ST. LOUIS—Somebody won the 100th PGA Championship and maybe we’ll write his name before we get done here, or maybe not. The only story is Tiger. As he once did, before it all went away, he owned us Sunday. We breathed only when he gave us permission. We didn’t look away, Tiger again in red, a reminder of all those triumphs on all those Sundays. We didn’t look away lest we miss a piece of the story he told us this time. A new story. A happier story, somehow, than all the others.
So he didn’t win. He wanted to win and he had a big chance and he scared the beejeezus out of guys who had never been that close to the Tiger flame. But do we care that somebody else won? We do not care even a little bit. It has been five years since Tiger won a tournament, 10 years since he won a major, and only he knows how long it has been since he felt like the player he once was. But there he was Sunday, making eight birdies, the last an exclamation point from 25 feet on the last hole, Tiger shooting his best major round ever, a 64, a tour de force that raised thunderous roars from the massive galleries that knew what they saw. They saw history, the second edition.
Even Tiger, or maybe especially Tiger, understood the moment. He has been to dark places. He made a mess of his personal life and he endured six, seven, eight surgeries to put his body together – a fused spine, a rebuilt knee – and he dragged himself to the range in search of a golf swing and not just any golf swing but one that Tiger Woods could take to a world doubting he’d ever have the guts or the game to show up again. Most telling, he has done it in a professional athlete’s old age, now 42, and whoever won this thing in St. Louis knows he’s a footnote in all the stories because here Tiger did what only Tiger could do.
Just last month, on a Sunday, with nine holes to play, he led the Open Championship before finishing sixth. Here he finished second, two shots back. Who can explain it? It’s as if Nolan Ryan took five years off and came back throwing heat, as if Joe Montana again won a Super Bowl, as if Michael Jordan ate LeBron for lunch. Even Tiger, or especially Tiger, understands what he has done here: “And so, at the beginning of the year, if you would say, yeah, I would have a legit chance to win the last two major championships, l’d say, ‘With what swing?’ I didn’t have a swing at the time. I had no speed….My short game wasn’t quite there yet. My putting was OK. But, God, I hadn’t played in two years. So it’s been a hell of a process.”
It was 3:59 p.m. Sunday when the process seemed to have turned back time. Tiger’s 22-foot putt at the 11th hole rolled straight and true toward the dead center of the cup. If it fell in, a birdie. If it fell, he would be two shots behind the leader, whose name was Brooks Koepka. (The footnote.) But the ball stopped rolling. It stopped at the absolute edge of the cup. Memory called up the videotape of Augusta, 2005, the 16th hole, that chip shot, Tiger’s chip shot stopping at the cup’s edge— stopping, dead stopping— until God’s breath, or something, caused it to teeter forward and fall in for a birdie that Tiger used to earn a playoff that he won.
This time, as Tiger stared at the ball stopped on the edge, as he walked around it giving it time to fall, waiting, maybe thinking he’d seen this act before – this time, 13 years later, it didn’t fall in.
Whatever has sustained Tiger in the time of his darkness, we may never know. But we know this much. He never gave up. He lost a shot at the 11th because a putt stopped when even the suggestion of rotation would have been enough for a birdie. And 39 minutes later, at the 15th, with a 9-iron from 164 yards, he dropped a shot to eight inches for his seventh birdie. He was within a shot of the leader, Koepka, and it was time to make a note, “Will K fold?”
At the 17th tee, one shot down, Woods might have put a chill on K. It’s a par-5, reachable, an eagle possibility. But Woods hit a tee shot that flew right, burying itself in a hazard. From there he chopped back into the fairway and settled for a par that ended his chances to win.
“I didn’t drive it good all day,” he said. “I was struggling with my golf swing. I warmed up hitting it left, and then I was hitting it right with every single club, even my sand wedge. I wasn’t doing very good. (He missed the first seven fairways.) So I knew this was going to be a struggle to try and piece together a round, and I did.”
Koepka never folded. He played the last 13 holes five-under par, without a bogey, and finished with a 66 that left him two shots up on Woods.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, Tiger Woods believed winning was the only thing that mattered. Today, because he seemed to love what he’d done, someone asked if he’d ever felt so good after losing.
“Not for a while, no,” he said.
Someone wondered what his daughter Sam, 10, and son, Charlie, 9, thought about their daddy’s work this week.
“I have no idea. … 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 in a major.”
A happy man.