A bittersweet goodbye to the Old Course was a reminder of how much Woods has given us,
and how much has been lost along the way
By Alan Shipnuck
July 15, 2022
ST. ANDREWS — During the second round of the 1996 British Open, the young U.S. Amateur champion from California shot a scintillating 66. Golf would never be the same again. That was the day Tiger Woods proved to himself he could compete with the pros. Six weeks later came “Hello, world.” The legend has been growing ever since.
The Masters was where Woods displayed his firepower and, later, his resiliency. The U.S. Open would become a monument to his precision and grit. But it was the Open Championship that touched his soul. The linksland allowed Woods to access his artistry and intellect. A would-be historian ever since tacking Jack Nicklaus’s playing record above his bed as a wee lad, Woods became particularly smitten with the Old Course, where he summoned a defining performance in 2000. Five years later, Big Jack bid adieu to the Open at St. Andrews, and Woods has never forgotten the thunderous ovations that followed Nicklaus around the property.
For such a perfectionist, Woods has always had a Calvinist streak, which he boiled down to his catch-all catchphrase: “It is what it is.” He suffered the worst break of his playing career — but surely not his life — at the 2002 Open, when he had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to cross the ocean chasing the Grand Slam. He was only two shots off the lead through 36 holes at Muirfield, but on Saturday he got sent off into a hurricane. Woods never found his drive on the 1st hole and struggled to a soggy 81, the worst round of his career to that point. The next day, in a monumental showing of pride and professionalism, he dropped a 65 on Muirfield that tied for the low round of the day. It is what it is.
Owing to the pyrotechnics of his early win at the 1997 Masters, Woods was often mischaracterized as a freewheeling bomber. In fact, plodding, boring, cerebral golf is what gets his engine revving. The most underrated performance of his career is surely the 2006 Open Championship, when Hoylake was a burnt-out moonscape. Woods expertly dinked his way around, pulling driver only once across four days but producing long irons of such purity that nearly two decades later I can still close my eyes and summon their sound. In victory he was overcome with sobs, longing for a father who had left him two months earlier.
It has often been suggested that Woods’s path became more wayward without Earl around to guide him. Three years after Hoylake, all hell broke loose in Tiger’s life: tabloid infamy, sex addiction therapy, divorce, the police blotter, rehab for an addiction to painkillers, and a slew of back problems that brought him to his knees on the golf course. He would never be the same player he was before Thanksgiving 2009, and the void was felt most acutely at the Open Championship, where, incredibly, the game’s preeminent shotmaker would contend only twice more during what should have been his prime years. Rock bottom arrived in 2015 at his beloved St. Andrews, what Woods calls his favorite course in the world. He duffed his opening tee shot so badly that players gawked at the gouge in the earth as if it were the scene of a car crash. He missed the cut by a mile.
Woods slowly reconstituted himself, and in 2018 at a fiery Carnoustie, he summoned one final Open run. Straining for his first major championship victory in a decade, he seized the lead late on the front nine of the final round. But slowly, agonizingly, he gave it away. There is no setting in golf quite like the final green at the Open, ringed as it is with towering bleachers. Woods received a thunderous ovation coming up the last hole, as always. In 2015 — he had skipped the preceding two Opens due to back surgeries — the applause was tinged with melancholy, as fans came to terms with how much Woods had been diminished. The roar at Carnoustie was not about Woods’s illustrious past but the unexpected gift he had given the gallery.
Less than a year later Tiger climbed the mountain one more time, with his thrilling victory at the Masters. The hopes that this aging warrior would enjoy a wondrous final act were dashed in February 2021, when Woods smashed up his right leg in a single-car accident in Los Angeles. Something dark visited Woods on that Wednesday morning: At the time of his crash he was traveling an estimated 84 to 87 mph, more than double the speed limit in a residential area, and the car’s black box revealed that Woods kept stepping on the accelerator throughout the crash, and that the pressure applied to the pedal was 99 percent. We will never know the extent of the wounds to his psyche, but heavy metal made his leg functional again.
