ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – The 150th Open Championship had come to a standstill, all of the attention on one man, as usual.
Spectators crammed onto the flat above the Old Course Shop. They huddled on the balcony of the Rusacks Hotel. They peered out dusty windows and gathered on the rooftop and stood shoulder to shoulder along the guardrail on The Links, all eyes on the Swilcan Bridge for what seemed like another memorable farewell.
Arnold Palmer posed in 1995.
It was Jack Nicklaus’ turn in 2005.
Tom Watson came next in 2015.
And now, surely, Tiger Woods would say goodbye, too, in what is almost certainly his final competitive appearance at the Old Course.
Woods chipped a 3-wood short and left of the 18th green, and then he took off for the Swilcan Bridge, walking as briskly as he had all week, putting on a brave face despite persistent pain that pulsed through his rebuilt right leg.
Caddie Joe LaCava hung back, letting his boss savor the moment, alone. So did Woods’ playing partners, Matt Fitzpatrick and Max Homa. Cameramen set up parallel to the bridge, hoping to capture another iconic image. The crowd in the grandstand rose for a standing ovation. But as ceremonial as his golf appeared this week at St. Andrews, it quickly became apparent that Woods wasn’t ready to fill that role. Not yet, anyway.
Glancing toward the Auld Grey Toon, Woods removed his cap and held it aloft as he crossed the bridge, slowing slightly but never stopping – the perfect metaphor for the limping legend who is close to the end, but not finished. The crowd roared around him. Having carefully navigated the final few steps with his metal spikes, he continued his determined march toward the green.
“You could feel the warmth and you could feel the people from both sides,” he said afterward, reliving the moment to a packed room of reporters. “It felt like the whole tournament was right there.”
Added Fitzpatrick: “It gave me goosebumps. It’s something that will live with me forever.”
On that 350-yard walk, reminders of Woods’ impact were everywhere.
In the same group was Homa, a Tiger disciple who described playing with Woods on Thursday as “the coolest freakin’ day I’ve ever had on a golf course” – and that was after Woods slumped to an opening 78 that equaled his highest-ever score to start an Open. Homa never stopped smiling despite missing the cut by one.
Strutting down the first fairway was Rory McIlroy, who for the past 15 years has been endlessly compared to his boyhood hero and now considers him a close friend. McIlroy tipped his cap in Woods’ direction.
Waiting on the first tee was Justin Thomas, a frequent practice-round partner whom Woods has called his “little brother.” Woods saluted him with a putter raise.
“The warmth and the ovation at 18, it got to me,” he said. “There’s something to it that’s just different.”
Only a few times in Woods’ career has he been overcome with emotion on the course. The 1997 Masters, when he collapsed into his father’s arms. The 2006 Open, when he sobbed after winning a few months after Earl’s death. The 2019 Masters, when his hard-fought comeback was complete. “I’m not one who gets very teary-eyed very often about anything,” he said. This moment didn’t register on that scale, but as he approached his ball near the 18th green, Woods became a bit misty, lowering his head from view and pinching the brim of his nose.
“Toward the end of it, you could see he was a little bit emotional as well,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was a big deal.”
Of course, the unfortunate reality is that aging sports stars rarely get to script a storybook ending, and not even Woods – if this was indeed his last St. Andrews Open – received the walk-off he richly deserved. With all of the cameras fixed on him, with tens of thousands of fans silent, with Thomas and the rest of the group on 1 turning around to watch, Woods’ 5-foot birdie putt harshly rimmed out. Grinding until the bitter end, he shook his head at another opportunity missed.
“We deserve him to have another crack at it,” McIlroy said hours later. “He’s got better than that in him.”
Afterward, Woods sounded reflective and appreciative while not overly sentimental. Maybe that’s because his poor play left him ahead of just seven players. Perhaps it was because of the uncertainty regarding his health. Or it could be that he's just going to try like hell to return. The R&A has only announced sites through 2025, but Woods twice mentioned 2030 as the next probable date for a St. Andrews Open. He’d be 54, with a fused back, a metal right leg and a battered psyche from an entire lifetime in the spotlight.
Reality set in. “I doubt if I’ll be competitive at this level,” he said.
Woods wasn’t competitive this week either, his 9-over 153 total marking the worst first two rounds of his Open career. He had circled this event for months and logged 58 holes of on-site preparation, but he was seemingly undone in the first few minutes of this historic major: His opening tee shot found a fresh divot, his approach plopped into the burn, and the watery double bogey set the tone on a day when he needed to hold it together on the back nine just to break 80. To some surprise, he had collapsed, not contended, and it offered a sobering reminder of his limited potential.
Less than a year and a half after his horrific car crash imperiled his career, Woods made the cut in two majors, but those mini-triumphs were more a testament to his grit than his golf; in nine major rounds this year he shot a combined 34 over par. At the moment, there is nothing to build toward. He said he has “nothing, zero” on his upcoming schedule.
Woods has often compared his competitive future to Ben Hogan’s after his near-fatal crash in 1949, but there are some notable differences with the major-heavy workloads. Woods is 10 years older, with a body he had already put through countless wars, and he’s competing against fields that are deeper and stronger than ever. When someone asked whether he would consider trying to play more lead-in events in 2023, so he could theoretically be sharper at the majors, Woods laughed and provided a grim assessment.
“I understand being more battle-hardened, but it’s hard just to walk and play 18 holes,” he said. “People have no idea what I have to go through and the hours of the work on the body, pre and post, each and every single day, to do what I just did. That’s what people don’t understand. They don’t see. And then you think about playing more events on top of that, it’s hard enough just to do what I did.”
That he even competed at all this week, Woods said, is “something I’m very proud of.”
Watching the scene unfold as he stood on the 18th tee, Jon Rahm didn’t realize that Woods was preparing for the possibility that this was his final time playing St. Andrews.
“Oh, I’m hoping this is not Tiger’s last,” Rahm said. “I’m hoping, somehow, he can get healthier and be back.”
Then he quickly computed when The Open might return. “It’s probably a few years too long,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes the effort just to play and do a proper goodbye.”
What proper looks like, no one knows. Woods clearly wasn’t interested in the ceremonial or the sentimental, not on this day. He’d rather have just made birdie.