The 20-ish minute period starting at 11:25 a.m. EST on Sunday felt like a dream—Tiger Woods was leading a major championship. In 2018. At the age of 42. After four back surgeries and a DUI arrest and a full-fledged affliction of the chipping yips. After he took a violent lash from a fairway bunker on 10, cleared the pancake-stack lip and carried a sky-high pitching wedge onto the front of the green, the feeling went from I can't believe he's contending to holy crap he's going to do this, isn't he?
For the first 9 holes of Sunday's final round of Carnoustie, Tiger looked like...Tiger. He was controlling his ball flight, largely keeping it under a wind that smothered Carnoustie and flummoxed his competitors all day. He was holing those six-foot par-savers that win major championships. And he was fully engulfed in the task at hand—none of this smiling, just-happy-to-be-there stuff we've seen out of him in this recent comeback.
Then he made a poor swing on 11 and compounded it with an even worse flop shot, leading to the ultimate buzzkill double-bogey. Another poor pass on 12 led to yet another bogey, and suddenly the alarm clock went off and rudely woke us up. Major number 15 would have to wait.
Woods ended up shooting 71 and finishing T-6, just three behind champion Francesco Molinari, despite badly missing a short birdie putt on the 72nd hole. It's Woods's best finish in a major since the 2013 British Open, and it's (just barely) good enough to move the Big Cat to world No. 50. That's significant because it earns him a place in the final WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, a tournament he's won eight times.
The general feeling in the Tigerverse is one of positivity; the guy's already back among the game's elite, has now posted four top-6 finishes in 12 starts and, most importantly, he appears to be completely healthy. There's reason for optimism, for sure, but it's not all positive. Let's take an in-depth look at his week in Scotland—the good, the not-so-good and what it all means for the future.
The first thing that strikes you when watching an in-form Tiger Woods in person is how much he works the ball. Tiger doesn't really have stock shot like most pros do; instead, he tailors his ball flight to best fit what the shot and conditions call for. Nobody else in the game is as comfortable hitting all the shots as Tiger is, and it's an aspect of his game that doesn't receive nearly as much credit as it deserves.
At Carnoustie, we saw him hit a ton of stingers, not just off the tee but also into greens to keep it under the wind. A good example of this was his approach into the first hole on Sunday. It was playing dead into the wind and Tiger had about 175 yards in after bunting a 3-iron into the fairway. Virtually every approach to 1 shown before Tiger's ballooned in the wind and finished well short and left of the flag, but Tiger hit a low piercing fade with a 5-iron that cut through the breeze, actually taking a hop forward after landing and finishing about 15 feet from the hole. Another beauty came at 4, where he hit a bunch wedge dead into the wind to set up his first birdie of the day.
Very few players have that shot, but there are guys who specialize in lower, punchier approaches. What sets Tiger apart is that he's equally willing to throw one way up in the air when the time calls for it. The par-3 16th hole was playing 252 yards downwind on Sunday and Tiger pulled that same 5-iron. This time he threw one way up in the air because that was the only chance he had of holding an ultra-firm green. His ball landed on an upslope and was a bit unlucky not to release further, but the shot was an indication that he has a full arsenal of trajectories at his dispoal right now. That is hugely encouraging going forward and bodes well for his ability to contend on virtually any golf course.
Inside 100 yards
It wasn't that long ago that Tiger quite literally could not strike a chip off a tight lie. The lies at a baked-out Carnoustie this week were as tight as you'll find anywhere in the world, and Tiger chipped and pitched beautifully all week, save for one failed flop shot that ended up killing his chances of winning.
He got up-and-down 16 times total and did so in every which way possible. He hit high spinners, low spinners, bump-and-runs, the whole works. His distance control with his wedges, something you absolutely must have to score well, was spot-on—check out this tasty knockdown 56-degree to save par on 18 on Saturday.
His putting, which has held him back in recent weeks, was mostly solid. Apart from the yank on 18, he was mostly solid on the short ones and even dropped some long birdie putts to boot. It will be interesting to see if he keeps the TaylorMade mallet in the bag going forward, or if maybe he feels good enough with his stroke to go back to the trusty Scotty Cameron.