Throughout this season Woods had displayed an almost maniacal desire to return to competition. That he made the cut at the Masters and the PGA Championship deserves to be remembered among the most impressive accomplishments of an unparalleled career. But all along Woods was focused on St. Andrews. He believed in his heart he could contend on a flat course that is a much easier walk than Augusta National or Southern Hills. More to the point, the Old Course is a chessboard as much as a golf course. Woods has repeatedly broken his body, but this master tactician’s mind remains intact. In the run-up to the first round, he pushed himself harder than he has in years. Could he somehow summon one more performance for the ages?
The delicious anticipation lasted about 10 minutes into Woods’s first round, when he fatted his approach shot on the 1st hole into a burn that is rarely in play. (He had done the same thing in 2015, though at least this time he could blame having to play out of a divot … and, spuriously, into a gust of wind; in his prime Woods never made excuses, and he never would have missed short on a watery hole when he had all of Scotland long.) Woods never stopped trying during the first round, but his body betrayed him, with imprecise short irons and faulty lag putting and myriad maladies. He looked rusty in the extreme during a 78 that left him in 145th place. The only cure for play like that is tournament reps, but those now must be parceled out judiciously.
Still, Tiger has always had a way of warping our expectations. Overnight rain made the Old Course less fiery for the second round. If he could get off to a hot start, and get the putter working, maybe shoot a sixty-s… No. Woods flagged his approach on 3 but gave back that birdie on the next hole with an errant approach. He failed to birdie the par-5 5th, missing a 5-footer, and then foozled one out of the rough on number 6, leading to another bogey. The crowd went limp, and Woods became more inward. It was now a certainty he would miss the cut, setting up a 3-plus hour requiem.
By the time Woods arrived at the 18th tee, all of St. Andrews had gathered to see him off. He roped a 3-wood into the Valley of Sin and headed home. (Having recently been made an honorary member of the Royal & Ancient, he now has a locker within the stone fortress behind the 18th green.) As Woods walked toward the Swilcan Bridge, he suddenly became aware of how lonely it is at the top; the other players and caddies in his group had lingered by the tee, ceding him the stage. He marched down the rumpled fairway, tears welling. Sheila Walker, the great-great-granddaughter of Old Tom Morris, watched from the window of her second story apartment near the 18th green. Tweedy gents crowded the balcony of the R&A clubhouse. The vast grandstands shook. Rory McIlroy, walking down the adjoining 1st fairway, gave Woods a nod and a subtle tip of the cap, and something broke loose inside of Tiger. The tears tasted of more than salt: pride, regret, passion, wistfulness, willfulness. Woods vowed to try to keep playing the Open, but he will be in his mid-50s the next time the tournament returns to the Old Course. “It’s hard just to walk and play 18 holes,” he said after he finished. “People have no idea what I have to go through and the hours of work on the body, pre and post, each and every single day to do what I just did.” This was goodbye. Even he knew it.
Woods was determined to grind it out until the bitter end, and the crowd hushed as he approached his ball. St. Andrews is always bathed in sound, including the sodden chatter emanating from the pubs. Now seagulls could be heard shrieking. So could the evocative, faraway sounds of a bagpiper busking on North Street. It had become a blindingly bright afternoon, but just then the sun disappeared behind a puff of clouds and the temperature instantly dropped and suddenly it felt like Scotland again. U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick had driven his ball close to Woods’s and played first. On such a touch shot he normally employs a wedge but, feeling the magnitude of the moment, and knowing the whole world was watching, Fitzpatrick went for a safer play with a putter. Woods followed with a lovely shot to within three feet. The crowd roared again. But he missed the birdie putt, one more letdown during a bittersweet day. It is what it is.
Afterward, Woods talked movingly of the emotional goodbyes that Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer made from the Open. They were almost two decades older than Tiger is now, yet haler and heartier. That is the thrill and the tragedy of Woods’s career: He gave so much to the game, and to us, but it came at a steep cost. This Open was a chance to remember and celebrate, and to anguish. From all of St. Andrews: Goodbye, Tiger. Thank you. And Godspeed.