Tiger Woods took off his cap just a few strides from Swilcan Bridge, knowing that Friday could be the last time he crosses a British Open at St. Andrews.
This is where legends stop, pose and say goodbye.
“Stop! Stop!” shouted a few photographers as they positioned themselves for another historic moment at the birthplace of golf.
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Woods kept walking, even when tears started to form in his eyes.
“That’s when I started to realize – that’s when I started to think – the next time it happens here, I might not be here” , Woods said.
He said it wouldn’t be his last British Open. Woods just doesn’t know if his 46-year-old body, battered by multiple surgeries on both legs and back, will be fit enough to compete when he returns to golf country. Woods mentioned 2030. The R&A didn’t announce the rotation that far.
However, the moment was not lost for him.
Woods greeted the thousands of fans in the stands on the left, and the thousands more who watched from hotel balconies and rooftops on the perimeter of the Old Course, some looking out of windows, others ticketless hanging on top of the fence on the road on the right side of the 18th fairway.
Rory McIlroy watched him from the first fairway – he was starting his second round as Woods finished a 75 to miss the cut – and tilted his cap. Justin Thomas was on the first tee and nodded at Woods.
“As I got closer to the green, the ovation got louder,” Woods said. “You could feel the heat and you could feel the people on both sides. I felt like the whole tournament was there.
Maybe that’s just as well.
It was there that Woods won his first Open in 2000 to become the youngest player to complete a career Grand Slam. He won another jug of Bordeaux at St. Andrews in 2005, the year Jack Nicklaus ended his major championship career.
No one has ever won an Open at St. Andrews three times, and Woods wasn’t about to change that. The only ceremonial thing for him was his golf – a 78 in the first round, only one birdie in the second round despite the more benign conditions of the week.
No matter. The Old Course, which had been relatively quiet all morning, came alive as it neared the finish.
“People knew I wasn’t going to make the cut,” Woods said. “But the ovations grew louder as I walked home. And that to me was… just respect. I have always respected this event. I have always respected the traditions of the game.
“I’ve put my heart and soul into this event over the years,” he said. “And I think people enjoyed my game.”
Woods gave them little to celebrate on what could be his last run at St. Andrews. He only had four reasonable birdie chances. His flop shot over a pot bunker guarding the pin before the 16, hit the top and fell back into the sand, leading to his third double bogey of the week.
At that time, it didn’t matter. People just wanted to see it.
After tearing up his practice on the Old Course Hotel sign and in the 17th fairway, hotel guests and spectators lined up against the wall in front of the hotel and the Jigger Inn. The stand was full behind the 17, and people stood six at the bottom of the space behind the road and the stands.
It was like when Nicklaus last played in 2005. He was 65 and had announced months later that it would be his last Open, his 166th and last major. Everyone knew it was coming.
Even Woods doesn’t know his future, only that he was grateful – and lucky – to play an Open on the Old Course just 17 months after crashing his car in Los Angeles and suffering so many broken bones that doctors considered an amputation on his right leg.
He headed for the 18th hole, the home hole. All he said he could think of was whether to hit 3 wood or 5 wood. But as he pulled off the tee and closed in on the deck, he realized his caddie, Joe LaCava, was trailing. So did Matt Fitzpatrick and Max Homa, who rode a shotgun for an emotional day involving the best golf player of their lives.
“It was amazing. It gave me goosebumps,” said Fitzpatrick, who won his first major tournament last month at the US Open. “You just have to look around, see all the everyone to stand up and give him a standing ovation on the way down 18. It was amazing. It’s something that will live with me forever.
“It’s totally deserved, and I think towards the end you could see that he was also a bit emotional. Yeah, that was a big deal.
Even Woods couldn’t deny it. He just wished he could write a better ending. He chipped with a mid-iron from about 4 feet out for one last birdie chance, a fitting farewell. Thomas, Shane Lowry and Viktor Hovland were on their second shots on the first hole. They all turned to watch Woods finish.
He missed the putt.
All that mattered to Woods was a standing ovation he won’t forget.
“It’s very emotional for me,” he said. “For me it felt like it could have been my last British Open here at St. Andrews. And the fans, the standing ovation and the warmth, it was an incredible feeling, I understand what Jack and Arnold (Palmer) have lived in the past. I felt a bit like that there at the end.
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