CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – All around him on a windy summer day on the links of Carnoustie, the leaders were imploding as Tiger Woods moved into the lead at the turn. It felt like old times at the British Open, as familiar as his Sunday red shirt and the swarm of fans that cheered his every shot.
Then Woods imploded, too, and there’s something that’s become increasingly familiar about that.
If this was the Woods of 15 years ago, he likely would be “the champion golfer of the year,” as they say over here, and have his name on the Claret Jug a fourth time. The fans felt this could be the culmination of the comeback. Twitter told late-rising Americans to get to their screens, and fans at church services checked the scores from Scotland incredulously.
But what felt like old times for a brief moment ended up as just another collapse story, like the ones Woods’ fans have seen more recently.
Francesco Molinari, Woods’ partner on Sunday, won the tournament with no bogeys over the final 37 holes. Woods finished tied for sixth.
Woods flinched when it mattered most, the nerves of a 42-year-old on display for all to see. Just when he took the lead and everyone’s imagination began to swirl about what might be, he kicked away his best chance of breaking a decadelong drought in major championships.
Even a long hug from his two children afterward wasn’t enough to ease the sting.
“A little ticked off at myself, for sure,” Woods said. “I had a chance starting that back nine to do something, and I didn’t do it.”
Woods had the tournament in his hands after hitting a brilliant fairway bunker shot to make par on No. 10. He walked to the next tee with a one-shot lead.
Then his tee shot went right, and his second shot veered way left. Woods got a break by hitting someone in the gallery, but then left his pitch hanging precariously on the side of a pot bunker.
When he missed an 8-footer to make double bogey he was out of the lead. Another bogey on the next hole, and he was basically out of the tournament.
It used to be that Woods was steely and superhuman, and no one dared get in his way. Now he’s more of a nostalgia act teasing fans with sparks of his past greatness.
“He wouldn’t tell you, but he’s human,” Jordan Spieth said. “That kind of pressure that he would have felt leading the Open on a Sunday is no different than anybody else, especially having not experienced it for so long.”
Spieth had his own issues, of course, kicking away a share of the lead on his way to a fat 76 in the final round. But Spieth is a 24-year-old with three major titles and many years to get more.
Woods is in a race against time – and that’s a race no one ever seems to win.
“It didn’t feel any different,” he insisted. “It didn’t feel any different to be next to the lead and knowing what I need to do. I’ve done it so many different ways.”
But it was different, as different as his bald spot is to the full head of hair he had in his prime.
It wasn’t like the course wasn’t gettable. Molinari didn’t make a bogey on his way to a 69 while playing alongside Woods. A Brit named Eddie Pepperell shot 67 with a hangover to end up tied with him.
“Sometimes I have a few drinks,” said Pepperell, who finished as Woods was in the lead. “Tiger is minus-7, he didn’t have a drink last night, I bet. Proper athlete.”
Of that there is little doubt. Woods looks as strong as he did in his prime, even though he’s had surgeries, a sex-scandal, a divorce and a drug-related DUI.
But good muscles don’t mean calm nerves. And throughout his comeback year Woods has misfired every time he has gotten near contention.
It might be because there is so much as stake, despite a legacy from his earlier years that is already in golf’s record books.
Another major would have validated years of struggles. A tie for sixth means nothing.
Woods embraced his two children, telling them he hoped they were proud of him for trying hard. He spoke about it later, in a rare personal admission for a player who grew up as a celebrity and has fought hard to keep his privacy over the years.
“It’s pretty emotional because they gave me some pretty significant hugs there and squeezed,” Woods said. “I know that they know how much this championship means to me and how much it feels good to be back playing again. To me, it’s just so special to have them aware because I’ve won a lot of golf tournaments in my career, but they don’t remember any of them.”
It was a tender moment between a father and his kids, but also another reminder that Father Time waits for no one.
Not even Tiger Woods.
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