ST. LOUIS — Tiger Woods waited near the scoring area after posting his best final round in a major, ready to offer congratulations to the winner of the PGA Championship, Brooks Koepka — the man he could not reel in Sunday at Bellerive Country Club.
Koepka won his second major championship of the year, and Woods finished second for the ninth time in a major, but it was hard not to view the 14-time major champion in a positive light after he stirred the masses to the verge of hysteria.
“I could hear it,” Koepka said and smiled as Woods hugged him afterward, acknowledging just how boisterous it was up ahead as Woods was making eight birdies in a round of 64.
It didn’t bring a 15th major championship, and you can certainly quibble about the lost opportunities along the way.
But when you consider that 64 is Woods’ lowest final round, in his 80th major championship, and that his score of 266 is his lowest 72-hole total, it was an impressive performance.
Gary Woodland, who played with Woods in the final round, saw it up close.
“The ball flight, he controls it,” Woodland said. “The putter was awesome. He hit a lot of good putts that didn’t go in, as well. Sixty-four, and it looked pretty easy, to be honest with you.
“The energy in the crowd, that was as big a crowd as I’ve seen and to play in front of, and he just kind of ho-hummed a 64 there. I think he could have shot a lot better than he did.”
Woods struggled off the tee, making Sunday’s score all the more remarkable. He didn’t hit a single fairway — 0-for-7 — on the front nine but still made four birdies and shot 32, hitting his 9-iron from just off the cart back at the ninth hole to 10 feet for a birdie among his more remarkable feats.
“I didn’t drive it good all day,” said Woods, who hit just 5 of 14 fairways and 12 of 18 greens. “I was struggling with my golf swing. I warmed up hitting it left, I was hitting it right with every single club, even my sand wedge I wasn’t doing very good. So I knew this was going to be a struggle to try and piece together a round and I did.”
Despite missing the fairway at the first, Woods hit his approach to 7 feet — and missed the birdie putt. But he stuffed iron shots to 4 and 2 feet at the next two holes, then after a bogey at the sixth he birdied the eighth and ninth and for a time was within one shot of Koepka.
Woods finally found his first fairway at the 10th, left a birdie putt on the lip at the 11th, then birdied the 12th and 13th holes with approaches inside 10 feet. A bogey at the 14th was the result of a missed fairway, but he rebounded with a birdie at the 15th.
If Woods was going to have a chance, he had to have a birdie at the 17th, but he again couldn’t find the fairway, nearly knocking his driver into a creek that borders the right side, from where he was able to advance the ball only 60 yards. Woods had to get up and down from a bunker to save par.
But at the 18th, he nailed a drive 320 yards, knocked his approach to 19 feet and made the putt, giving a fist pump and getting a huge ovation as he left the course and walked across a bridge to the scoring area.
His caddie, Joe LaCava, noticed the emotion, the fire.
“It’s been a while, to be honest with you,” he said. “Even in ’13, when he won five times, player of the year, there weren’t a lot of fist pumps. I think from all the hard work he’s put in, he’s starting to reward himself, so to speak. He’s pretty pumped for himself, he’s put in a lot of hard work.”
Woods was happy to get that closing birdie, knowing that he needed to — at the time — at least tie Adam Scott and give himself an outside chance that he realized was unlikely.
“I posted [minus-] 14, and that meant he [Koepka] would have to shoot something in the 60s,” Woods said. “He couldn’t make a bunch of pars and win the golf tournament. He went out there and made a bunch of birdies.”
Woods has played 14 tournaments in 2018 and made a remarkable rise. When he began the season at Torrey Pines in January, he was ranked 656th in the world. He has now moved up to 27th. He is also 20th in FedEx Cup points, meaning he is a lock for the first three FedEx Cup playoff events and in good position to make the Tour Championship for the top 30.
He needed a victory to move into the top eight automatic qualifiers for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, but moved to 11th and still is all but certain to get one of captain Jim Furyk’s at-large picks.
A year ago at this time, Woods had yet to begin swinging a golf club due to the spinal-fusion surgery he endured in April 2017. When he was an assistant captain for Steve Stricker at the Presidents Cup, he noted that he was hitting only chip shots and said, “I don’t know what my future holds.”
Now he has contended at two major championships, posted five top-10 finishes and moved back among the top 30 in the world.
“This has been a process on building,” he said. “I didn’t know when I was going to start this year and how many tournaments I was going to play, how well I was going to play. I didn’t know what swing I was going to use, either. I’m in uncharted territory. Because no one’s ever had a fused spine hitting it like I’m hitting it.
“So I had to kind of figure this out on my own, and it’s been really hard, it’s a lot harder than people think. And I’m just very pleased at what I’ve done so far, and now to be part of the Ryder Cup conversation, going from where I’ve come from to now in the last year, it’s been pretty cool.”