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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tiger Woods waves goodbye to St. Andrews, maybe for the last time

Tiger Woods gestures to the crowd on the 18th green at The 150th British Open at the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland on Friday.  (Tribune News Service)
By Chuck Culpepper Washington Post

SAINT ANDREWS, Scotland – They’re often esteemed as the world’s best golf fans, rich in knowledge and empathy and respect, so they made great droves in the sunshine along the closing holes Friday, to fete a guy at 7 over par. They saw his chip on No. 16 trickle villainously backward into a green-front bunker toward another double bogey, and they reeled out loud. They saw him knock in an 8-foot par at No. 17, and they made a good boomlet. They saw him walk toward No. 18 against a backdrop almost too pretty to be reality, and soon they’d outdo themselves.

Their ovation for Tiger Woods poured in from two grandstands and one road and achieved a status that ovations seldom do: sustained.

“It got to me,” Woods would say.

They kept it going as fate and a tee time put Rory McIlroy over at the No. 1 tee right then, and McIlroy tipped his cap.

“I had a few tears,” Woods would say.

They wondered about the British Open rota and when Saint Andrews might get another turn and whether that turn would come soon enough to include Woods after his four knee surgeries, five back surgeries and the harrowing car crash of February 2021 that shattered bones in his right leg and ankle.

“I’m not retiring from the game,” Woods would say.

He, at 46, just doesn’t know what his bones and joints and the foreign hardware in his leg might permit by age 54 or whenever the Open makes it back to this birthplace of golf, so he had himself a maybe of a farewell after his 78 of Thursday and his 75 of Friday and his missed cut at his favorite course in the world.

He made the quick steps from the No. 17 green to the No. 18 tee as everyone else tried to grasp and photograph the moment, and as some complained about others blocking their photographs, and then he had himself a moment deeply Woods-ian. “No, I was just thinking about a 5-wood or a 3-wood,” he said, because of course he did.

“And Fitzy’s over there having a conversation; ‘Is it a 7-wood or a 3-wood?’ ” he said of playing partner Matt Fitzpatrick. “I’m over here having a conversation whether it’s a 5-wood or a 3-wood.”

Then they all whacked and got going and walked right into the sentiment. They walked toward the backdrop with the R&A clubhouse (built in 1853) and the Hamilton Grand (1895) tucked in back, the row of stone buildings on the right side. They walked toward the famed little Swilcan Bridge, the stone testament to simplicity that gets grouchy golfers crying. Two playing partners and three caddies all stopped to let Woods cross alone over the Swilcan Burn just as shepherds and sheep did with the help of the bridge 700 years ago, even as they lacked 15 major titles including two on this course, the course not being here quite yet then.

“I felt the guys stop,” Woods said, “and I looked around, ‘Where the hell is Joey (LaCava, his caddie)?’ He stopped back there, so I gave him the club. That’s when I started to realize, Hey. That’s when I started thinking about, The next time it comes around here I might not be around.”

Twenty-seven years had gone since the Friday when Arnold Palmer closed his British Opens here, and a 19-year-old Woods felt lucky to see Palmer tee off as Woods headed toward the range. Palmer reached the bridge at age 65, waved his visor with his left hand, stepped up almost backward as he acknowledged the fans, switched the visor to the right hand, waved more and strode on down.

Seventeen years had gone since the Friday when Jack Nicklaus closed his British Opens here while a 29-year-old Woods played four holes behind and heard the roars, already with a lead he took after nine holes and would keep for the closing 63. Nicklaus reached the bridge at age 65, gave a thumbs-up to the crowd at the right, went up, put his left foot on the side for a moment, waved toward the audience.

Woods reached the bridge at 46, and walked right on over, because of course he did.

Besides, the parallel was inexact.

“I’ll be able to play future British Opens, yes, but eight years’ time, I doubt if I’ll be competitive at this level,” said a man once a good bet to be contending in his 50s. “It’s a struggle just playing the three events I played this year. That in itself was something I’m very proud of. I was able to play these three events, considering what has transpired.”

Those three events went nine rounds – four at the Masters, three at the PGA Championship in Oklahoma, two here. It meant the event he craved the most, this one, he wound up playing the least. He marveled again at how the course “can be played in so many different ways,” and paid homage to the Scottish weather: “Again today, we had winter this morning and summer this afternoon.” He said, “I fought hard. And unfortunately, I just could never turn it around. I struggled with the green speeds again today.”

But as he walked with the bridge behind, the world’s best golf fans had a balm for him, so they stood and let it build and let it stay going. “And then as I got into the shot – closer to the green, more into the hole – the ovation got louder and got – you could feel the warmth and you could feel the people from both sides,” he said. “Felt like the whole tournament was right there.”

“It gave me goose bumps,” Fitzpatrick said, perhaps a matter of contagion.

“The people knew,” Woods said, “that I wasn’t going to make the cut at the number I was. But the ovations got louder as I was coming home. And that to me was, it felt, just the respect. I’ve always respected this event. I’ve always respected the traditions of the game. I put my heart and soul into this event over the years.”

He said he has “zero” plans for the balance of the year. He reiterated that people can’t imagine the drudgery he underwent just to play nine big rounds. And he said his son might want to play here someday, so it’s lucky the father has an honorary membership to the R&A, even his own locker “when you walk in to the left here,” which he called “pretty neat.”

“And because of that,” he said, “I’m able to get a tee time.”