ST. LOUIS – Brooks Koepka, winner of the 100th PGA Championship, made his way off the 18th green at Bellerive Country Club, scaled some stairs, turned a corner around the club pool and made his way to the scoring area, where Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler were awaiting him.
Woods, whose incredible 6-under 64 on Sunday had left him two shots short on this day, extended a smile and a handshake to his Florida neighbor. Koepka, who’d played behind Woods and Gary Woodland, looked at Woods, laughed, and said, “I HEARD it.”
So did everybody in this town, from the tourists at the downtown Gateway Arch to the Budweiser Clydesdales. A huge Sunday gallery didn’t cheer for Woods as much as they screamed at highest volumes for him, and punched the air, and willed him to find a way to make birdies. There was a sense that history might be on the table, with Woods chasing a major title for the first time in a decade, and their chips were pushed all in. Woods just kept feeding the hysteria.
In posting his lowest three consecutive rounds at a major (66-66-64) and lowest weekend score at a major (10-under 130) — as in ever — the 14-time major champion would finish second, his best showing at a major since his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship in 2009.
“It felt like a football atmosphere, in a good way,” said Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie. “My (19-year-old) son is out here, and he saw me on one hole and said, ‘Dad, this is so loud. This has to pump you up.’ And it does. The last time it’s been like this? It’s been a while."
This time one year ago, Woods had concerns that he’d ever play on the PGA Tour again after he’d undergone a back fusion, the fourth time he was forced to rehab from back surgery. But he has come a long, long way in a relatively short amount of time. And once again, he has shown that he’s ready to make some noise on golf’s biggest stages.
"Yeah, I think, other than me, (and) my team, everybody was rooting for Tiger," said Koepka, the two-time U.S. Open winner who secured his third major title. "I mean, as they should. He's probably ... he's the greatest player to ever play the game, and to have the comeback that he's having is incredible."
Woods led at Carnoustie with eight holes to play last month (he lost his lead by going double-bogey, bogey), and at the PGA, following a horrific start (3-over through two holes), he worked his way high up onto the leaderboard over the weekend and stayed there. He has had only one year to accumulate 2018 Ryder Cup points, so he wasn’t among the top eight who earned spots on the U.S. team on Sunday. But Woods, already signed on to be an assistant captain, may need to expand his role. Captain Jim Furyk still has four players to add to his team, and it would be shocking if Woods wasn't chosen.
“I have to think he’ll get heavy consideration,” LaCava said.
Woods struggled in his warmup on Sunday and failed to hit a single fairway on his opening nine. But here lies the magic of Tiger: He still, somehow, shot 3-under 32. He yanked a tee shot on the 439-yard, uphill 9th, then hit a sweeping 9-iron draw off packed-down mud to 11 feet, running in the putt to get to 11-under. Despite hitting only five of 14 fairways all day, Woods managed to make eight birdies to offset a pair of bogeys. Whereas he’d faltered down the stretch earlier this season at such places as Bay Hill and Carnoustie, he kept charging on a course that was giving up birdies, making four over his final seven holes. At the final hole, he hit a pedestrian approach from 122 yards that stopped 20 feet below the flagstick. But after stalking the putt from all angles, he stood over it and delivered one last seismic jolt.
As the birdie putt tumbled in, he took a hard swing through the air with his right fist and yelled into the early evening air. It was quite a finish to a day that was filled past the brim with positive energy.
“Making that putt at least gave me a chance,” Woods said.
One hole earlier, Woods made a terrific par save at the 597-yard 17th hole after narrowly missing the brook along the right side with yet another errant drive. He slashed out his second shot, found the front left bunker from 234 yards in three, hit the bunker shot to 10 feet and converted the par save to stay at 13-under. Unfortunately, before his par putt dropped, the leaderboard over Woods' shoulder updated the score of Koepka, who’d birdied two more holes, to 16-under.
Woods certainly had a few shots he’d like to have back, among them a terrible iron off the tee into the juicy right rough at the innocuous par-4 14th that led to bogey, as well as that way-right drive on 17, which needed to find the fairway. He knew he was in for a tough battle before he reached the first tee.
LaCava looked back to a few putts that Woods missed on Saturday afternoon that might otherwise have lifted him into the final pairing with Koepka. ("If that happens, maybe things are different," he said.) And there were some bad breaks, too. Woods hit laser iron approaches into the greens at Nos. 6 and 7 that bounded through the green (he’d bogey the par-3 sixth from a downhill bunker lie). He also had a 15-footer for par spin out hard along the right edge on the 14th.
“I didn't drive it good all day,” Woods said. “I was struggling with my golf swing. I warmed up hitting it left, I was hitting it right with every single club, even my sand wedge I wasn't doing very good. So I knew this was going to be a struggle to try and piece together a round, and I did.”
Yes, he did, and the masses who followed his every movement relished every second. It was hot, and Woods turned up the heat. Sure, the course was soft and conducive to scoring this week, but this was the old Tiger, and little boys watching atop their fathers’ shoulders will always remember what they saw.
Woods had ducked into a players’ port-a-john off the ninth tee to rid himself of a soaked shirt, changing from his Sunday solid red to stripes. You’d think he’d returned from a phone booth wearing a Superman cape. His numbers weren’t the type that would produce such a low score: Five fairways. Eleven greens. A few tee shots barely stayed on the map.
“He just kind of ho-hummed 64 today,” said Woodland, who had a front-row seat. “Could have shot a lot."
A lot. There is no stat for sheer fight and determination. Woods would have led the field in that. He has changed the conversation from "will" he ever win again to "when" it will happen. Sunday at Bellerive, he had the look of a guy who might make his 80th PGA Tour victory happen soon.
“I didn't know when I was going to start this year and how many tournaments I was going to play, how well I was going to play,” Woods said. “I didn't know what swing I was going to use, either. I'm in uncharted territory, because no one's ever had a fused spine hitting it like I'm hitting it. So I had to kind of figure this out on my own and it's been really hard. It's a lot harder than people think.
“I’m just very pleased at what I've done so far, and now to be part of the Ryder Cup conversation, going from where I've come from to now in the last year, it's been pretty cool.”
In the summer heat of the 100th PGA in St. Louis, the Tiger Woods Show was pretty cool, indeed. And darn near historic.
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