CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — There was nothing calm about the final round of the 147th Open. A hard wind was blowing off the North Sea, sending scores soaring, and the tension could be felt even on the driving range. Co-leader Jordan Spieth had a messy warm-up session, increasingly muttering to himself as he searched for answers. Ten minutes before he was due on the tee he still hadn’t hit any drivers. As the final groups teed off the fans were at full-throat. It was the final round of the Open and you could feel it in your gut.
Amidst all of this, one man was an island of tranquility: Tiger Woods. He smoothed a tee shot down the first fairway and, as the cheers cascaded around him, his face was impassive. If Rory struts down the fairway and Dufner saunters, Woods seemed to be on a conveyor belt, such was the economy of his motion. His presence on the leaderboard threatened to overwhelm the tournament but Woods seemed to disappear into himself, becoming as still and self-contained as the Buddhist monks his mother took him to pray with as a teenager. For two decades, moments like these have been his destiny. Whether Woods’s game would hold up under the pressure was an open question, but the serenity he exuded made it clear his emotions would not betray him.
On the first hole Tiger lost the chance to make a commanding statement, missing a 10-footer for birdie. He offered almost no reaction. On the second hole, he ran another birdie look three feet past the hole and, after knocking it in, snatched the ball out of the cup with a little extra oomph. That was the extent of how he betrayed his irritation at a misbehaving putter.
As Woods played on, the golf course seemed to tilt in his direction as fans streamed into his gallery. With every step he was serenaded by shouts of “TI-gaaaa!” but he sailed through the cacophony, unbothered. On the fourth hole Woods played two gorgeous shots through the wind and gutted the birdie putt. Carnoustie exploded, the internet melted, but Woods offered only a perfunctory nod. On the par-5 6th hole, Tiger made a textbook two-putt birdie. He hadn’t missed a shot yet. In the gallery, and on Twitter, the true believers dared to voice what had once seemed mere fantasy: This is happening.
All around Woods the Open began to go haywire. Spieth, as is his wont, hit a wild shot at the worst possible time, this time into the gorse on the sixth hole. Double bogey. Xander Schauffele foozled a ball in the rough on number 7 and made a double of his own. It was startling in its swiftness: Tiger Woods was leading the Open. The feeling in the air around Carnoustie wasn’t excitement, or awe. It was giddiness, and it was being felt across the golf world. Back in Florida, Woods’s former swing coach, Chris Como, was glued to the TV. “How cool is this?!” he texted, out of the blue.
To cheer for Woods now is to believe in the power of redemption. Over the last decade he’s been to hell and back: tabloid infamy, sex addiction therapy, divorce, the police blotter, rehab for an addiction to painkillers, and a slew of back problems that literally brought him to his knees on the golf course. In his heyday Woods was revered but never beloved. Now has reinvented himself as a vulnerable 42-year-old single dad eager for connection – with his fellow players and the fans. In the wake of his scandals he has reconnected with his Buddhist roots; the underpinning of that religion is gratitude. You could feel that in the air at Carnoustie: Woods grateful to be back where he belongs, the rest of us mesmerized to bear witness.
Over the phone, Como expanded on what he liked about Woods’s performance on the front nine. “I see a peacefulness and a focus,” Como said. “He just seems very comfortable with his body and where his game is at.”
But Woods remains a work in progress. He’s still learning to swing with a fused spinal cord, and the new jack putter in his bag is proof that many answers elude him. As soon as he summited the leaderboard his swing began to betray him—Woods had to save par out of the sand on 8 and 9. The tension was written on his face; the equanimity was gone and Tiger was now grimacing and muttering to himself. At the 10th hole, he drove into a pot bunker, and, hard against the lip, took an almighty lash with a wedge, sending his ball to the heavens. It trickled onto the green, maybe the most memorable shot of this comeback. Woods was adroitly walking a tightrope, but those inside the ropes still sense his fragility. It was noted among the Tour brotherhood when, in a dogfight at the Valspar, Woods capitulated on the 72nd hole, taking an iron off the tee when he needed a birdie on a long, hard par-4. On Sunday evening, Jordan Spieth relayed this exchange with caddie Michael Greller from the final round of this Open: “I looked up and I saw Tiger was leading solo, and…Michael was like, ‘He hasn’t been in this position in 10 years, and you’ve been here how many times in the last three years?'” Point taken.
On the tee of the par-4 11th Woods made a bad swing with a long-iron in his hand, pushing the drive into the right rough. He compounded the mistake by pulling his second shot well left of the green, on the short-side. Woods had acres of green to work with behind the flag but he tried to get too cute with his lob wedge, fluffing the chip short and having it roll back toward him, mockingly. It was not the kind of mistake a master tactician like Woods makes. He did well to get his next attempt to within eight feet of the cup. The coming bogey putt was now the defining moment of Woods’s championship. In the old days Tiger had a supernatural ability to will the ball into the cup. Reflecting on a long-ago do-or-die putt, Masters champ Mike Weir once said of Woods, “It’s almost like he believed it so much, he created it and manifested that it would happen. That’s probably what separated him more than anything else: his belief.” Woods hasn’t won a tournament in five years, a major in 10. Little by little, the belief has eroded. Back on Carnoustie’s 11th green, Woods was exposed: he missed his bogey putt, tumbling from the lead. Judging by the reaction on golf Twitter, it felt like Christmas had been cancelled.
Woods stomped to the 12th tee. Another iron, another errant drive into the rough, another bogey. The denouement was stunning in its suddenness. Woods banged in a 25-footer for birdie on 14 to give himself a glimmer but had to grind for pars coming in when he desperately needed birdies. He had one last gasp on the 72nd hole. Two strokes behind playing partner Molinari, he stuffed his approach to seven feet. It would have been cinematic if he forced Molinari into a bogey with the force of his personality, but Francesco refused to crack, putting his shot inside of Tiger’s. So the walk up the fairway was strictly ceremonial for Woods.
Still, there is no setting in golf quite like the final green at the Open, ringed as it is with towering bleachers. Woods received a thunderous ovation, as always. In recent years, like the missed cuts in 2018 and ’15 – he skipped the intervening Opens due to back surgeries – the applause was tinged with melancholy. This roar at Carnoustie was not about Woods’s illustrious past but the unexpected gift he had given the gallery on this day. But the great man had nothing left to give; the putt never had a chance, and his tournament was over. Outplayed in every facet of the game by Molinari, Woods finished tied for sixth, three shots back.
Behind the scoring trailer, his children and his girlfriend Erica Herman gathered, all in matching tomato-red attire. Sam Woods, 11, is nearly as tall as Herman, with a long ponytail and everpresent smile. Her brother Charlie, 9, is a little goofball who coaxed low-5s out of a couple of passing players. All week long Woods had spoken movingly about wanting to win for his kids, to show them who he used to be. When he finally made his way to Sam, she squeezed her dad hard. “Almost,” Tiger said softly. Next he wrapped Charlie in a great big hug. “I tried my hardest,” Tiger said. He wore a brave smile despite being, in his words, “a little ticked off at myself for sure.”
He led his entourage to the exit. It’s impossible to know where Woods goes from here. Only six months into an unprecedented comeback, this glimpse of former glory could accelerate Woods’s ascent. He’s proven he’s good enough to lead a major for 63 holes…what’s nine more? That’s the optimistic view. But what if getting his heart stomped on breaks Tiger? The loose shots, the missed pressure putts, the shattering of the calm—none of that augers well for the next time he is in contention. For those who would dare to doubt his father, Charlie Woods had a message emblazoned on his t-shirt: LOVE THE HATERS.