Tiger Won Something Major This Week, But Not the PGA Championship

Josh Briggs Opinion, Players Leave a Comment

Since the cataclysmic events of that Thanksgiving week in 2009—in which Tiger Woods’ indiscretions were revealed to an unknowing world—the career achievements of Woods have seemed frozen in time: 14 major championship wins, 79 PGA TOUR wins, and seven Ryder Cup appearances.  And with each passing year, those accomplishments appeared less likely to change.

A cumulative four knee surgeries and four back surgeries—including the 2018 fusion of his L5 and S1 vertebrae—have demonstrated that Tiger’s decade-long ascent to greatness had left him a physically broken man.

Tiger Woods reacts to his tee shot and knee injury during the final…

Tiger Woods reacts to his tee shot and knee injury during the final round of the 108th U.S. Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Course on June 15, 2008 in San Diego, California. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

Mentally, Tiger Woods has known darkness as well.  Beyond the 2009 infidelity scandal that shattered his public image, eroded his marriage to Elin Nordegren, and decimated corporate sponsorships, Tiger has since experienced numerous public humiliations on the golf course, including: a second-round 82 at the Phoenix Open, an opening round of 80 in the 2015 US Open, and three missed cuts at majors in 2015.  Perhaps the darkest moment was his second round of the 2015 Memorial Tournament, in which Tiger carded six bogeys, two double bogeys, and a quadruple bogey en-route to shooting a career-worst round of 85—on a course in which he had won five times.  Following his round, the man who was ranked world #1 for 683 weeks—longer than anyone else in history—admitted that “I didn’t want to have anyone watch me play.”

We didn’t want to watch either, Tiger.

When it appeared certain that Tiger’s professional career was over—and his personal situation surely couldn’t deteriorate any more—the darkness in Woods’ private life darkened a shade deeper.  Following an unexpected reaction to prescription medication, Tiger was arrested in 2017 for driving under the influence with five different painkillers in his system.  Once a larger-than-life figure who graced global media with images of Sunday fist-pumps and back-nine birdies, Tiger now watched as his mugshot and arrest video were publicized to the world.  Longtime devotees, once optimistic for a glorious comeback to golf, now asked themselves: would Tiger even survive this hardship?

As recently as one year ago, at the 2017 Presidents Cup at Liberty National Country Club, questions again emerged pertaining to Wood’s health.  In a press conference following the United States’ dominant 19-11 victory, Tiger was asked by a reporter: could you envision a scenario in which you will never come back to competitive golf?

 “Yeah, definitely,” Woods replied without hesitation. “I don’t know what the future holds for me.”

Serving as a vice-captain all week, Tiger admitted that the competition reignited his burning desire to play competitively again, but simultaneously confessed that his presence at the event was initially in question—citing severe back pain following his fourth surgery.  “There were times when…I didn’t know if I was going to be able to be here because I couldn’t ride in a cart.  The bounding just hurt too much.  Driving a car still hurt.”

Once on track to become the greatest golfer of all time, Woods now struggled through a life of constant physical pain.  At the champions dinner for the 2017 Masters, Tiger reportedly told a fellow champion that “I’m done [playing golf competitively].”

Tiger Woods career appeared over, now a drama to be replayed only in the history books and never again on live television.

Then came the 2018 PGA Championship.

Entering the final day four shots behind leader Brooks Koepka—and following a T6 finish at The Open Championship—Woods appeared poised to make a Sunday charge and claim his fifteenth major championship.  After narrowly missing a birdie putt on the first hole, Tiger rifled his approach at the par-4 second to five feet and secured his first birdie of the day.

At the par-3 third, Bellerive’s easiest hole, Tiger created one of the largest roars of the week by nearly holing his tee-shot. He settled for a tap-in birdie and solo possession of second-place.

Could the comeback truly be happening?

At the par-4 ninth, after missing every fairway on the front nine, Tiger again pulled his driver left off the tee, leaving himself with a blind second shot to the green.  Surrounded by patrons, Tiger hooked the ball around the obstruction, and offered a club twirl for the ages.

Surely, we thought, he would miss the following fifteen-foot birdie putt, demonstrating again the putting-yips that have so frequently plagued this comeback.  Could he truly reverse the clock, returning us again to the days—before the scandals, before the indiscretions and apologies and darkness—in which he triumphed on so many Sunday final rounds, delivering passionate fist pumps while clad in red?

