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?”
Tiger Woods is hoping to find the missing piece of the jigsaw at Shinnecock Hills to claim a first win since his latest comeback and end a 10-year victory drought in the majors.
Woods won the last of his 14 major titles at the 2008 US Open but has not played in the event since 2015, when he shot rounds of 80 and 76 at Chambers Bay.
The 42-year-old played just four times in the following two seasons due to a career-threatening back injury and off-course problems, but underwent spinal fusion surgery in April 2017 and has missed just one cut in nine events in 2018.
Chances to win his 80th PGA Tour title have so far gone begging, but Woods knows he is fortunate to simply be competing at the highest level again given the amount of knee and back injuries he has suffered in recent years.
“I had no expectation to think I could actually be here again,” Woods said. “This time last year I was just given the okay to start walking again.
“It was about just having my standard of life. Forget golf. Could I participate in my kids’ lives again? That was the main goal, being able to play again was a bonus.
“A lot of this is a pure bonus because of where I was. To be here is a great feeling and one I don’t take for granted.
“I have given myself chances to win which I did not know I was ever going to do again, but also I’m not happy with the fact that I didn’t win.
“I had a chance at Valspar [finishing one behind Paul Casey], at Bay Hill I was rolling with a few holes to go [until driving out of bounds on the 70th hole].
“Golf is always frustrating. There’s always something that is not quite right and that’s why we have to make adjustments.
“Of the tournaments I’ve played in this year there’s been something missing; hopefully this is one of those weeks where I put it all together and we’ll see what happens.”
Woods is one of 20 players in the field who also contested the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills, when playing conditions meant 28 of the 66 players amazingly failed to break 80 in a final round which had to be halted in order to water the seventh green.
He also competed here in 1995 but said: “It has changed a lot from the two times I played it previously. It’s a lot longer, the fairways seem to be twice as wide. It’s a very different test.
“The greens are not quite up to speed but they are right where they want them to be and as it dries out it’s going to be another great US Open test.”
Another test could be the heavy traffic getting into the course, with Woods feeling one of his fellow competitors could even miss their scheduled tee time.
But Woods himself will not have any such issues after docking his multi-million dollar yacht at nearby Sag Harbor.
Woods joked: “Staying on the dinghy helps!”
Some journeys from official hotels west of the course have been taking up to two and a half hours and Woods added: “There’s a good chance someone might miss their time.
“You get a little traffic or a fender bender and it’s conceivable.”