ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | For all of his brilliance, Tiger Woods has never done sentimentality particularly well.
Maybe it doesn’t come naturally to him, the way Jack Nicklaus has talked about playing through tears at poignant moments and the way Arnold Palmer buried his face in a sweaty towel when his U.S. Open career ended on a steamy Friday at Oakmont 28 years ago.
Maybe that’s why when Woods walked across the Swilcan Bridge mid-afternoon Friday with the Scottish sunshine on his shoulders as he played his final hole in this Open Championship, he paused and waved his cap but he didn’t linger.
He isn’t ready to say goodbye.
This moment felt more like thanks for the memories.
The reality is that Woods is unlikely ever to play another Open Championship at the Old Course, his self-proclaimed favorite layout in the world. He believes there are more Opens in his future, but it’s likely to be eight years before the championship returns here and Woods, who will be 54 then, doesn’t know whether his mangled right leg will allow him to play competitively that far down the line.
It was hard enough this time.
Woods talked about struggling with the slow putting surfaces, the bad breaks he got (he drove it into a divot hole on his opening tee shot Thursday, leading to a soul-shaking double bogey) and other reasons golfers find when their scores disappoint them.
The truth is, the game he once made look so easy has become harder for him than we may ever know.
The strand of gold weaving through his rounds of 78-75 is this: The numbers (four birdies, seven bogeys, three doubles) hardly mattered.
For a year or more, Woods pointed his recovery and rehabilitation program to this week. The Masters and the PGA Championship were bonus starts. This one came from the heart, and if he flew home to Florida disappointed by his performance, what came with it mattered more.
Asked whether he contemplated what might be his last competitive hole at the Old Course as he made the short walk from the 17th green to the 18th tee, Woods said he was trying to decide whether to hit a 3-wood or 5-wood off the tee. That’s Tiger, even if he was fudging a little about what was running through his mind.
If you know a wedge from a putter, you’re familiar with the images of Palmer and Nicklaus on the Swilcan Bridge for their last times. They stopped and posed.
Woods pulled off his white cap and looked around, but he kept walking.
“I understand what Jack and Arnold had gone through in the past. I was kind of feeling that way there at the end, and just the collective warmth and understanding,” Woods said later.
He felt a tug when he saw his friend Rory McIlroy on the adjacent first fairway. McIlroy tipped his cap in Woods’ direction, and Woods reciprocated as a grandstand stuffed with spectators along the right side of No. 1 cheered his march in.
Woods’ little brother, Justin Thomas, was on the first tee and offered a tipped-cap salute of his own. Woods loves being a part of their world as much as they love being a part of his. That’s where the sentimentality seeps in.
“I had a few tears,” Woods said.
The magic of the finishing hole at the Old Course is how it plays into the ancient town. It’s too short to challenge modern professionals, but somehow it still manages to vex them. In the Open Championship, the right side is crowded with spectators along Links Road and framed by a towering grandstand behind the green.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of the moment. At Rusacks Hotel, a crowd gathered along the edge of the new rooftop bar. Faces filled the windows of buildings along the road. At the Old Course Shop, shoppers paused to experience something that can’t be bought. The piper who plays on the corner beyond the 18th green throughout the day took a breath, and when the cheers stopped for Woods to play a shot, the quiet fell like a blanket over the place.
Woods gave himself a short birdie putt on the finishing hole and, after playing companions Matthew Fitzpatrick and Max Homa had finished, he studied his putt from both sides of the hole and leaned over the stroke.
He missed, his ball hooking around the left edge of the hole, and hundreds groaned. Superman stubbed his toe.
Then the cheers came again, from across the first fairway, from behind the green, from the people on the street and along the stone buildings. For believers in ghosts and spirits, St. Andrews is a spiritual place, and Friday was one of those days with more than a gentle breeze in the July air.
Woods pulled off his hat again and waved it toward every corner of the town and, in a sense, the game.Woods is not retiring, a point he made more than once this week, but he may never pass this way again.
If he does, Woods suggested Friday that it will be because his 13-year-old son, Charlie, wants to play the Old Course. Charlie’s dad is a newly minted honorary member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and likes his chances of getting a precious tee time in the future.
Woods doesn’t know when he will play another tournament.
“Nothing planned. Zero,” he said. “Maybe something next year. I don’t know. But nothing in the near future. This is it. I was just hoping to play this one event this year.”Life moves on, Woods said, and so will he, having made his own wish come true.
Top: Tiger Woods acknowledges the crowd – and, perhaps the passage of time – as he crosses the Swilcan Bridge. Photo: Stuart Franklin, R&A via Getty Images
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