Tiger Woods didn’t stop crossing the Swilcan Bridge.
The stone bridge that crosses a thin burn at the 18th hole of St. Andrews has long been where legends like Nicklaus and Watson have stopped on their final journey, enjoying the stage and gallery appreciation . Woods took off his cap, put his hands up, slowed down…but didn’t stop. Do whatever you want with it.
Seconds later, as he came up the 18th fairway, emotion washed over him. He dabbed at his eyes as the tears flowed. On the nearby first fairway, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth – two of the players who took a measurement of his coat – watched him go. Could this be Woods’ last time playing a British Open at St. Andrews? He’s not even sure himself.
“I’ve been doing this since 1995,” Woods said. “I don’t know if I will be physically able to play another British Open here at St. Andrews. I definitely feel like I will be able to play more British Open, but I don’t know if I will be able to play when it comes back here.
At this point, the numbers don’t really matter. Woods comes home early. The red sweater will remain folded in his luggage. Galleries that would have followed him over the weekend will now scatter to chase McIlroy or Spieth or one of the many other non-Tigers who cruise in his wake.
Just for the record: Woods scored a +3 on Friday to go with a +6 on Thursday. He missed the cut by a mile on a benign day for scoring, a messy end to what had, until Thursday morning, been a delightful week for Woods.
For nearly a quarter of a century, the simple pop psychology explanation for why Woods won so many majors and Phil Mickelson hasn’t been that Woods was a ruthless killer and Mickelson was too nice. Where Woods kept an icy distance between himself and literally everyone — fans, media, fellow players — Mickelson was warm, engaging, signing autographs at every opportunity, smiling through life as Woods scowled.
This chiaroscuro dynamic was always too simplistic; Phil’s cheerful exterior hid a streak of ruthless competition, for one thing. But after seeing Woods in action (and inaction) this week at The Open Championship, it’s worth noting that, while Woods is now reveling in the love of the golf establishment, he’s now just l flickering shadow of itself on the course.
Granted, there’s a much more obvious explanation for Woods’ struggles: The man nearly died in a car crash in February 2021, and he’s still recovering from that disaster. But what’s fascinating is how Woods is apparently, at this late date in his career, finally coming to terms with the impending sunset. He reached the top of the mountain, but he made the trip practically alone. He seeks company on the return trip.
Woods spent his championship years regarding everyone around him with disdain, if not outright disgust. Now, he’s become close friends with many next-gen players. Justin Thomas even considers him an older brother. He tips his cap to the fans he once ignored. He offers thoughtful responses — well, non-canned responses, at least — at media rallies he would have previously skipped after terrible rounds like Thursday.
He enjoys the embrace of golf’s guardians, and he’s championing the game’s history and legacy even as LIV Golf increasingly encroaches into PGA Tour territory. This new inclusiveness may not win him any more tournaments, but it could give him some peace of mind. And then there was that final walk to 18, the emotion flowing more freely from him than perhaps ever on the course.
“The warmth and the ovation on 18, it touched me,” Woods said. “I felt [playing partners Matt Fitzpatrick and Max Homa] stop at the tee at 18, and it was just amazing, understanding and respect from everyone involved in this event.
Late Thursday afternoon, at the end of a six-hour lap, Woods had remounted 18 at St. Andrews to the cheers of the few remaining fans in attendance, their cries of “GO TOY-GAH!” echoing the yellow Open scoreboard and the imposing pavilion of the famed Royal & Ancient Golf Club. He had double-bogeyed his first hole on Thursday, and the day didn’t improve, as he finished the first round at +6. Despite everything, the fans cheered him, encouraged him, hoping for another miracle.
“All things considered, where I’ve been, I was hoping to be able to do this event this year,” Woods said Thursday night. “It’s always been on the schedule to hopefully be good enough to play there. And I am. And I just haven’t done a very good job.”
With not enough rest to allow his battered body to recuperate, Woods teeed off Friday morning at 4:58 a.m. EST and had a brief glimmer of hope when he birdied the third hole. But he immediately returned that to fourth, then bogeyed sixth and double-bogeyed 16th. With nothing to play for beyond pride, he worked his way around the course, eventually reaching the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole.
Woods insists he is not retiring but is unlikely to be able to play anything other than a ceremonial role when the Open returns to St. Andrews later this decade . It will be a memorable week for Woods, but 36 holes to forget.
Whenever and wherever he starts again, he hopes for a better result than the first two rounds of this Open. And since this is Tiger Woods we’re talking about, he might as well understand. If nothing else, he’ll enjoy every last swing.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.
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