JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Deep in the bowels of the Liberty National clubhouse, nestled inside a room that serves as the club’s cart barn 51 weeks out of the year, is a makeshift hallway constructed solely for use during the first FedEx Cup Playoff event. Stretching some 25 feet and bordered by faux wood paneling, it leads to a scoring area on the right and an interview room on the left before spilling into a temporary caddie lounge.
Every competitor in the tournament must walk down this hallway upon completion of his round. It is the first specter of semi-privacy from spectators, the first opportunity to show true emotion away from the intrusive glare of the public.
This is where, at 5:17 p.m. on Sunday, Steve Williams stomped through in about four steps, finding Adam Scott relaxing on a couch after a final-round 66 had propped him into a share of The Barclays lead.
The caddie had already packed his player’s bag in hopes of making a quick exit, but now realized they needed to stick around for a while. Seconds later, he was hurriedly escorting Scott back the other way down that hallway as they headed toward the driving range in the optimistically fueled hope that there would be more golf left to be played.
Just before the door to the outside world closed, Williams could be heard saying, “If Justin doesn’t birdie …”
This is where, at 5:32 p.m., Justin Rose burst through that door and released a loud, guttural grunt while slamming his fist into the faux wood paneling.
Less than two minutes removed from racing a 25-foot birdie putt for the win past the final hole and missing the comebacker for par, Rose angrily took a right turn into the scoring area, signing a card that read 68 for the round, one number too large to force a playoff.
He then walked back across the hallway into the interview room, more composed now, and told reporters, “I'm not going to stand here and complain about it or whatever. I had to thread it through a couple spike marks I felt, but I aimed right-center, I had my head down and I felt like I put a reasonable roll on it, and it missed. I guess sometimes you can't do more than that. The error was putting myself in that situation. You're clearly a little bit nervous at that point and you really don't want to give yourself 5 feet coming back.”
This is where, at 5:51 p.m., Tiger Woods gingerly shuffled, stone-faced, appearing in more physical pain than any internal anguish caused by a final-round 69 that left him one shot shy of a playoff.
It was remarkable that he even had a chance. On the 13th hole, Woods pulled a shot into an algae-covered hazard and immediately fell to his knees. The lingering back pain which had afflicted him throughout the week made its cruelest impression at a crucial juncture. When he finally stood up and started walking again, it was unclear whether he was on a path toward where his ball had landed or if he was leaving the course because he couldn’t continue the round.
Not only did Woods continue, he followed bogeys on that hole and the 15th with birdies on 16 and 17. It left him, like Rose earlier, with a chance to make a putt on the final hole to force a playoff. Putting from off the back of the green, he rolled his ball on a perfect line, but it stopped a rotation or two short of the hole. After signing his card, he shuffled back down the hallway and out the door, telling a reporter, “You know, I was in the perfect spot and unfortunately just couldn't finish off the rest of the day.”
He then shuffled away, undoubtedly more worried about his back injury than failing to win an 80th career PGA Tour title.
This is where, at 6:07 p.m., Gary Woodland trudged through the door, hat askew, broad shoulders slumped, a deep sigh emanating from his mouth.
Just three weeks ago, the former college basketball player had solidified his full return from injury, winning the Reno-Tahoe Open. This, though, was a much bigger step in that progression. Facing a leaderboard brimming with elite-level talents, Woodland had withered at times during the day, but never wilted.
On the final hole, he flushed a 9-iron to 10 feet. Standing over a birdie putt to force a playoff, he heard a train whistle in the distance and stepped away, much to the delight of the zealous gallery. He stepped back up to the ball, whistle still sounding, and stroked the putt agonizingly past the hole.
Past the luxury suites and the first tee and a set of bleachers, Scott and Williams stood on the driving range, their preparation for the playoff halted as they watched Woodland’s miss on that final hole. The caddie removed his hat, hugged his player and they shook hands.
Less than an hour earlier, this scenario was so improbable that Scott’s bag was already packed away, ready to be shipped up to Boston. Even after he was handed the trophy, he still didn’t quite believe it.
“I’m shocked, really, that that was good enough to hold up,” he explained. “I mean, I feel like I've been given a bit of a gift, but I'll take it, that's for sure.”
Late on Sunday, as afternoon morphed into evening, Scott was the last player to walk through that hallway. Unlike all of his fellow contenders, he giddily strode through, smiling the entire time.