He could, indeed.

The ball vanished into the cup, and for a moment that ninth green was enveloped in a roar that echoed so poignantly of those that characterized his earlier years.  With another fist pump, Tiger Woods propelled his name up that Sunday leaderboard, but also launched us into the past…to brighter days when there were no limits to his abilities or achievements—why not 20 majors? Why not 30?—and for a moment we were transported back to 1997, to the 12-shot Masters victory…to 2000, and the brilliance of the Tiger Slam…to 2005, and that historic fourth green jacket won in a playoff over Chris DiMarco.

If our feelings of that moment had remained the same over so many years, had anything changed at all?  But, somehow, this Tiger Woods was different, a more human version.  As he walked off that ninth green, he smiled wryly, genuinely enjoying himself, offering a high-five to any young golf fan fortunate enough to walk within his reach.  He was no longer the stony, aloof, distant hero who graced so many fairways of the 90’s and 2000’s.  No longer an inhuman paragon of the game, he had become more human, more relatable.

But Tiger was back, was he not?  As his name climbed the leaderboard, for a moment claiming solo second place, we were transported into the past.  For a moment it was as though the previous decade of personal strife, trial, and darkness was forgotten—or had it ever happened?

After saving par at the difficult par-4 tenth hole, Tiger placed his approach at the par-4 eleventh twenty-five feet beyond the flagstick—creating a challenging downhill putt for an unlikely birdie.

Tiger struck the ball, which rolled to the cup on a line that appeared perfect, until slowing down before halting on the absolute edge of the hole.  Gasps of shock and astonishment enveloped that eleventh green, with Tiger himself falling to his knees in disbelief.  Seconds passed, and still the ball flirted with the edge, seemingly levitating in midair—and even the slightest touch of wind, or the lightest exhalation of human breath—would send it plummeting beneath the earth.  But who in that gallery had an exhalation left to give, when Tiger himself had stolen our collective breath away?

Still Tiger waited, hoping for gravity to finish the job that he had so impeccably began—but still the ball clung to terra firma, seemingly floating, hanging above the cup in a cruel display which would have puzzled even Isaac Newton. For a fleeting second, the scene echoed of that distant memory of the 2005 Masters, the duel with Chris DiMarco, and the chip on Augusta’s 16thgreen that stopped on the last rotation before plummeting itself into the cup and forever into golf’s collective consciousness.  “In your life have you seen anything like that?” commentator Verne Lundquist had shouted, and for a moment this day—now thirteen years later—it seemed that history would repeat itself, that we would again be witnesses to the exhilarating narrative which Tiger was writing.  Even Verne was again present on the broadcast, ready to convey for us the astonishment of the scene before him.

Then, the moment passed.

Tiger Woods of the United States reacts on the 11th green during the…

Tiger Woods of the United States reacts on the 11th green during the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club on August 12, 2018 in St Louis, Missouri. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

Tiger tapped in for par, disappointed.  Then, something unusual happened—a scene which we would never have witnessed from the Tiger Woods of ten years ago, brilliant and dominant though he was.  Walking off that green, discouraged by the failed birdie attempt and with the knowledge that he was trailing the leaders with limited time remaining, Tiger smiled.  A smile of genuine contentment, of gratitude, even of happiness.  Having survived the dark depths of his public downfall, had Tiger truly changed?  Had his aloof and distant on-course demeanor—one which had intimidated so many opponents with its unwavering steeliness—finally softened?

After following with a birdie on the par-4 twelfth hole, Tiger struck an iron to nine feet at the par-3 thirteenth, leaving a birdie putt which would have placed him only one stroke behind leader Brooks Koepka. With an emphatic putter raise, Tiger rolled the ball into the cup.

Following a narrowly-missed par save at the par-4 fourteenth, Tiger now needed to mount a legendary run on the final four holes. At the par-4 fifteenth, Woods struck an approach shot whose roars sounded across the golf course.

After nearly holing from the fairway for an unlikely eagle, it seemed certain that this late Sunday charge would end in a victory—how could it not?  This performance—if it resulted in a triumph—would ascend itself into the highest echelons of golf’s lore.  It was a comeback part-Hogan and part-Nicklaus.  Hogan, after all, overcame the aftermath of a 1949 car accident that double-fractured his pelvis, nearly claimed his life, and was all but certain to end his hall of fame golfing career.