Tiger's now played 13 events since returning to golf at the Hero World Challenge in December, and he seems to look healthier each and every week. (Yes, there was the KT tape scare on Thursday, but that proved to be a non-story.) That's not to say that he wasn't medically healed back at the Hero—by "healthier" I mean more comfortable with his body and more willing to exert extreme force when necessary. The example I'd cite here is that remarkable shot on 11, which came as the result of a 110% swing that led to a vintage recoil.
That's not the swing of someone worried about his back. Tiger's clubhead speed is about 120 mph with the driver, his ball speed 180 mph, he's absolutely ripped once again...he's a walking advertisement for spinal fusion surgeons.
Of course, health is fleeting, particularly for a 42-year-old with Tiger's medical history. This could all change with one bad swing or one fall or anything, really. But as he plays more and more tournaments without pain, his long-term outlook continues to improve.
This has been a bit of a theme throughout this recent comeback. Tiger's played the last nine holes of a tournament bogey-free just once this year—at Valspar, where he finished second—and has had a number of late-tournament stumbles that take him out of contention. He rinsed a ball on the 70th hole at the Honda Classic. He hit one OB down the stretch at Bay Hill. This week saw the most consequential misfire of them all, that double-bogey on 11, a hole he'd birdied the previous three days.
When Tiger was at his best he seldom made back-nine bogeys on Sunday anywhere, but especially at the majors. In 2000, his best year and probably the best year anyone's ever had, Tiger made just one bogey total on the Sunday back nines of the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. In related news, he won all three tournaments. He played the back nine in two over Sunday when an even-par side would have seen him finish solo second.
I've heard a number of theories on why Tiger's struggled to close things out, with pundits citing everything from fatigue to swing flaws to nerves. I'm not sure what it is, but it's happened enough times now that it doesn't seem to be a coincidence. It feels weird to say about the sport's greatest closer ever, but Tiger Woods needs to start closing better.
Reluctance to hit driver
Tiger's decision to hit the flop instead of chipping safely left on 11 drew criticism almost across the board, but it was his next decision that actually surprised me the most: hitting iron off the tee on 12, a 505-yard par 4 playing even longer with wind. That betrayed a lack of confidence with his driver, a club that's historically produced some wild misses. Tiger hit so many irons off so many tees, particularly in the early rounds, and it's no coincidence that he didn't get into contention until he got more aggressive Saturday. There's something to be said for having a strategy and sticking to it, but Tiger puts himself at a disadvantage when he's laying so far back in the fairways so often while guys like Rory McIlroy bully courses off the tee.
Was this week a sign of things to come, or will Tiger look back on it as one of his best and last chances to win major number 15?
Not to go full cop-out, but the answer here is both. There was nothing flukey about this week—he was legitimately one of the best players at a major championship—and there's been nothing flukey about this year. Twelve official events, four top-6 finishes, seven top-25 finishes, just two missed cuts, good control over his ball flight and a sparkling short game. As long as he stays healthy, Tiger's going to be a factor at the biggest events. I'd love to see him get more comfortable with the driver, but even peak-Tiger was prone to the wild miss. He doesn't need to be one of the best drivers to win golf tournaments.
That being said, it's highly unlikely that he ever dominates like he did pre-Thanksgiving '09. It's also unlikely he gets back to world No. 1 as he did in 2013. At the moa very-good-but-not-dominant PGA Tour player, and very-good-but-not-dominant PGA Tour players don't often find themselves with the lead on the back nine of a major. That's exactly where Tiger was on Sunday. Whether that ever happens again is uncertain, given his advancing age and the sheer quality of players he's competing against. So, yes, it looks like Tiger is here to stay and it wouldn't be a surprise if he contends in majors going forward. But also yes, he's going to look back on Sunday as a big missed opportunity, whether he ever wins a major again or not.
The next time we see Tiger tee it up will be in 10 days' time at Firestone, a course he's dominated. He'll be one of the favorites there and could well score a victory before the season's final major, the PGA Championship, which comes the week after (major season never sleeps!). The Tiger we've seen this year is good enough to contend at Bellerive, but don't expect him to have the solo lead heading into the back nine on Sunday. Those scenarios don't grow on trees.