting five total fairways — Woods canned it and unleashed what felt like five years’ worth of fist pumps and roars.
He shot a 64. In the final round of a major. He went nine years and four back surgeries between top 10s at the PGA Championship. He played his first two holes of this tournament in 3 over and his next 70 in 17 under — in the best field of the season. Yes, it was as remarkable as it seemed on your television. The 6-under 64 he posted was also the lowest final round in a major of his career.
“This one I never quite got to the lead,” said Woods. “I was always trailing. It was a golf course in which I couldn’t sit still and make pars and be OK with it. I had to keep making birdies. … You could see guys shooting 5, 6 under par today, and with a bunch of guys around 8 under or better starting the day, I had to go get it and I tried.”
“He had a lot of putts that didn’t go in as well,” said Woodland. “Sixty-four looked pretty easy, to be honest. The energy in the crowd, that was the biggest crowd I’ve seen. He just kind of ho-hummed 64 today. Could have shot a lot [lower].”
My lasting images of this championship are two-fold. The first happened as Woods strolled off the 10th tee. He and Woodland talked as the heat beat down on them. Even though there were what felt like 100,000 people there, in that moment, you could have convinced me they were the only two on the property. Plumes of hamburger smoke punctured the thick Missouri air, and the entire thing reeked of something important. It sounds like a completely insane thing to say that something smelled important. But it did.
The other image is the fist pump on No. 18. Goodness, it took me back to my childhood. After Woods unveiled his complete arsenal of club twirls on Saturday, he followed suit with his signature fist pumps on Sunday. He showed them all. He stepped into the one on 18 and ripped through it. It reminded me that he was once young. So was I. We all were. And now none of us are as young as we used to be, but that doesn’t mean we’re worse for it.
It reminded me that Tiger has lived some life — some real life — with his growing children and aging, injured body. That humanizes even the most mammoth of superheroes. It reminded me that I’ve done the same. I’ve lived some life. The great and the awful but mostly the routine. When Tiger was unleashing with frequency and building a database of celebratory fist pumps that far outshone anything else in golf history combined, I was a kid. I don’t know if I was 19 or 14 or 12, but I was certainly a kid. Now I’m not. Neither is he.
It appears a Faustian bargain, getting older. You presumably gain many things — career, status, money — but lose your childlike wonder. And yet, Woods’ year and this part of his career reminds us that it’s not over. It reminds us that with time and age come perspective and wisdom. Prize them highly, some might say. They will change you.
They seem to have changed Woods. Watch him in that interview with CBS Sports’ Amanda Balionis. He appears choked up at the beginning. This meant a lot to him. He stuck around to congratulate Koepka. In what former world would that have ever happened?!
In the last two major appearances, Woods has both grappled withand encouraged them in their fear of going to school. What could possibly be more human?
“I don’t want to talk to them about [golf] this week,” said Woods. “They’re not really interested in it because they’re interested in starting school, and they’re nervous about starting school. So that takes far more precedence than me playing a major.”
As Woods dipped his fist seemingly back into time on that 72nd hole and exploded it into the present, it made me feel things. I bet it made you feel things, too. I know it made him feel things.
A half hour later, Koepka putted out for the victory as Woods did a mini media tour back near the clubhouse. The response from fans on the 18th green for Koepka’s third major win in his last six starts was not brusque as it was at the Masters for Patrick Reed. It was generous and sufficient.
But everyone in attendance and watching on television knew the truth. He did not finish with the lowest score. He did not raise the Wanamaker Trophy. But Tiger Woods won the 2018 PGA Championship.