Tiger Woods admits contending at the Open felt just like the old days and was delighted his two children finally got to see what all the fuss was about.
Woods held the outright lead at Carnoustie heading into his back nine, as he looked to end his decade-long major drought, but dropped three shots in two holes and he never regained the momentum.
The 14-time major winner eventually finished three shots behind eventual champion Francesco Molinari.
However, swept along by a massive gallery cheering his every move, this was the biggest indication yet since returning from a fourth back operation that Woods can compete at the highest level again.
Daughter Sam, aged 11, and son Charlie, nine, were too young to see their dad in his pomp but they greeted him with a hug behind the 18th green.
“I told them I tried, and I said ‘hopefully you’re proud of your pops for trying as hard as I did’,” he said.
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 22, 2018
“It’s pretty emotional because they gave me some pretty significant hugs and squeezes there.
“I know that they know how much this championship means to me and how much it feels good to be back playing again.
“To me, it’s just so special to have them aware because I’ve won a lot of golf tournaments in my career, but they don’t remember any of them.
“The only thing they’ve seen is my struggles and the pain I was going through. Now they just want to go play soccer with me so that’s just such a great feeling.”
The 42-year-old’s hopes of a remarkable comeback after a turbulent spell in his life – during which he has encountered off-course problems with the break-up of his marriage and a run-in with the law – were alive and well on the back nine.
He had the outright lead at seven under as he turned but dropped three shots in two holes at the 11th and 12th and never recovered his momentum, eventually finishing three shots behind Molinari.
“It didn’t feel any different. I’ve done it so many different ways,” he added.
“It felt great to be a part of the mix and build my way into the championship. Today was a day that I had a great opportunity.
“It was a blast. I was saying earlier that I need to try and keep it in perspective because, at the beginning of the year, if they’d have said you’re playing the Open Championship I would have said I’d be very lucky to do that.”
Woods was annoyed with his slip-up after the turn but insists he would not do it differently, although he was less impressed with a spectator shouting from a hospitality box at the top of his backswing on the 18th tee.
“I flinched, but I’ve had things like that happen a lot in my career with people who just tried to time it,” he said.
“Unfortunately, that’s part of what we have to deal with in today’s game. People are trying to yell out things to try to be on TV or be on social media or whatever it may be. That was too close to the game of play.
“But I’m a little ticked off at myself for sure. I had a chance starting that back nine to do something and I didn’t do it.”
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It sure was nice to see that familiar red in the mix at the end of a Sunday again, wasn’t it?
Maybe he’s back or maybe he isn’t, it’s always difficult to know with him. It’s probably safe to say the old Tiger – he of 14 major championships and a dominance that was unrivaled in the sport’s history – will never be seen again.
But as long as that question can be asked, golf will savour every moment of it, as it did on Sunday when all eyes were on the American as he not only reminded us of his unquestioned talent, but also refreshed our memory of what the experience is like to see him compete in the final stages of a major.
Woods started the day at -5 under, four shots off the lead. That in itself was a promising sign for a player who struggled to even walk during his recovery from a back injury for much of last year. Just watching Tiger in with a chance on the final day was must-see TV, considering he hadn’t finished better than 17th (2015 Masters) at a major in five years.
That he actually held the outright lead on Sunday – his first in a major since the 2009 PGA Championship – and went into the back nine atop the leaderboard, set alarm bells ringing. To get there, he had a bogey-less front nine, just as he had in the third round on Saturday, to look like the Tiger that used to own Sundays with regularity.
But that’s where the dream died. Just when it appeared the stars had aligned for one of the best sports stories of the year, Woods frustratingly fell apart. As encouraging as his front nine was, his final nine holes were equally as maddening as he exhibited the same uneven play that has plagued him throughout this decade.
After a par on the 10th, Woods required six shots to finish off the 385-yard 11th, resulting in his first double bogey of the week.
Another bogey on the 12th all but ended his hopes for a win as, just like that, excitement gave way to disappointment.
Fittingly, his final hole of the tournament encapsulated the entire Tiger experience at the Open. During his tee shot, a fan yelled out and Woods was not happy. Just as furious, however, was every golf fan, and not necessarily because it violated the sanctity of the game, but because it felt like everyone was pulling for Woods to claim victory.
Tiger still recovered well to set up a birdie putt that would have earned him a top-five finish, but missed to settle for par – a fizzle of a finish to an otherwise intoxicating performance.
The end result would have been nice, but as the saying goes, Woods’ weekend was about the journey, not the destination. Even in his heyday, he didn’t win every single time, even though it felt like it.
As long as he’s contending in the biggest tournaments, golf is better for it. Especially from an American perspective, the attention of the casual fan is more dependent on Tiger’s form than anything else.
It’s not as if the game has died during Woods’ absence. There’s been no shortage of emerging talent among American golfers and someone like Jordan Spieth especially has helped fill the void, winning three majors and finishing second in two more since the start of 2015.
But Tiger is a different animal and the galvanising effect he has on golf fans is something that can’t be matched and maybe never will.
So yes, we don’t know if Tiger is back or if he’s here to stay. That the possibility even exists in 2018 though, is something the sport won’t take for granted.
Woods has not played the Open since missing the cut at St Andrews in 2015 but his remarkable recovery from spinal fusion surgery means the 42-year-old’s bid for a fourth Claret Jug cannot be overlooked.
And the omens may well be in his favour considering five of the past seven Open champions have been 39 or older, while the dry conditions at Carnoustie are reminiscent of Royal Liverpool in 2006.
Woods famously used his driver just once all week at Hoylake, led the field in fairways hit and won his third Open title a month after missing the cut in the US Open, as he did this year at Shinnecock Hills.
The former world number one has won the Masters and US PGA four times and his last major victory was the 2008 US Open, but asked if the Open was his best chance for more silverware, Woods said: “As far as long term, certainly I would say yes because you don’t have to be long to play on a links golf course.”
Aside from the victories by Darren Clarke, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson and Henrik Stenson, Tom Watson famously lost a play-off for the 2009 Open at the age of 59, while 53-year-old Greg Norman led after 54 holes in 2008 before finishing third.
“Look at what Tom did at Turnberry. Greg was there at Birkdale. So it’s possible. It certainly can be done,” Woods added.
“You get to places like Augusta National, where it’s just a big ballpark, and the golf course outgrows you unfortunately. That’s just the way it goes. But a links-style golf course, you can roll the ball.
“I hit a three iron on the 18th that went 333 yards. Even if I get a little bit older, I can still chase some wood or a long club down there and hit the ball the same distance.
“Distance becomes a moot point but creativity plays such an important role and you’ve got guys like Tom playing late in his career, doing well. There’s a reason he won five of these [Open Championships]. He’s very creative and hit all the shots.”
Woods was seventh in the Open at Carnoustie in 1999 and 12th in 2007, while he also has fond memories of experiencing links golf for the first time when he played the course in the 1995 Scottish Open as an amateur.
Since returning to action following that make-or-break surgery last April, Woods has recorded three top-10 finishes in 11 PGA Tour events, finishing second to Paul Casey in the Valspar Championship and fifth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he crucially drove out of bounds on the 70th hole.
“Each tournament I keep coming back to I keep feeling a little better because I’m starting to play some golf again,” Woods added. “I feel like I have a better understanding of my game and my body and my swing, much more so than I did at Augusta.
“That’s just going to come with a little bit more experience and I think that I’ve made a few adjustments, as you’ve seen so far.
“I’ve changed putters. I’ve tweaked my swing a little bit since the west coast swing. And everything’s got just a little bit better.
“I’ve put myself up there in contention a couple times. Just need to play some cleaner golf, and who knows?”