Merely a year after his dramatic accident, however, Hogan claimed the 1950 United States Open at Merion Country Club in a playoff over Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio.  Considering the four back surgeries, four knee surgeries, and fused spine with which Tiger Woods now played golf, would a victorious comeback be equal to Hogan’s, if not superior?

And Nicklaus, the man to whom Tiger has so long been compared: would his victory in the 1986 Masters at the age of 46—after not winning a major for six years—be merely a footnote in golfing history compared to the improbability of Tiger Woods ever winning a major championship again?  The roars of that St. Louis crowd reflected the moment’s significance, as fans realized and appreciated that they were witnessing something truly historic.

Needing a birdie at sixteen, Tiger settled for par. On to seventeen.

Standing on the seventeenth tee, trailing by two shots, Tiger needed the miraculous.  With leader Brooks Koepka still to play the par-5, only an eagle would suffice.

For several long moments, Tiger appraised his tee-shot on the dog-leg left seventeenth hole. All week, driving had been the Achilles heel of his game.  On the front nine that Sunday, Tiger missed every fairway.  In that moment of silence, as Tiger realized the gravity of the tee-shot he was about to strike, the tournament’s outcome seemed certain—after all, hadn’t we seen this act before?  Surely, he would send the ball whistling down the center of that tantalizing fairway, eagle the hole, and send his name not only to the top of the leaderboard but also transport us into the distant past, to the glory days.  But this Tiger Woods was different from the self-confident young man who won the 2000 US Open by fifteen shots.  This Tiger knows what it means to doubt, to be human, to wonder if the magnificence of the past can ever be rebuilt or even glimpsed again.

Tiger swung his club, a vicious slice, and knew immediately that it was over.

The ball soared right, to the hazard cradling the fairway’s right side.  Tiger would par the hole after laying up from the trees.

Walking up the eighteenth hole, knowing that his run for the championship was over, Tiger Woods received a thunderous ovation from the St. Louis crowd—a reception worthy of a champion.  Although he knew someone else would claim the 2018 PGA Championship, Woods offered one final gift to the enthusiastic fans who emboldened him all week: a birdie at the last to score a 64, his lowest final round in a major championship.

Moments later, as Tiger crossed the bridge from the eighteenth green to Bellerive’s clubhouse, the fans reciprocated, demonstrating by the thousands their gratitude to a hero long-since thought lost.

After more than ten years, golf’s prodigal son had returned in a major championship, broken down by his hardships and yet now whole in ways in which he never was before.  Walking off that eighteenth green, knowing that he wouldn’t win, Tiger smiled as the player who won 14-major championships never would have.  Tiger waited by the clubhouse to congratulate champion Brooks Koepka on his victory, sharing a laugh with the man who had bested him.  In a way, this defeat was far more revealing into the mindset of Tiger Woods than a victory would have been.

In his press-conference, Tiger spoke not of his disappointment or bereavement, but of his gratitude.  “These fans were so positive all week.  I can’t thank them enough for what they were saying out there and what it meant to me as a player, just coming back and trying to win major championships.  I didn’t know if I was going to ever play golf again.”  On a softer note, he also spoke of his two kids starting school in a few weeks.  “They’re interested in starting school and they’re nervous about starting school. So that takes more precedence than me playing in a major.”

“I’m from where I was to where I’m at now,” Woods explained. “I’m blessed.”

Faced with defeat, Woods counted his blessings, accepted his short-comings, offered one final Sunday fist pump, and did something that “vintage” Tiger never would have done: he smiled.

A lesson for us all.

Tiger Woods of the United States reacts after making a putt for…

Tiger Woods of the United States reacts after making a putt for birdie on the 18th green during the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club on August 12, 2018 in St Louis,… Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

Cover Image via Instagram

About Josh Briggs

Joshua Briggs is a 2017 graduate of Hope College in Michigan, USA. Having played golf for all his life, he enjoys writing articles that chronicle the memorable and exciting stories of the game he loves. His favorite golfer (all-time) is Ben Crenshaw, and his favorite golf movie is The Greatest Game Ever Played.

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