ST. LOUIS — At 5:06 p.m. Sunday, as Tiger Woods walked to the 17th tee box at Bellerive Country Club, just one shot back of the lead at the 100th PGA Championship, some fans said screw it.
Marshals on the hole had pulled their rope tight, just not tight enough. As one fan pushed on the white woven rope, it dropped to the ground, and like a dam springing a leak, a stream of spectators sprinted over it. “You can’t stop us!” shouted four bros leading the charge. The group — five dozen or so strong — had been freed from the west side of the hole, which meant they could now position themselves on the east side. That’s where Tiger Woods was about to continue his seemingly quite attainable quest for a 15th major.
Less nimble family-types followed in the bros’ wake, but the repositioning of fans wasn’t just happening on the 17th hole. Pro-Woods movements were happening all around, including along the neighboring 9th fairway, back toward the 10th green. Like a magnet, the charging Woods (who was now 13 under) pulled fans toward him. Quickly after the prison break, the now-flustered marshal tightened the rope again, reinstating some relative decorum to the proceedings.
“It felt a little bit like a football atmosphere,” Woods’s caddie, Joe LaCava, said after the round. “You know, in a good way. People were jacked up.”
Yes, they were. The St. Louis faithful, who hadn’t witnessed a PGA Tour event in their town in nearly a decade, who had never seen the great Tiger Woods play a competitive round on their home turf, and who hadn’t witnessed a major at Bellerive since 1992, saw a vintage performance by one of the game’s greatest players. So yeah, the sprinting was understandable.
“I think, other than me and my team, everybody was rooting for Tiger,” said public enemy No. 1 Brooks Koepka. “I mean, as they should.”
Tens of thousands lined the 17th and 18th holes as Woods came in. Fans on 18 were glued to a digital board offering short blips of the CBS broadcast. Fans on 17 watched from a distance as Woods flew his drive into the hazard right of the 17th fairway. When a ball-spotter found his Bridgestone, a marshal peered in to check out the lie. Feeling an obligation to the fans, the marshal flashed a thumbs up. They roared. Tiger was Not. Done. Yet.
Woods reached this point by grinding through a myriad of missed fairways Sunday. He played the entire front nine without once finding the short grass, yet somehow made four birdies and shot 32. LaCava had received a text earlier this week saying, “Man, your guy is the ultimate grinder.”
It’s true, and it’s one of the most redeeming qualities Woods displays when you follow him in person. As he walked to play his second shot on 17 — his tee ball had luckily avoided the creek — the masses chanted: “Let’s-go-Ti-ger [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap].” This wasn’t a PGA, it was a one-man Ryder Cup.
Woods hacked his way out of the rough and launched a long-iron into the greenside bunker. His last best birdie chance was slipping away. When Woods’s bunker shot rolled out to nine feet, it wasn’t the miss that caused fans to sigh, it was the red-colored 16 that appeared on the scoreboard behind him: another birdie for Koepka.
Woods coolly saved his par. More roars. The blonde lady handling scoreboard duties threw both hands in the air before apologizing to her fellow volunteers. She wasn’t planning on getting caught up in the excitement, but here she was.
“It was awesome,” said Woods’s playing partner Gary Woodland. “In that atmosphere, there’s nothing like it, the energy in that place was unbelievable.” Woodland gutted out a par of his own on 17 and a 72-hole score of 10 under, his best career finish in a major. He was far from the only pro enjoying it. “No matter what hole you were on, you knew what Tiger did,” Adam Scott said. “It’s a really fun atmosphere to be in.”
“Being a part of that as a fan is cool, and even when you’re playing, it’s still pretty neat,” Koepka said. “It kind of pushes you to step up your game. I mean, you have to because you know he’s right there if you fall.”
Koepka said he’d never seen this many people at a tournament. Francesco Molinari agreed. St. Louis showed up, and then some. As Woods stuck his tee into the ground on the 18th, a fan scaled a fence and perched himself on top of it, one leg on each side. Another man stood on top a ladder. Beyond him was another fan, recording with his phone from the back step of a semi-truck. The scene was so captivating, so anticipatory, that fans used their phones to capture the reactions of other fans.
Earlier in the day, a group of local buddies promised themselves they’d leave after nine holes to go watch at a local pub. TV offers a better view anyway, they thought. But there they were, at 5:30 p.m., lining the 18th fairway. Like everyone else, they couldn’t take their eyes off the guy in red. Even Michael Phelps, one of the greatest athletes of all time, had pushed himself inside the ropes to steal a glimpse. More than 300 miles away, at Wrigley Field, they were tuning in, too.
In front of all the fans St. Louis could muster, Woods hit his approach at the last to 19 feet. By then, it was clear his heroics had come up just short. Major No. 15 would have to wait.
Nearby, on the 10th tee box, marshal Randy Ochs sat in a lawn chair. He had seen the PGA bring in extra marshals to aid Woods’s group on the back nine. He had seen police arrive on the scene to clear fans from an unsafe viewing situation. When Woods made his birdie putt on 18 to post 14 under, Ochs snapped a memorable picture and sent it to his wife.
“I guess it was worth the week’s worth of sweat,” she texted back.
Was it ever. Ochs was pleased. Marshaling the 10th hole, he got plenty close to Woods all week. He could have made his way much closer on 18 but the lawn chair was good living. He’s a St. Louis guy, tried and true, and was bothered early in the week by how St. Louis’s major course was being badmouthed. Golf Channel wasn’t doing it justice in his eyes, and he felt the city was being reflected poorly as a golf town because of it.
As Tiger trekked back to the clubhouse, he flashed thumbs-ups and waved to the adoring throngs. As he strolled across the bridge 20 feet above them, they stared up and cheered as if he were royalty. Which, of course, on this day he was. Woods earned another ovation from Bellerive members and their guests on the clubhouse balcony.
‘The fans all got their money’s worth in the end,” Ochs said. “Don’t you think?”
That much was hard to argue.
With Woods’s round complete, many fans around 18 began filing out, completely satisfied with what they had witnessed, and seemingly uninterested in the soon-to-be PGA champion who was marching up the fairway.