Tiger Woods sent a buzz throughout the sports world and turned the clock back when he briefly led the British Open on Sunday, but a double bogey-bogey stretch on the back nine ultimately doomed his quest for major number 15. In the end, he shot 71 to post five under and finish three shots behind playing partner Francesco Molinari, who posted a bogey-free 69 to win by two over Xander Schauffele, Kevin Kisner, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy.
Woods started his round four shots behind a trio at nine under—Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner—but 20+ mph winds meant anything could happen in the most difficult conditions of the week. He started the round exactly how he needed to, with three pars followed by birdies at 4 and 6 to get to seven under. While Woods was getting off to a hot start, his fellow competitors were going the opposite direction. Spieth made a double-bogey 7 on the par-5 6th, while Kisner was three over through 4 and played 5-7 in four over to fall out of contention.
The 14-time major champion got into a bit of trouble by finding greenside bunkers on both the 8th and 9th holes, but he was able to get up and down both times to preserve momentum. He hit what appeared to be a round-defining—or tournament-defining or comeback-defining—shot on 10 after hitting 3-wood into a fairway bunker. Instead of pitching out and playing for par, he went ultra-aggressive and took a massive hack with a pitching wedge. The ball cleared the lip by a solid margin and finished near the front of the green, leading to an easy par.
It was then that Woods led by himself for a brief period, and it was the first time his name was atop the leaderboard on Sunday at a major since the 2011 Masters.
That surreal scenario turned out to be short-lived, as trouble presented itself again on 12 after his second shot bounded left and got a fortunate break by hitting a spectator and careening closer to the green. Like 11, he decided to go aggressive, attempting a high-risk flop shot over a bunker instead of playing safely past the pin and taking double bogey out of play. The flop didn’t reach the green, and he needed three putts from just off the putting surface and in the end, it was his first double bogey of the week.
"I did everything the way I thought I needed to do it to win the championship," Woods said of his aggressive decisions down the stretch. "There were a bunch of guys with a chance to win, and I was one of them.''
By that point, he had fallen one behind a swelling group of players bunched at six under, and that is the shot he will rue when looking back on a day that looked so unlikely just nine months ago.
Woods made another bogey after a wayward drive at the difficult 12th to fall two back, setting up an almost must-eagle scenario at the gettable par-5 14th if he was to have a realistic chance to win. He pulled his driver well left there and found hardpan but still had a relatively clean look at the green with a 9-iron. His second shot came into the green with no spin and kicked hard, racing well past the desired 14th hole and finishing closer to the 4th hole on the double-green complex, about 50 yards from the flag. He pitched from there but left it about 30 feet short, and at that point his electric comeback appeared to be all but over…but then he rammed it in to cut his deficit to one momentarily. Woods’s playing partner, Francesco Molinari, then ended his streak of 13 pars in a row with a birdie on 14 to take the lead at seven under and move two ahead of Tiger.
Solid pars on 15 and 16 meant Woods came to the penultimate hole two behind his Molinari and one behind Rory McIlory and Justin Rose, who shot 64-69 on the weekend to post six under after making the cut on the number. Woods got up-and-down for par on 17 after his approach spun into the wind, ballooned and fell woefully short.
In a bizarre moment on the 18th tee, a fan screamed right in the middle of Woods's backswing, but his drive still found the first cut on the right side. He hit a flighted wedge that ran out to six feet but missed the birdie effort on the low side. It is Woods's best finish in a major since the 2013 Open, and certainly another positive step in this comeback from the deepest depths.
"It was a blast,'' Woods said of his first time contending in a major in five years. "I was saying earlier that I need to try and keep it in perspective because the beginning of the year, if they'd have said you're playing The Open Championship, I would have said I'd be very lucky to do that.