POTOMAC, Md. — The day was hot. The gallery was hot. The player-host was hot. Tiger's caddie, Joe LaCava, was carrying three towels, one reserved for his boss's head and arms. Nothing, though, was going to cool off Woods's inner burn.
Tee-to-green, he was vintage Tiger, one flush iron after another, long ones from the many elevated tees, short ones from the fairways. His putts looked for all the world like they were going to go in, but hole after hole they did not. How much can one man take? After a three-footer on 14 failed to drop, Woods half dragged that new TaylorMade of his on the 50-yard walk to the 15th tee. What a beautiful sight. After all these years, the man still cares.
Woods was never going to win this last-call Quicken Loans National at TPC Avenal, on a piece of land singularly ill-suited to the creation of a walking course. Not with Francesco Molinari, the 54-hole leader, shooting a Sunday 62. (Sounds like somebody we used to know.) Woods finished 10 shots back, and in a tie for fourth. In 2000 — the whole of 2000, likely the greatest season any player has ever had — every putt Woods hit that looked like it could go in did go in. They do not fall for him as they once did. Every golfer in the world over 40 knows what that's all about. It's just that Tiger's golf gets a little more attention.
It's been hot and dry in Scotland and a fortnight from now Woods may find the conditions at Carnoustie very similar to the conditions he played in at Hoylake, when he won the Open there in 2006 on a brown blanket of a course, clubbing the ancient links to death with a series of irons, for tee shots, for approach shots, for running chips. After his round on Sunday, Woods spoke briefly about how difficult Carnoustie is, and how much it requires good driving. When he gets there he may find Frank (his driver headcover) has a very quiet week.
Anyway, it cannot be as hot there as it was here. Poor Woods — and this is a statement really on his extraordinary fitness in combination with the black pants, black hat and black T-shirt he was wearing under his red shirt on Sunday — had sweat pouring out of his face as he did during his post-round standup interview with a small group of reporters.
One particular droplet had the gall to gather at the bottom of his chin and just stay there. There's not another golfer like him. More than any other player on Tour, he just looks and carries himself like … an athlete. The words are vintage Tiger: "It's been warm over there," Woods said, referring to the country where this whole crazy thing began. "Hence, grass will probably grow." Indeed, it will!
About a half-hour later, still in his Sunday uniform, Woods presided at the 18th green awards ceremony, before maybe 300 tired people, and praised the Italian Stallion on his stealth and excellent play. Woods has a soft spot for Europeans who play gutty golf. Frankie, for sure, who will be a headliner for the Europeans on their Ryder Cup team come September. Thomas Bjorn, the Ryder Cup captain. Jose-Maria Olazabal, a pro's pro lacking the quit gene. These are Tiger's people, far more than the American country-club kid who made it on Tour after four, or two, excellent years at State.
"The course was a challenge for everyone in the field — except for Francesco here," Woods said. He didn't use to have that move, the post-round bon mot. Millions of us have watched him grow up. For Woods, that's been a blessing and a curse.
He still cares. He cares so much it's a joke. He maybe cares too much. When his tee-shot on 13 with an iron made a cruel kick left and finished in the hay, Woods walked calmly to a recycling bin, moved his right fist toward its top like a hammer drop in slo-mo and let out a quiet, "F---."
You had to love it.
Are we telling the country's best young golfers who will gather at Baltusrol later this month for the U.S. Juniors to take a page from here? Of course not. What we're noting here is passion.
As Woods approached a tee, a young man in a white T-shirt and a backward cap, with tats up and down his left forearm, yelled out, "Love you, Tiger!" After a brief pause he added quietly, "So much." It was striking, the plaintiveness of it all.
The young fan identified himself as Danny Schmidt, 25, a resident of midtown Manhattan, an analyst at a New York hedge fund who played basketball at his prep school but is not much of a golfer. "He's someone to look up to," Schmidt said in a brief interview. "The way he deals with his losses. The money he's made." There's all that.
Once upon a time, any event Woods didn't win — and there have been hundreds and hundreds of them — was a loss. Those days are over. His T-4 here was not a loss. It was actually a sort of win. He played on Sunday with a young player, Bronson Burgoon, who played his way into the British Open, closing with a birdie on the last and a T-6 finish. Coming off the 18th green, Burgoon told his pregnant wife, "It was the best round of my life."
Afterward, Burgoon asked Woods for a quick series of phone snaps, four in all, with his wife, his caddie, himself and his buddy. Woods could not have been more accommodating. The new Tiger Woods. Burgoon said later, "I've never had a better playing partner."
The old Tiger was better at putting but less good at the post-round group snaps. He's having an interesting year, and golf's having an interesting year, and here comes the Open.