It looked like footage from the highlight reel: Steve Williams bounding to the 18th tee late on a major Sunday, the black Titleist bag bouncing on his broad back, Tiger Woods trailing him, measuring the wind with his eyes and the falling temperature with his cheeks.
But the Titleist bag, in his brilliant bachelor youth a central part of the Tiger Woods ensemble, belonged to Adam Scott, and Williams was caddying for the Aussie, with his swing from God, and not for the man he helped guide to 13 major championships. The giant scoreboard beside the green showed that Phil Mickelson was the leader in the house at three under par at this British Open at Muirfield, while Woods was five back and by that point playing only for pride.
Yes, Tiger Woods has won four times this year, and he's still the best player in the world. But he's not the man you once knew (or thought you once knew). Last Saturday night, when he trailed only one man on the leader board and was just two shots back in the oldest and grandest championship in all of golf, an event Woods has won three times, he was engaged in crazy talk. He said, "There's a bunch of guys who have a chance to win this tournament."
You wanted to shake him and scream, You're Tiger Woods — you don't talk about the other "guys" and their wing-and-a-prayer chances of winning a jug that carries the names Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods your own damn self!
His scores last week were 69, 71, 72 and 74. Not the chart the doctor wanted to see. In the 17 majors in which he has played since his epic one-legged U.S. Open win in 2008, Woods has nine top 10s. Tiger knows those numbers. He cites them. But the truth is that the life and times of Tiger Woods will not be counted in top 10 finishes. Not now. Not ever.
The end of 72 holes in any major is almost like the end of a religious holiday. (Name your favorite religion; Tiger is still wearing his Buddhist bracelets.) There's a moment there when the players, no matter where they have finished, let themselves go. Woods tapped in at the 18th, and then he and Williams, starting to heal the wounds of their unseemly 2011 divorce, had such a heartfelt handshake and mini chat that a Muirfield member in a double-breasted blazer, standing in the wings, actually mimed it for a fellow member.
Moments later, in the players' parking lot, Williams analyzed the state of Woods's game.
"Having seen him up close now three times in recent weeks, 36 holes at Merion and 18 here, everything looks good in his game and his swing," Williams said. "But the one thing that's missing is his old aggressiveness."
Before Y.E. Yang chased down Woods at the PGA Championship in August 2009, and before his personal life imploded three months later, aggressiveness was Woods's defining trait. Talent, intelligence, a work ethic — and an aggressiveness that would not quit. That was then. These days, at golf's most important events, that last trait has been AWOL.
On Sunday, at the short par-5 9th, Woods had a chip for eagle from a good lie. Back in the day, following his father's instructions to let the legend grow, he'd find a way to hole that shot, right? This shot was thinned, pulled and misread. The moment was his to own. He ground out his birdie there — as a grinder, Woods was his old impressive self last week — but he needed more. Meanwhile, Scott's birdie at the same hole gave him a piece of the lead. Williams cleared a path to the 10th tee.
There's nothing wrong with Tiger, except he doesn't own his weekend play at majors the way he once did.
Number 10, a par-4, was playing long, with the wind quartering in from the right. Scott drilled a drawing driver. Woods, suddenly only two back, followed with a cut three-wood from an open stance that was dead left from the second he hit it. Yes, driver might have brought bunkers into play. But this was a moment that was screaming for the old, aggressive Tiger Woods.
Of course, it's hard to be aggressive with a shot — the basic draw-shot driver — you haven't had much success with lately. Something's changed with Tiger. Before the fire hydrant episode, he could control everything. Now he cannot.
On the other end of the players' parking lot — a converted farm field, actually — Mark Steinberg, Woods's agent, and Joe LaCava, his caddie, were talking, an unofficial meeting of Tiger's tiny golf ops inner circle. The missing person was his instructor, Sean Foley.
Also missing, of course, was Tiger's most trusted adviser, his father, who died seven years ago. Williams was asked if Earl's imprint was missing from Tiger's game. The caddie said that whatever was missing, Tiger's mother, Tida, was providing. "I think Tiger gets incredible support from his mom," Williams said. "She's an inspiring person."
The Open was Woods's first tournament since the U.S. Open at Merion. He skipped his own event at Congressional, in between the two majors, as he rested a sore left elbow. Woods said he was fine last week, and he made hard, full swings out of the rough. He was walking with a slight hitch and, at times, a pained face, but no veteran golfer is ever feeling perfect.
He clearly enjoyed his Saturday pairing with Lee Westwood (who, by the way, has bested Tiger each of the last six times the two have been paired); his many sessions with reporters were uneventful; the spectators were respectful toward him. Fred Couples, who will be his Presidents Cup captain in October, came out to watch him finish on Sunday. His lady friend, the skier Lindsey Vonn, was around.
He and Westwood could spend a long weekend comparing notes on that subject, if either were inclined to do that sort of thing (not a chance). Westwood had a two-shot lead through 54 holes. On Sunday he was in the last twosome with Hunter Mahan, another player looking to win his first major, which was a positive for the Englishman. It was cool and windy and the course was very difficult — also positives for somebody who hits the ball as purely as Westwood does. He has had at least a handful of experiences where he has contended in majors. Another positive. Yet he didn't get it done.
He closed with a 75 to finish in a tie for third. He has made a pile of money. He lives large. He'll most likely wind up in the Hall of Fame. But Westwood is 40, and whether he will ever win a major is difficult to say. "I'm not too disappointed," said Westwood, now 0 for 62 when teeing it up at a major. "I don't really get disappointed with golf anymore." Those are words to which Tiger Woods cannot relate.
The ownership of ephemeral things is a funny business. Tiger used to own the tee box. He used to own his Saturday playing partner, and then his Sunday playing partner. (Last week he didn't.) He used to own the field and the course, reporters and rules officials, his practice sessions and practice rounds, his schedule and his time. Compromise, he no doubt is finding out, is part of middle age. Now, at 37, his life is more complicated. Welcome to middle age. Golf, as Tiger Woods played it through 2008, requires a ruthlessness that is almost inhuman, and maybe he has tired of it.
But maybe he hasn't.
When the 142nd British Open was all over, Woods was asked, essentially, to pay a compliment to the winner. "Given the conditions," he was asked, "how impressive is Phil's 66?"
"It's certainly gettable out there," Woods said. He then proceeded to give a 75-word answer that never, not even in a veiled way, referred to Phil Mickelson, Champion Golfer of the Year.
What a relief. The Tiger you thought you knew is still alive.